When you completely misunderstand what’s going on.

When you completely misunderstand what’s going on.

My third child is eight years old. It’s a wonderful age, but the girls’ night moms agree: it’s a hard age.

This child is quite different from our older two. She’s spunkier, she’s bouncier, she’s a little more musical. She delights in the ridiculous. She has strong opinions and she loves to express them … strongly.

She has a summer birthday, which means she’s been eight years old, all school year long. That’s third grade around here. And ever since she entered third grade last fall, she’s been saying she never wants to be a fourth grader, because fourth graders are bratty.

Will and I weren’t overly concerned. It’s exactly the kind of preposterous opinion she delights in proclaiming loudly at the dinner table.

But as the end of the school year approaches, she’s been saying it more often.

You’ll love your fourth grade teacher, we say. Your friends will move up to fourth grade, too. Those fourth grade boys you turn up your nose at will all become fifth graders. You’ll make a terrific fourth grader.  

We were having the same conversation about this in the car last week (of course). I kept repeating the same things: You’ll love your fourth grade teacher. Your friends will move up to fourth grade, too.

Lucy finally cried out in exasperation: But four is bratty!

Wait a second.

Four is bratty? I asked.

YES!! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!

Moving forward on a hunch: What’s three?

Nice.

Two?

Silly.

Eleven?

Giggly.

Forty-five?

Um, kind of stern-faced. 

What color is Tuesday? 

She didn’t hesitate: Orange.

Thursday?

Pink.

Sunday?

Bright blue.

What color is April?

Brown.

Since the fall, we’ve been trying to figure out what lay at the root of Lucy’s objection to fourth grade. We wondered if she was uncomfortable growing up, getting another year older. Some kids are like that. Or if she didn’t want to write a certain essay, or read a certain book.

We wondered if she was being contrarian for its own sake.

But that’s not what’s going on at all. She has synesthesia, or at least gives a darn good impression of having it. The scientists call this “a perceptual condition in which information between the senses is blended.” No one else in our nuclear family has it (no surprise; though it does run in families, only 4-5 % of the population has it). I’ve wished I had it since I was a kid. I had several friends along the way who did, and I envied their ability to quickly, reflexively describe why Tuesday is navy blue, or how 9 looks like a grumpy brown bear.

As an adult, I read and loved scientist David Eagleman’s book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. My favorite tidbit is when he explains that many of the world’s best memorizers of data—like those who can recite thousands of digits of pi—are synesthetes. Their brain does more than catalogue a long stream of numbers; thanks to their synesthesia, they can remember a story. Each number has a color, shape, and personality, and stories are much easier to remember than abstract streams of data.

I have no idea what this means for Lucy’s future, or for her impending rise to fourth grade. (Although I know some people I can ask.)

I do know that the problem is entirely different—and much more interesting—than I understood it to be last week.

I’d love to hear your tips, advice, stories, and all about what color Monday is for YOU in comments.  

P.S. When you’re good at overcomplicating things, and 8 paradoxes of creative people.

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74 comments

  1. Christine says:

    How wonderful for Lucy and for you that you figured this out! I hadn’t heard of it until a few years ago but I think as a child I too would have wanted to be a synesthete. Now it just seems like it would be one more aspect of life to overwhelm this sensitive introvert! I’m guessing you have read the book A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass? Great story about a young girl with synesthesia. Too old for Lucy but maybe good for your older daughter. I’d be interested to know of any other books you know of about synesthesia.

    • I read A Mango-Shaped Space to my son when he was 10, and there were several things I didn’t like about it, although he thought it was great. I read some reviews in which people with extreme synesthesia said this book depicts it inaccurately. The author is not a synesthete herself.

      I have some synesthesia, but sometimes I wonder how much of it is truly “just how it is” like a sensory perception vs. how much is learned associations, some of which are purposely adopted mnemonics. For example, A is pink and B is blue and C is yellow because of the color coding of the 3 levels of phonics workbooks AND the first 3 volumes of the children’s encyclopedia in my first-grade classroom. It wasn’t until 20 years later that D became brown, E gold, F purple, and G green because of something I was doing at work involving 7 phases of data and 7 colors of paper–but it stuck.

