On the brain: More about mixed-up senses
November 18th, 2010
05:28 PM ET

On the brain: More about mixed-up senses

For Chad Myers, "2" is a boy and blue. "3" is a girl and green. In his mind, every number and letter has a color and a gender. In his words, they have "personalities."

He thought everyone did this until a few years ago, when he brought up with his family and, he says, "They all started looking at me weird."

Myers, 38, of Spring Hill, Kansas, no relation to CNN's weatherman by the same name, is one of many CNN.com readers who shared their experiences with synesthesia, a condition in which senses are mixed up, on this article about brain function in synesthesia yesterday.

Before reading this blog, Myers had no idea his unusual perceptions had a name.

Turns out, while scientists estimate that 2 percent of the population has this condition, quite a few of you turned up to share how you can see colors in numbers, letters, smells, and sounds; others can taste numbers and letters, and still others associate gender with particular numbers.

This is the result of extra connections, which most of us don't have, between distinct parts of the brain. Basically, the brain at birth has a lot of additional wiring between sight, smell, taste, touch, and visual areas, and in most infants those connections fall away after about four months.

Neuroscientists believe that synesthesia is the result of a mutated gene that is normally responsible for weeding out these connections. When these areas remain linked, they produce the effect of perceiving colors, tastes, and other senses where most people wouldn't.

I'm going to keep on using the word "condition" here instead of "disorder" because, as many readers mentioned, there isn't any proven downside to having synesthesia. It is certainly "abnormal," but the only documented evidence of a downside is that a minority of people with synesthesia appear to have a reduced ability to recognize faces.

For Myers, there's no upside or downside to synesthesia. He did do a lot of artwork when he was younger, and now books performing arts gigs at the Paola, Kansas, community center. But as to whether synesthesia helped him in these things, he can't say.

Some of you, like Myers, had lived with these effects all your lives without knowing there was a word for it.

Reader Besswrites:

I have always seen numbers as male or female. Stopped talking about it as a child because no one else seen this.
At age 61 now I know what it is. I am also very creative and think in three dimensions. I always saw things no one else could see. Now I have a name for it.

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soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Layna

    I also denote gender to numbers and letters, also to months and days of the week. I also sense a personality along with that as well, I've done this since I was a child. I didn't know there was a name for it, and frankly haven't actively thought of this for years until seeing this article yesterday. I went home and asked my children as this condition seems to run in families, so I've read. Much to my surprise, my 14-year-old daughter excitedly declared that she does this too and her personifications are eerily similar to mine, although not exact.
    We find this funny, fascinating and amazing to discover!!

    November 18, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Lee

    I, also, lived most of my life without being able to explain my synesthesia. I couldn't convey it into words as a child. I associate colours with letters and numbers. However, I label words and people with sounds. Certain types of natural lighting has sounds as well. I found out about synesthesia a few years ago and was thrilled to finally have an identity of sorts!

    November 18, 2010 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. sft

    Wow! I thought everyone did this. I see numbers, days of the week and months of the year in colors. I also have studied Spanish and French most of my life and I see different parts of speech in these languages in colors. For example, In Spanish, all verbs that begin with C are yellow to me, if they begin with V they're blue. I wonder if that's why it was relatively easy for me to memorize them, since they were already color coded for me!

    November 18, 2010 at 22:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • d

      thats cool

      November 19, 2010 at 07:01 | Report abuse |
    • Bill English

      It is an added "association". Newborns have synesthesia, it is not abnormal. Most outgrow these "extra" neural pathways, and isolate the separate senses. At least 2% do not, but retain some of them. Good students use "tricks" to memorize data, a name sounds like breakfast (let's say "steadfast"). Memorize ingredients, eggs are cycle of life and ever with us, bacon sticks to the pan, milk is dietary staple and that sounds like "stable". You define steadfast accurately, by association. I think may actually envy the synesthete, if they have memory problems!

      November 19, 2010 at 12:48 | Report abuse |
  4. Michael

    I've known the term synesthesia for some years, but before that, I just assumed everyone saw sounds the way I did. I never considered assigning gender to numbers, but I have always felt that certain things needed to be even or odd, and these things didn't cross. For me, sounds, particularly voices, have colour and texture, but it's purely visual.

    November 18, 2010 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Joe B

    The word "quart" tastes like carrots. No one ever believed me when I told them. Queen, quill, quaff, queer don't taste like anything, only quart and it is a very strong taste.

    November 19, 2010 at 02:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SeanNJ

      Do you have to hear the word to trigger this, or does it happen with your "inside voice" as well?

      November 19, 2010 at 10:30 | Report abuse |
  6. Brett

    Ive always been able to taste color. i told my parents as a child and i assume they thought i was just using my imagination. I also hear in color. its the strangest thing really, but ive never not had a show with my music! its good to know there are more like me out there, im not crazy! yet!

    November 19, 2010 at 04:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jennifer

    It is comforting and fascinating knowing that there are others who assign a color to letters, numbers, months and days of the week. At first I had thought it was remnants of their first presentation in Kindergarten or First Grade, as I have a visual memory and "Think in pictures".

    November 19, 2010 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. David skinner

    I have always seen numbers as having gender!!! I have asked about it to other people and no one knows what i am talking about. Finally!. No colors or tastes but Numbers have always carried gender for me. Incredible!

