Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens

How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds

Patricia Lynne Duffy; Foreword by Dr. Peter Grossenbacher, National Institute of Mental Health

Henry Holt and Co.

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens
chapter one
DRAWING COLORED WORDS FOR MY FATHER
Colors hide within everything, including the night.
--KATHERINE VAZ, SAUDADE
 
 
As far back as I can remember, letters of the alphabet, numbers, and words have been in color. But I also remember that in my preliterate days, before I knew how to read or write, each word evoked, in my mind's eye, its own unique and unchanging colorful design. Sometimes I drew pictures of the word-designs I "saw" and showed them, as I did all of my pictures, to my father.
At that time, my father was home a lot. First, he took off from work to look after his own father who had fallen into a depression born of old age and illness. Later, when his father died, my father fell into a depression himself. In the gray decade of the 1950s, fathers were not supposed to be home too much or fall into depressions. My mother told me that I cheered my father up. I think our experiments with color helped.
I remember my father sitting in the big, sagging green living room chair, his elbow on its arm, his chin in his hand. I would tug at that hand with my four-year-old insistence, bent on asking him questions about my crayons. I needed a color that was not in my crayon box. What could I do? When I was little, I drew a lot of pictures, and crayons played a big role in my life. At my insistence, my father let himself be pulled up out of his drab green overstuffed chair and overto my bright, shiny little red table where, every day, I drew all kinds of pictures. The little child's table was always overflowing with drawing paper and crayons of all different colors, sizes, and shapes. "But I don't have pink;" I told my father, "and I need pink."The color pink was important that day. I was drawing a picture of a word--I don't remember now which word it was--but I remember it had a lot of pink in its word-design.
I liked drawing the different word-designs that appeared in my mind's eye when I heard words spoken. I never thought to tell anyone that these drawings were pictures of words. They were just my "designs." The designs were very consistent, each incorporating a whole array of shapes and colors, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. The word I was drawing that day had a lot of pink in its pattern.
"If you don't have pink," my father said, "maybe you can use your red crayon. And just color very lightly so it's almost like pink."
"No," I said. "I need pink."
My father looked fatigued. At that time, he didn't always sleep well at night and often looked tired all day. For a moment, I thought he was going to leave me to go back to his chair in the living room. But I needed help with colors, so I knew he would stay.
"I need pink, Daddy," I said again.
"Well," my father said, "Maybe we can make pink with your red crayon and your white crayon."
"Make pink?" I asked.
"Yes," my father said. "Putting two colors together makes a whole new color."
"A whole new color?" I repeated in wonder. "We can make pink?" It sounded magical. My child's awe held my father there by my little red table and kept him from returning to his gray-green chair. He even proposed we go into the kitchen to do a color experiment, making new crayons with new colors by melting down and recombining the colored crayons in my crayon box.
In the kitchen, sunlight streamed in through the window that looked out on the backyard cherry tree where birds perched and pecked on tiny red cherries. I watched with great excitement as my father grated crayons with my mother's vegetable grater. Vivid red and white crayon flakes fell from the grater into the pot on the stove as sparrows chirped and shadows from the backyard cherry tree fluttered around us on the walls of the kitchen. My father turned on the stove jet flame, and I watched in wonder as crayon flakes became crayon liquid, which he poured into an empty metal ballpoint pen holder and put into the oven. When it had "incubated" in the oven long enough, he removed it, opened up the penholder and, like a chick hatching, a new pink crayon was born--a bit awkward in its shape, but a usable pink crayon nonetheless.
I was thrilled. I danced in the kitchen sunlight with my new pink crayon.
"Can we make more colors?" I asked, wanting my father to stay with me in the sunlit kitchen.
We repeated the experiment, combining different crayon colors to make new colors. Sometimes, while waiting for this or that crayon to bake, I noticed my father looking sad, staring into the depths of something I couldn't see. But then I tugged at his hand and insisted it was time to "see more rainbow colors" and make more crayons. My father got up and melted a Crayola yellow and an evergreen together to bake a chartreuse, then melted a yellow and a red to bake a sunshine orange.
An idea came to me: If we could make such wonderful new colors by melting just two crayons together, imagine the magnificent color we could make if we combined all the different-colored crayons. I asked my father if we could make a crayon composed of all the colors in my crayon box.
He hesitated for a moment, then said, "Well, we'll do an experiment. We'll see what happens." Then he grated and melted togetherall the rest of my crayons, making multicolored crayon confetti, which then became swirls of colored liquid in the pot. After pouring this liquid into a pen holder we waited because, my father said, "This one will take longer to bake." He went into the living room and sat in his chair.
"Daddy, Daddy, come and see the rainbow colors, come and see the rainbow colors!" I kept chanting as I ran back and forth between the living room and the kitchen.
After some time, my father let me tug him back to the kitchen stove. He took the pen holder out of the oven and opened it; to my amazed disappointment, what hatched was not the one magnificent "rainbow color" I had expected, but simply a plain black crayon.
"Daddy why?" I asked him. "Why just black?"
"When you put all the different colors together," my father said, gently, seeing my disappointment, "you get black."
My child's mind connected the promising swirls of color turning black to my father's sadness.
For the rest of the day, I sat at my little red table, furiously coloring with my black crayon, filling sheet after sheet of drawing paper with black backgrounds on which I drew my brightly colored word-designs. Actually, this was how the word-designs appeared in my mind's eye: as luminous, colorful kaleidoscopic patterns, appearing out of blackness, evoked by the sounds of words.
Later that day, I showed my father all the colorful designs I had drawn with my crayons; it never occurred to me to tell him they were pictures of words. They were just "my designs." I remember very much liking the sound of the word "design" and drawing a picture of it, too. But now I have only the vaguest memory of what that, or any of these word-designs, looked like.
People have asked me why, as a child, I didn't mention my colored words to anyone. It never dawned on me to talk about them. They were just part of the world I was discovering. At that age, different occurrences were inextricably woven together to create a single pattern oflived experience. It never occurred to me to break that pattern down, describing the designs that appeared in my mind as if they were something unusual. Seeing designs had always been part of my experience of hearing words, and it didn't occur to me to wonder whether other people heard words as colorful designs. I just thought the designs in my mind were pretty, and I wanted to draw them to make my father happy. (See here.)
Now, however, the pretty word-designs exist only as faint memories. According to some researchers, including Yale University's Dr. Lawrence Marks, many children who experience strong synesthesia in childhood lose it in adulthood, although for one in two thousand of us, it remains. The reason for this could be, in part, physiological. As the brain matures, it clearly delineates its sensory responses into "this is sight," "this is sound," "this is smell," "this is taste," and "this is touch." The sensory responses no longer overlap. But the still immature brains of babies seem to operate very differently. Researcher Daphne Maurer tells us that all babies under the age of four months have synesthetic responses because the brain has not yet differentiated its functions into discrete compartments that respond separately to a stimulus that is visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, or tactile. The young infant does not segregate experience into discrete sensory components. In an article titled "Neonatal Synesthesia," Maurer says, "A newborn's senses are not well differentiated, but instead are intermingled in a synesthetic confusion." In their book The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer describe the young infant's sensory experience this way:
 