      I also have strong feelings about which numbers are “better”, the color of each day of the week (although I stopped dressing in those colors each day after a classmate noticed and got a bunch of kids to tease me about it, in 6th grade), the personality of words based on their spelling rather than meaning, how birthdays align with personalities (unrelated to astrology), and how changing the spelling of a name changes the character of the name even if it doesn’t match the person who has that name–like Kathryn is more peppy than the serious Katherine, whereas Catherine is pale and shy, but Cathryn is unpredictable….

      I work in research data management, and I often find synesthesia helpful in remembering numbers or alphanumeric codes. It can be an impediment, though, when I’m working with data someone else coded and I feel it was done “wrong” but there’s no good reason to correct it–for example, if you are coding gender, 0 is female and 1 is male; in this case I’m aware of the reason, which is that the numerals resemble the genitals. If somebody did it the other way around, it slows me down slightly because I have to remind myself EVERY TIME I’m using the variable in an algorithm.

  2. I don’t have color synesthesia, but I do have spatial synesthesia. Dates in history, days of the week, months of the year, numbers….they all are arranged in shapes in my head (for instance, a year is shaped like a race track, with summer at the bottom and winter at the top).

    My son has spatial and color synesthesia, and he hears/sees musical notes as colors too.

    I feel like my spatial synesthesia is super handy, although obviously I’ve never tried functioning without it! I just like the way it’s easy to place events/historical dates/plans on my mental shapes.

    I pretty much never leave links to my own blog on other people’s blogs (feel free to remove!), but if you’d like to see a drawing of Joshua’s and my spatial synesthesia’s, there’s one right here: http://www.thefrugalgirl.com/2014/10/spatial-sequence-synesthesia/

    • Sherah says:

      My year is also a race track, but with summer on the top and winter on the bottom. My December is extra big too, I guess it had a lot of significance when I first started mapping things out.

    • Sherah says:

      Now that I’m looking at the picture on your blog… My race track is vertical and it kind of stands up in front of my “eyes”. My week is laid out like your year. My years are in one long line that turns a 180 when you hit the turn of the century. From 1900 we were climbing upward and now we are in a kind of downward turn. It’s so interesting!

    • Margaret says:

      I have this too. My year is also a racetrack (horizontal, not vertical), with summer at the top, fall on the left, winter at the bottom, and spring on the right. It’s always bothered me that the months don’t have equal space (the wide top of the racetrack has only June, July, and August, but the turn on the left has Sept-Dec) but I can’t change it. 🙂 My mom’s is completely different… she sees the year as a clock, with the months corresponding to their number (December at the top, #12). That seems so wrong to me! Very interesting. No number or color synesthesia, though.

    • Jessica says:

      Wow! I never knew so many people thought this way, too. Maybe I have synesthesia and never knew it. My year is also a race track: winter is the long straight away at the bottom, spring is the turn to the left, summer is the long straightaway at the top, and fall is the turn to the right of summer. And numbers are gendered for me: evens are female and odds are male. I even made up stories to remember my math facts (7 + 7 = 14, so 6 + 8 must also because two girls got together to say they could do everything that boys can!). This is fascinating.

  3. Sherah says:

    I have spatial sequence synesthesia. I have mind maps for years, decades, centuries, months and days of the week and I plot everything on my maps. For a long time I thought everyone did this. Then when I got married and could remember random events by the date, my husband looked at me like I’m crazy. It was then I realized this is not really normal.

  4. Martha says:

    This is the first ive ever heard of this condition, but I would recommend the Times Tales DVD for your daughter–it will make memorizing her multiplication facts a fun breeze!

  5. Anne McD says:

    What a coincidence. I just discovered this last night, after googling, “do letters have genders?” All my life, I’ve associated genders with numbers and letters, and have only met one other person who does as well. On a hunch, I just asked my almost 13 year old son, who is very right brained and is an elaborate storyteller/writer. Sure enough, no only do numbers and letters have genders, but they also have very specific personalities. This is so fascinating!

