A clue from the distant past!

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?

3 thoughts on “A clue from the distant past!”

  1. Hmm. I know a few numbers from my synesthesia were definitely influenced by the I Spy book I had as a kid, which had big colored numbers on every page. I should look for that and see how many match up. I know the 4 and 3 do, at least.

    My number associations are stronger the lower the number is: after twelve, they kind of fade. Maybe that’s why you only match up with the first three?

  2. Hello, I’m a synaesthetic from Sweden, born in 1971. I have seen especially vowels as colours, consonants and numbers to lower degree, since childhood. Learnt about synaesthesia when I was about 25, had never discussed it before. We did use those wooden sticks in school, but my colours are completely different, so that can’t be it. Since I’m Swedish I have additional vowels, very different warmer colours for the soft A, O, U, Å and generally colder colours for the hard E, I, Y, Ä, Ö. Consonants are less distinct for me and are influenced by vowels nearby. I’m not going to say my colours because every other synaesthete thinks they’re wrong. LOL I’ve just realized at age 43 that my colours makes it easy to spell.

    1. That’s fantastic! I’ve never met a Swedish synaesthete before, and always wondered about how those accented vowels might look to one. How fascinating that your Å and Ä are so different! Is your synaesthesia based on the graphemes (written form) or the sounds?

      Also: I was born in the same year!

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