His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors as coming through his nose alone. He hears odors, and sees odors, and feels them too. His world is a melee of pungent aromas--and pungent sounds and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinatory perfumery.
 
Young infants perceive total patterns of energy, rather than discrete patterns filtered through one or another of the five senses.
In time, however, the brain develops and compartmentalizes its functions, and the synesthetic fusion of infancy gives way to the discrete sensory experiences of later childhood and adulthood. One theory about why some adults have one or another form of synesthesia is that the segregation of functions doesn't fully take place in the brains of some people. This incomplete development process thus causes the brain to take in sensory experience in a partially blended way, sound fusing with sight, sight fusing with touch, touch fusing with taste, taste fusing with shape, according to the individual. A whole range of synesthetic experiences is possible, and for centuries, reports of these have found their way not only into scientific journals, but also into poems, novels, and even children's books.
A synesthetic fusion of sound and taste is represented imaginatively by Norton Juster in his well-known children's book The Phantom Toll Booth. One chapter describes a marketplace where bin-fuls of alphabet letters are sold. Shoppers buy the letters in order to make words, but also in order to taste them. As the "letter man" who sells the letters tells the character Milo:
 
"Here taste an 'A'; they're very good."
Milo nibbled carefully at the letter and discovered that it was quite sweet and delicious--just the way you'd expect an 'A' to taste.
"I knew you'd like it," laughed the letter man, popping two G's and an 'R' into his mouth and letting the juice drip down his chin. "A's are one of our most popular letters. All of them aren't that good," he confided in a low voice. "Take the Z for instance--very dry and sawdusty. And the X? Why, it tastes like a trunkful of stale air ... . But most of the others are quite tasty ... ."
 