    • Nancy says:

      Our oldest daughter who is now 23 sees numbers as gender specific. I remember when she asked me about this and I couldn’t fathom how she could see male/female associated with numbers (that was a long time ago). I think I need to read this book.

    • Leslie says:

      Anne — Letters, colors and numbers all have genders in my mind! Like you, I am fascinated to hear that this is a “thing”! I must learn more…

  6. Christina says:

    Hi Anne,
    I don’t know anything about synesthesia, and it sounds like you’ve got that research well under way! I did want to say that kids around this age in general are typically experiencing a shift, and my three all reacted differently to it. Two books I found helpful were Encountering the Self: Transformation & Destiny in the Ninth Year, by Hermann Koepke and Your Nine-Year-Old: Thoughtful and Mysterious. Both books focus on the developmentally tricky period of moving from being eight to being nine.
    From a fellow INFP. : )

  7. I had a college classmate with synesthesia. I was assigned to write an article for the school paper on a piece of music he’d composed, so I got to ask him about it. For him, numbers had personalities, and musical notes had colors. So a piece of music was a rainbow of colors, and he would compose music based on how it “looked” to him. SO cool.
    I’m glad you figured out what your girl has–that will make her so much easier to understand in the future!

  8. K says:

    Numbers and letters have colors for me. I think I’ve read before that this is one of the most common types of synesthesia. It makes me a good speller and proofreader because a word with a wrong letter jumps out for me as having a wrong color in it. I wonder if it could work for her to reframe how she thinks of fourth grade. For me, at least, “IV” or “100” (4 in binary) would have different colors than “4” would. Maybe they’d have different personalities too.

  9. Christine says:

    I have to smile at this post a little. While I don’t know anyone with Synethesia, I was first introduced to it in a book! One of my favorite fiction books is called “Lost and Found” by Jacqueline Sheehan and the main character’s neighbor has it! It sounds so interesting and something I could never fathom. I will say though, it’s pretty awesome how engaged with your children you are to notice and connect the things they say. Bravo!

  10. Jessica Beamer says:

    My daughter has synethesia for musical notes, which both enriches her musical experiences and makes it harder to memorize music (as she is flooded with just too much information). She is 14 and a very strong pianist despite and because of this uniqueness.

  11. Heather says:

    Lucy sounds like such a delightful child! I’m so glad you’ve made this discovery and I wish you the best as your family moves forward, especially with the upcoming transition to 4th grade.

  12. R says:

    My daughter is a sophomore in college and is a piano performance major (double major) and has a form of this. She has met other musicians at school who have this too. There seems to be an interesting correlation to music aptitude.

  13. Jamie says:

    This is why I love your blog. So interesting. The color thing doesn’t seem to ring true for my kids or me. But I must say, I was like Emily in the link to her blog: doesn’t everyone view months of the year (and for me, days of the week) traveling to the left?

    P.S. I think I like Lucy.

  14. This is so interesting. Not long ago I read Born on a Blue Day, the autobiography of Daniel Tammet, a British man who has Asperger’s, savant syndrome, and synesthesia. He sees the world in such a unique and fascinating way. It sounds like your daughter does, too.

  15. Nancy says:

    Who knew? I sure didn’t. I think I need to read this book. I’m guessing that our oldest daughter has some form of synesthesia…I very clearly remember a conversation with her while driving to visit my parents. She asked us if we saw numbers as male and female. When we said no, she went on to explain. She also did certain tapping/touching fingers when she talked; as if she were typing or sending code for letters. She is now 23. Probably would have made more sense in parenting her if I had known this then.

  16. lightexpectations says:

    Just yesterday, after church, I decided to stay in the car while my hubby went into the hardware store. But instead of sitting there bored, I opened my Bible and got out the colored pencils I carry with me everywhere. I colored every letter of Psalm 8 to correspond with how I see it in my head. I posted it on my fb page and called it “Psalm 8 Through the Eyes of a Synesthete.” 🙂 My sisters and I have recognized our gift since our early teens, though we argue about the colors of everything! 😉

  17. Sarah M says:

    I knew right when she was doing the colors that it was going towards synesthesia…is it weird I’ve always wished I had it, too?
    I’ve done a lot of reading about it because I find it *fascinating* but no colors for weekdays for me. Glad you guys figured it out, though, I’m sure that makes things so much easier to understand!

