All the Colors of the Rainbow


I was sixteen when I found out. My father and I were in the kitchen, he, in his usual talk-spot by the pantry door, my sixteen year-old self in a chair by the window. The two of us were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I'd learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter R.

"Until one day," I said to my father, "I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first make a P and then draw a line down from the P loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line."

"Yellow letter? Orange Letter?" my father said. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you know," I said. "P is a yellow letter, but R is an orange letter. You know - the colors of the letters."

"The colors of the letters?" my father said.

It had never come up in any conversation before. I had never thought to mention it to anyone. For as long as I could remember, each letter of the alphabet had a different color. Each word had a different color too, and so did each number. The colors of letters, words and numbers were as intrinsic a part of them as their shapes, and like the shapes, the colors never changed.

I had always taken it for granted that the whole world shared these perceptions with me. My father's perplexed reaction came totally unexpected. I felt as if I'd made a statement as ordinary as 'apples are red' and 'leaves are green' and had elicited a thoroughly bewildered response. I didn't know then that seeing such things as yellow Ps' and orange Rs', green Bs', purple 5s', brown Mondays and turquoise Thursdays was unique to the one in two thousand persons like myself who were hosts to a quirky neurological phenomenon called 'synesthesia'.

In synesthesia, when one of the five senses is stimulated, both that one plus another sense responds. This can lead 'synesthetes' to experience such peculiarly blended perceptions as words and sounds having colors and even tastes having shapes (Neurologist Dr. Richard Cytowic writes about the latter phenomenon in his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes). In the last decade or so, neuroscientists, working mostly at England's University of Cambridge have discovered that synesthesia is passed through the genes and results in some unusual patterning of neurons in synesthetes' brains: sight receptors cross with sound receptors, taste receptors cross with touch receptors.

But that day in the kitchen, my father and I, never having heard of 'synesthesia', both felt bewildered. My father felt surprised at my colored letters and I felt surprised at his surprise. For me, it was one of those coming-of-age moments, when I glimpsed that the world might not really be as I had grown up perceiving it. It was a moment when that most basic of questions that binds human beings socially, 'do you see what I see?' seemed to hang in a vacuum, independent of any shared context.

I suddenly felt marooned on my own private island of navy blue Cs, dark brown Ds, sparkling green 7s, and wine-colored vs. What else did I see differently from the rest of the world? I wondered. What did the rest of the world see that I didn't? It occurred to me that maybe every person in the world had some little oddity of perception they weren't aware of, that put them on a private island, mysteriously separated from others. I suddenly had the dizzying feeling that there might be as many of these private 'islands', as there were people in the world.

That conversation in the kitchen propelled my father to look high and low in libraries and bookstores, searching for some bit of information to explain his daughter's peculiar perceptions. His search led to 'synesthesia' the magic word that put my perceptions on the map of recognized terrain of human experience. My father and I found that others, too, had traveled synesthetic terrain: the poet, Rimbaud, who wrote a sonnet, Voyelles, about the colored vowels he saw; the writer, Nabokov, who described his colored alphabet in his autobiography, Speak, Memory; the composers Liszt and Messaien, who both saw colored musical notes, which the latter celebrated in his musical composition, Couleurs de la Cité Céleste; the painter, David Hockney, who described how hearing 'colored music' helped him design stage sets for the Metropolitan Opera; the sculptor, Carol J. Steen, who molds her synesthetic perceptions in three dimensions; the physicist, Richard Feynman, who described the colored equations that helped formulate quantum theories that earned him a Nobel Prize.

Of course, far less awesome minds have experienced the world synesthetically, but those who possess them tend to keep silent about their perceptions as they feel inhibited by the 99.95% of the population who has neither experienced nor heard of synesthesia. We synesthetes learn early on that to most people, our perceptions are merely quirky, even suspect. Yet, for me a purple 15 is a fact; and a colorless o is as absurd as a triangular o. In life, so much depends on the question, 'do you see what I see?' - who our allies at the office will be, who we will marry.

As I log on to M.I.T.'s synesthesia website I am awed by the fact that synesthesia is just one of a vast variety of non-standard visions vying for attention in cyberspace. How much we humans need one another's attention/validation as a pre-requisite for further exploration of what we see.

But long before the Internet existed and prestigious universities dignified the study of synesthesia with websites, my father validated what I saw all by himself, just because he was convinced of the internal logic of his daughter's unusual perceptions.

Some months ago I was going through some drawers in that same kitchen where my father and I had had our conversation about my colored alphabet so many years before. I came across a drawing I had done at the age of seven titled "50 Blue Cats for Dad". On the back of it, in an added note dated 5/68, my father had written: "Update on Patty's art work: She just told me today that 'cat' is a blue word. Now I understand why these cats are blue."

Pat Duffy

first published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 7, 1997