Could it be that such synesthetic descriptions ring familiar to young readers because they themselves experienced such perceptual blendings in the not-so-distant past of their infanthood?
In 1980, researchers David Lewkowicz and Gerry Turkewitz conducted studies revealing that young infants make no distinction between visual and auditory stimuli, but only in the intensity of stimuli, regardless of their type. In one of these experiments, one-month-old babies made no distinction between a flash of light and a burst of white noise of comparable intensity. Measures of the babies' heart rates indicated they reacted as if to a single stimulus, responding only to changes in intensity; it did not matter whether the change in intensity was in the light or the noise, for the two were experienced by the babies as a single stimulus. As long as the light or the noise remained at comparable levels of intensity, the babies' heart rates would also remain at constant levels. But if the intensity of either light or sound increased or decreased, the babies' heart rates would change in response. A change in the type of stimulus alone--for example, visual to auditory--produced no change in the babies' responses. This outcome surprised the experimenters because it is quite different from the way older children or adults would respond. Older children and adults exhibit one distinct response to seeing light and another to hearing sound; heart rates will change in response to a change in sensory mode, regardless of whether these different modes of stimuli have matching levels of intensity. But the babies in the experiment responded as if they'd been presented with a single sensory stimulus, although one was light and the other sound.
Just as young babies experience life as a sensory blend, young children experience life as an integrated pattern and don't think to question, but simply to live. Children have experiences they accept and don't describe to adults. This is why many parents never know if their child experiences synesthesia and why many people with synesthesia don't learn that their form of perception is unusual until they reach adulthood; in some cases, synesthetes probably go through life never becoming aware that their perceptions differ from the norm.
Some synesthetes report that synesthesia becomes less intense on reaching adulthood. Why can I no longer remember my word-designs? I think they began to disappear when I started to learn the alphabet,the socially endorsed representation of language. I remember at age three or four being fascinated by written words and alphabet letters I saw on the coffee jars and cereal boxes on our kitchen table. I sat there with a pencil, copying them onto drawing paper as if they were designs. I copied "Maxwell House Coffee: Good to the last drop" from its red-labeled jar and "Jane Parker Apple Pie: Mouth watering good" from its flat blue-and-white box. I couldn't read the words I was copying; at that age, I could read alphabet letters, but almost no words. I remember wanting more than anything to be old enough to go to school so I could learn to read the words I was copying. My father and mother encouraged this copying of words and letters, and I remember they always sang the alphabet song with me as I copied. For the longest time, singing the song "A-B-C-D-E-F-G/-H-I-J-K/-LMNO/-P" gave me the idea that "LMNO" was the name of a single letter. I remember both my parents laughing when I asked, "How do you write an LMNO?" And I still remember that, in my mind's eye, the "LMNO" took the form of an abstract design, reminiscent of an angular yellow and brown bird with a triangular beak.
All the alphabet letters I learned had color right away. I wonder sometimes if there was any connection between the colors in my original word-designs and the colors evoked by the sounds of alphabet letters. I wish I could recall the word-designs well enough to compare the colors. I do know that the letters L, M, N, and O are, respectively, yellow, brown, dark brown, and white, much like the color of the birdlike shape I saw in my mind's eye at the sound of "LMNO."
For some reason, it took me a very long time to draw the letter R. I tried again and again, but just couldn't get the hang of it. My father, seeing my frustration, patiently demonstrated and redemonstrated the way to draw it, but I just couldn't seem to imitate it. Then one day, staring for a long time at R, I noticed how similar in form it was to P. The only difference between the two letters was that a slanted line came down from P's "head." This meant that if I could make a P,I could make an R! Excited, I held my breath as I picked up my pencil and made a P, then drew a slanted line down from its loop. And my theory worked--I had drawn an R! And unlike the light yellow of P, its color was orange. I marveled that a yellow letter could become an orange letter just by drawing a line!
"Daddy, Daddy, come and look, I made R!" My father hurried over to my little red table. There amidst the piles of word-design drawings and pages of penciled alphabet letters was my R: a little wobbly looking, perhaps, with lines that were more crooked than straight, but indisputably an R. My father broke into a big smile and, happy for me, happy that his instruction had taken effect, lifted me onto his shoulders to celebrate the success with a piggy-back ride.
As we pranced around the little red table, my eyes fell on our homemade black crayon, no longer the disappointing eraser of all colors, but simply their hiding place.
Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Lynne Duffy