  18. Amber says:

    So interesting. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this in real life, but when I was a middle school teacher, one of the all-time favorite books in my class library was A Mango-Shaped Space. The protagonist has synesthesia. It’s just a beautiful book.

  19. Nancy B. says:

    Interesting thread!! Numbers always had colors for me, but I never thought it was odd. When I was young, the minister in our church was interested in the connection between music and color and hooked up the organ to shine lights on the wall when it played. I was so excited to see and hear it! But it was so disappointing, the colors seemed so random! I never knew if he was synaesthetic or whether it was just an intellectual quest – I suspect the latter. But when my daughter was home from college, we were riding in the car when she told me someone’s phone number ended in 3033. I said – how cute! it’s all yellow and white – that last 3 is like a little yellow ruffle on the yellow and white curtains. All of a sudden, I realized that was a non sequitur as far as she was concerned. We both started laughing. That was the first time I ever even thought about mentioning it. She had heard of synthesthesia and thought it interesting. Then I thought back. Long ago, I had a boyfriend who was tall and thin and often looked kind of drained of energy. One day, he showed up looking all “fuzzy” around the edges (a good thing). I tried to explain it to him and then realized this was another me thing. But I could always tell when he was feeling good about the day! Perception is an odd thing. We sense the world around us and our brain tries to find a way to communicate or make sense of the input. It’s a wonderful thing. I’ll bet it could be trained to perceive more intangible things about the world.

  20. catherine says:

    I did not know this was a thing! I always think of weekdays/months/numbers being colours too (and genders for numbers) my sunday is bright blue too! I always just thought i must have had a days of the week chart in these colours when i was a kid or something.

  21. Victoria says:

    Numbers have always had both gender and personality for me, which may be why I find it easy to remember phone numbers, credit card numbers, etc. And I’ve never been terribly fond of the number 4 either; I find it rather pompous and overbearing, impressed with itself and its own importance. All those sharp corners, like elbows ready to poke someone, or pointy noses to look down on others.

    • Yes, exactly!! But that pointy number goes with the wimpy, whiny-looking word “four”. The numeral and the word don’t match, so you can’t trust 4. It’s not like 5, whose numeral has a cornery part and a curvy part just like its word has a soft consonant and a sharp consonant.

      If it’s any consolation to Lucy, I felt that 4th grade would not be a good year and looked forward to 5th because of the numbers, but for me it turned out that 4th grade was the year I made a new long-term best friend and discovered several wonderful new activities, whereas 5th grade didn’t go so well.

  22. Cathy Juliano says:

    My 14 year old daughter has color perception Synesthesia and also associates personalities along with the colors. She’s an extremely talented artist who starts with an image in her mind and creates on the fly. She even paints what she calls ‘songs’ that are visualized in her head as she hears them. It’s a blessing in disguise as she can create incredible art and has won many art/painting awards but she does not appreciate following the normal process of sketching etc because the completed image is already in her mind. Synesthesia complicated her reading and math abilities as, in her words, ‘it’s sooooo many colors’ at once that distract her from the actual reading and math at hand. She’s found her coping strategies and is heading in the art direction for high school. Funny that she tried to tell me when she was 6 or 7 that it was too colorful to read…busy mom that I am responded with ‘that’s interesting…keep reading and get your homework done’. By age 10 we had a chart of bubble letters and numbers which she has colored in as she ‘sees them’. In order to confirm the synesthesia we quizzed her months apart and the very detailed colors indeed remain the same. (Ex: E is white with strings of grayish black running thru it.) My oldest is studying neuroscience at university and has provided info regarding certain letters that are consistent colors among synesthetes. She has provided research articles for our review as well. If you’d like me to pass them on please don’t hesitate to ask. It’s an incredible phenomenon and makes our children preciously unique!

