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synesthesia

LAB magazine issue 4After a long hiatus, Joseph Robertson’s excellent LAB magazine is back, and it features an interesting three-way interview he conducted with me and graphic designer Ian Lynam (author/editor of Parallel Strokes) over five years ago. It’s a fun meander through many of my favorite alphabet-related topics. The rest of the magazine is gorgeous and stimulating, as always. You can download the whole thing as a PDF for free, or buy a hard copy via print-on-demand. (I already have two earlier issues, and they’re handsomely bound and printed, well worth the cover price.) Or, just go straight to our interview. Enjoy!

(Previously: Folk Typography essay in LAB 01)

 

colored number sticks by otherthings
colored number sticks, a photo by otherthings on Flickr.

While looking at a possible kindergarten for our 4-year-old, I stumbled on a bin full of these colored wooden blocks in one of the classrooms. I remember these blocks from my classroom in 2nd grade. The shortest stick is a cube, and the longest is ten cubes. You can use them to teach arithmetic, by putting them together end to end and seeing how they line up, arranging them into rectangles, and so on.

But what caught my eye was something very different: according to my synesthesia, the first three blocks are all exactly the right colors. In particular, the unit block, being unpainted wood, perfectly captures the tendency of the number 1 to hover between white and yellow in my mind. I have vivid memories of playing with these blocks, assembling them into shapes, in that 2nd grade classroom. Could this be the origin of my synesthetic map? It feels too right to be a total coincidence. And yet, none of the colors from 4 through 10 match my mappings at all.

Apparently the blocks are called Cuisenaire Rods (or rechenstäbchen) and their colors have not changed substantially since the 1950′s. This means that thousands of synesthetic children may be exposed to these blocks during their formative years. I wonder if anyone else had their colors influenced in this way?

“Ivan is the colour of the letter G but four people saw it as Adam.”

I’m a big fan of color coding. I use it to help me wrap my head around complex tasks, like computer animation. I’m also a pretty harsh judge of color coding schemes, especially for transit systems. Growing up in New York spoiled me for good in that regard: the subway there has its flaws, but color is not one of them. Having synaesthesia also makes me tend to organize names by color in my head (but usually only in my head, since nobody else shares my personal alphabet of colors.)

One of the problems with any color coding scheme is that the more things you need to code, the harder it gets to choose distinct colors. But where exactly is the limit? That’s the subject of this interesting paper, A Colour Alphabet and the Limits of Colour Coding (PDF) by Paul Green-Armytage. The lengths these folks went to to understand the problem are impressive. The paper also has great sentences like “Ivan is the colour of the letter G but four people saw it as Adam.” (Thanks to Mike K. for the link!)

I was home sick from work today, too sick to talk or really get out of bed and do anything– but fortunately not too sick to tap on a keyboard for a while. So I cracked open my long-neglected laptop and downloaded the latest version of Processing, which for those of you who don’t know it, is a really cool programming environment designed for artists. It’s a great big toybox full of fun gadgets, with plenty of examples to crib from, so you can just start with something interactive right away, and tinker with it until it does what you want–or does something completely unexpected.

It’s funny, because I was just talking with a friend the other day about watercolor, and how the happy accidents are what make that medium so much fun. We were comparing it to our day jobs in computer animation, where everything that happens is deliberate (not to mention expensive.) So it’s nice to see that happy accidents can happen in the computer once in a while too.

Neuroscientist Olympia Colizoli has done an interesting experiment where she tried inducing synaesthesia in non-synaesthetes:

To test the idea, they gave seven volunteers a novel to read in which certain letters were always written in red, green, blue or orange (see picture). Before and after reading the book, the volunteers took a “synaesthetic crowding” test, in which they identified the middle letter of a grid of black letters which were quickly flashed onto a screen. Synaesthetes perform better on the test when a letter they experience in colour is the target letter.

The volunteers performed significantly better on this test after training compared with people who read the novel in black and white.

I’m curious as to how significant the effect turned out to be for non-synaesthetes. (I also wonder: what was the novel? Something by Nabokov maybe? ;-) Unfortunately I can’t find Colizoli’s data on line anywhere, as her research appears to have been presented as a conference poster session rather than a full publication. But hopefully we’ll be hearing more about this in the near future…

Update: You can read a more detailed abstract of Colizoli’s experiment over at synesthesia.info.

so many colors, so few of them right.

Digging through some old archives, I found this picture, which sums up one of the frustrating aspects of colored-letter synaesthesia. There are so many colored letters in the world, but to any synesthete, most of them will be wrong. I actually sorted through this entire bin of foam letters to pull out the ones that are colored correctly according to my synesthetic map. It’s the tiny pile on the right. Yes, that’s all of them.

For someone with colored-letter synesthesia, these kids’ toys are usually a frustrating thing to look at, because they generally get my colors completely wrong. So when I see one that gets more than a couple of letters even close to correct, I notice. This one nails the colors of B, P, S and Y, and is well within reason on M, R, and W. Given that orange and pink aren’t in this set’s pool of colors to choose from, even the E and the U are pretty close. Would I buy this set because of that? No, but it did make me stop and take a second look…