    November 19, 2010 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. MB

    I, too, taste words - but unlike Joe B., it's most words for me. Some make sense, like "apple" tastes like an apple, or similar sounding words, like "Terry" tastes like cherry soda. However, "Gary" or "carry" taste like other things. The only downside I've found is that some words have a gross taste association - or some are good tastes and I'll develop a sudden craving for things if I hear a certain word repeatedly! I never tell people about it, though - once i figured out that most folks don't "do" it, I kind of keep it to myself...

    November 19, 2010 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. ChucksGirl

    When I was three I threw a fit because a set of blocks I was given didn't have the letters in the right colors. I was told that was silly and so didn't mention it again until sixth grade. In chorus we had to sing a song that I hated and when a friend asked me why I didn't like it I told her it was "too blue."
    Letters have colors to me, and when they're palced in words the colors blend and mix based on "letter dominance." Capitol letters are typically dominent, although R and E are always dominant, and O and I are always recessive. I count steps when I climb stairs and when walking through a new place. When I was younger people told me to stop because that was obsessive-compulsive, but really I was just looking for the "flavor" of the room.
    I think the color-association makes it easier for me to remember things, but apart from that it doesn't really affect my life.

    November 19, 2010 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Faye

    Sounds, smells, sights and other physical sensations such as pain, itching, aching, tickling, even sexual arousal, have colors,shapes and textures. For example,some pain is oval, gun metal gray and shiny; other is a flattened oval, green and fuzzy in texture. As a child my family considered my descriptions as my attempts to get attention. So, I learned to keep quiet. This ability did find an "appropriate" and appreciated outlet in the poetry and prose I began writing as an adolescent. I remember the first few times I used my mixed-up descriptors to explain physical symptoms to my doctor. I thought he was going to start a psyc exam instead of a physical one. But, after a few years even he became accustomed to the way I perceive things.

    Happy to hear I have so many companions in this remarkable journey!

    November 19, 2010 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Patricia

      Your story sounds a bit like mine. I was misunderstood for so long, but I always expressed myself in prose and poems. For some reason, poetic license was an acceptable concept to others, they assumed it explained my sensory mashups. (BTW: many words and sounds also have humidity level, sympathetic leaning and fragrance.)

      I remember asking another little girl, when we were both around 5 years old, what color her number 3 was, since I disliked my ugly yellow three...she looked at me as if I was completely insane. I learned not to speak about it. Then, there was an article on Synesthesia in the Smithsonian Magazine...I was so happy to know I was not just a nut. Aren't people funny.

      November 19, 2010 at 17:28 | Report abuse |
  12. bloodshot

    This is bs

    November 19, 2010 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Joe A. Di Medio

    First I'm down to discuss safer driving... on a phone, texting, drunk...and they're the least of all the fatalities but are going to help them all. And going to save lives, eliminate accidents, traffic jams and road rage. Safe+safer=safest driving. More distance with all speeds at all times and multiple lane speeds on multiple lane roads, reducing to thee right, gonna be a beautiful sight. The CFTS Constant Flow Traffic System 1986 Congressman Andrews, Adler, Greenwald NOW Norcross number one and Sweeney here in Southwest Jersey City...going to take positive leads in planting positive seeds

    I was checking out thee article because of seizures arriving in my life more than a few years back, from semi boxing and kickboxing, and one time knocking ourselves out in a friends garatge back hanging out, my buddy past since, nothing to do with it when he was 25 and from ms, tb, or luek. out of no where. Either or when out and on my back I banged it twice. Took twenty yrs.easy, not until, I'm 51, they showed up around 15 20 yrs ago.

    November 19, 2010 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe A. Di Medio

      Continuing from 15 to 20, well between just those shots from the ground and I feel my mind outside of those shots that my input is less and I feel I was born with it. My father lost his eye when he was 12 and I believe an eye missing caused a few things not to show up along the way for (next life) and have brothers to stand by in ways, everyone content, but could be more. Seizures, our minds. Thought ever expounding. The CFTS and 487 lives lost on NJ roads already would like your help in ways that you have to offer.
      Joe A. Di Medio

      November 19, 2010 at 15:38 | Report abuse |
  14. Mike

    Sounds intersting, for me, numbers are seen as points on an ininite line, for me thay are all the same in terms of what they represent, and canculations move along that line, or above and below. Probably very common. Now, for me, I can see math problems and oftimes get it done in a way no one else does, using always the simplest method. Where my mind seems to be strange, is how I male very quick associations, while taling about something else, that make sense. Otherwise, my nervous system is only coded for ADHD, which is under excelent control now.

    November 19, 2010 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dr RatstaR

    Asperger's Syndrome.

    November 20, 2010 at 02:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Odalice feliz

    good to know.

    November 21, 2010 at 23:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Shift

    I just know that to me, sounds have textures that I primarily feel through my teeth, of all places. When someone has a "rough" voice, I feel it as if I were chewing something tough and gritty. It's most noticeable with unpleasant sounds– I simply don't need to pay attention to the pleasant (or just plain ordinary) textures.

    November 22, 2010 at 00:41 | Report abuse | Reply
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    February 18, 2016 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
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  23. shalut98

    I do not agree: http://www.totschooling.net/2015/01/letter-number-heart-puzzles.html

    December 30, 2016 at 07:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Cade Myers

    This is my dad!!!! I just learned this about him in the car on our ride trip. So then I looked it up and I found this article. This is so spectacular and cool how my dad has this symptom.

    December 21, 2018 at 14:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.