  23. Christy says:

    My 10 year old son sees numbers and letters as specific genders and personalities. He also sees days and months as colors. His number line is a forest. Also, when “ideas” are familiar they are white and when he is introduced to a new idea, it is back. Then all the others are shades of blue. He is a wonderful story teller and deep thinker. He makes fascinating connections. He has, however, struggled in math some. He thinks deeply about the concepts, but works very very slowly. My guess is that he has a lot to process. Not just numbers, but personalities and the mixing of those persoanlities when he does math problems. Some of the numbers don’t play nice together so it’s hard for him to not be distracted by that. It is truly fascinating! He was also 8 when I figured out what was going on. I don’t know of anyone in our families who has it.

  24. Amy says:

    Love this thread! I can see numbers as colors and the months similar to a Monopoly board. For example 3= yellow, 4= red, 5= blue, 6= green. My yearly calendar has spring on top, summer gets the right side and August the bottom right corner. December is the top left corner. 🙂
    I think I always knew “not everyone” sees things like this, so I’ve never “confided” this secret code to other people…it’s my own fun game!

  25. Dawn says:

    Monday is red. 🙂

    I think it’s fascinating to hear about the different types of synethesia being thrown out here in the comments!

  26. Abbey says:

    Monday is red for me. I think that’s because Monday is the most urgent day of them all, plus it’s the starting of the week and can be hectic.

  27. Bethany V. says:

    This is absolutely fascinating to me. I’ve never heard of synethesia before. I don’t know that I technically qualify, but I’ve always thought numbers had personalities. (Especially 1-10). It all started with 7. I though 7 looked mean and bossy. (Kind of like like Lucy in Charlie Brown). 6 is 7’s younger brother. 5 is 6’s best friend. 4 is 5’s younger sister. 8 is the older brother whose never really around, and won’t give you a hard time as long as you stay out of his way.
    When I can’t find the word I want, I have an image in my head of the words swirling in a cloud above my head and I reach up with my mind to grab them, one by one, until I find the one I want. When there is a fact or memory I can’t quite find, I see the image of a room of filing cabinets and I mentally go through each drawer looking for what I want.
    I’ve always thought this was just part of being a creative person, with a very active imagination.

  28. Heather Braun says:

    I see colors as flavours. My sister hears music as colors.
    We have other fun ways of seeing things as well. I like it.

  29. This is so interesting! From 2nd grade through 6th grade, it would take me longer than normal to do math problems because of the mixing personalities. I had to figure out how the numbers were relating to each other in each problem.

    Also, I had an elaborate system for making up stories in cookbook recipes. Each recipe would describe a different family. The first ingredient would describe the main character’s appearance. Based on how many words were in the title of the recipe, the main character would have a spouse and children. “Baked Mashed Potatoes” could turn into Betty, her husband Matthew, and their daughter Paula. Odd numbers in the amount of ingredient made the character female, and even numbers were male. If there were more ingredients than words in the title, the extra ingredients became the family pets. 1 was a cat, 2 was a dog, 3 was a rabbit, etc. . . I started doing this at the age of 4. I’m 20 now, and I still have a hard time looking through a cookbook without seeing each recipe as a family.

    Does this sound like synesthesia, too?

  30. Margaret says:

    I teach high school psychology, and we talk about synesthesia, so I am familiar with this topic. How fun to have a synesthete child! I hope it’s a rewarding lifelong experience for her, even when there are bothersome numbers or colors (like 4) 🙂

  31. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for mentioning Lucy’s current developmental phase–I thought it was just me, feeling that mothering an eight year old was a challenge!

    (Though now that I think of it, eight was a tough year for my older son, too. At the time I thought it was because his teacher was not a good fit and because we were traveling a lot during my husband’s sabbatical…)

  32. Trish says:

    No one in my immediate family has this unique trait, but due to their Montessori education all of my children associate numbers with a color and parts of speech with a colored shape (e.g. nouns are black circles). It’s fascinating. I’m glad you were able to get to the root of her concerns!

  33. Meghan says:

    My son came home from school today talking about a picture book they read about Kandinsky, who was a synesthete. He heard colors (the book is called The Noisy Paint Box). It’s interesting the topic’s come up in two different places today!
    I haven’t read A Mango-Shaped Space, but I adored Wendy Maas’s Every Soul a Star, about a solar eclipse. Not related to synesthesia, but the other comments recommending her other book have me wanting to throw in my supporting vote 🙂

  34. Gracc says:

    I have two types of synesthesia; color/word and color/sound. I have a ‘soundscape’ in my mind, where I can see a type of music. It’s one of the reasons I like listening to Dubstep 😀

  35. Guest says:

    This last year I was doing a project for work about the neuroscience behind learning and two of the books I used as reference had snippets about synesthesia. Make It Stick and How We Learn: The Surprising Truth both have interesting anecdotes about how it impacts memorization for those who have it AND how those of us who don’t can improve our storage and recall of information.

  36. Leah says:

    My lifetime best friend has synesthesia. I used to have fun just asking her what color different objects and words were all the time. My name to her is a silvery-blue. Also, I read “A Mango-Shaped Space” when I was growing up and loved it.

  37. Wow. I definitely do not have this, but it is fascinating to see. My oldest is a 7.5 year old girl, and I am slightly afraid raising her is going to kill me. So it’s good to hear other people think it’s a tough age for girls.

  38. Pamela says:

    I remember being on bed rest with baby #2 and sending my husband on a frustrating shopping trip to the grocery store because I was desperately craving something that tasted purple. For me, colors have flavors and smells too. I like things to smell green or white but never orange, which does not smell at all like the fruit.

  39. Jenn~Henn says:

    Fascinating! I used to pretend that odds were bad guys, and evens were good guys, and who won depended on the answer. But mostly thinking for me is like listening to me talking to myself, and even when trying to visualized things I just “hear” the description.

  40. Huh. That might explain why I thought the security number on the back of my credit card was very yellow.

    I also visualize the year on a clock, but my year goes counter clockwise. Glad I’m not the only one!

  41. Stacie says:

    Do you still homeschool at all? I am curious as to how you would deal with this new development and/or if you would change your curriculum choices?

  42. Tammy says:

    After reading this post, I asked my 7-year old daughter what color school was:
    Black (she doesn’t like school…)
    Reading? Blue (her favorite color, and she does like to read)
    Tuesday? Blue
    Wednesday? Pink (I asked her why for this one, and she said it was a fun day.)
    I asked several other days and numbers and she had a color answer for every one. I’m not sure if she has synesthesia or was just being creative….I know that I wouldn’t have had an answer for any of those questions when I was little or even now! And she had no context either, I just started asking her. Very interesting.

  43. Kylie says:

    How fascinating! Not to mention, what a wonderful way to look at the world. Lucy sounds lovely! I have a seven-year-old daughter, currently in year two and it always amazes me how different her experience of school has been in comparison to my two older boys. My Cameron is a lot more fiery and spunky than either of her brothers. She’s very opinionated and independent and loves to try new things. She’s also a lot more social than the boys and cares much more about the opinions of her peers. I just hope as she grows and matures that she learns to listen to herself a little more and realises the importance of doing what makes her happy.

    Also, I have to add that in my short time as a pre-service teacher, I have very much loved being in classes with years three and four. Although all years have their ups and downs, there is just something about those kids that is a bit magical. They’re not quite the big kids of the school, but they’re no longer the little kids. They’re fun and honest and make me glad to be learning along with them!

  44. Jamie says:

    I noticed Mango Shaped Space was already mentioned. With that story in mind – my memories of the stressful experiences that child experienced – have you considered allowing your daughter to move to fifth grade?

  45. Carrie says:

    My older daughter has hypoplasia of the corpus callosum, which means that the nerve bridge between the brain hemispheres is much thinner than normal. Interestingly, in some of these people, those nerve fibers are present–they just run from front to back instead of sideways. This increases connection within each hemisphere. I have long suspected some sort of synesthesia in her, but have never been able to confirm it. If I ask about the colors/smells/tastes, she looks at me like I’m crazy. But there are strange absolutes that she shows, and they seem completely random to an outsider. She has an uncanny ability to remember locations and specifics in a way I haven’t observed in others. Very interesting to read about your experiences!

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