The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

The Letters on the Blocks in Kindergarten Weren’t “Right”

Megan describes her synesthesia

By Amy Broadway, researcher at the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research.

From our case studies page you can learn a little about Megan, a synesthete in the St. Louis area, who contacted us this summer after discovering our research. Here, in her own words, Megan tells us a little more about her life as a synesthete.

Can you describe when and how it was that you realized there was something remarkable about the way you perceive the world? What were your first expressions of synesthesia that you remember? 

I only realized that I had synesthesia because my grandpa told me. I remember once being upset in kindergarten because colored letters on blocks there weren’t “right.” I told the teacher that an A [on a block] wasn’t an A. I don’t remember what color it was in, but it wasn’t yellow. Therefore, it was not an A. My mom was frustrated because she didn’t understand why I wouldn’t say it was an A, since she knew I knew the alphabet. I only learned recently of some of my other forms of synesthesia. It took me thinking about it a lot and writing down my thoughts as I went about my day. I didn’t realize just how different I was until then.

Describe the history of synesthesia in your family. You have mentioned that your grandfather was a synesthete. What is the story with that? 

My mother’s father was a synesthete. I asked his mother, my great grandma, about it, and she doesn’t like to talk about it—I guess it’s a generational thing. At least two of my cousins have it as well. My grandpa knew he was different growing up from what I understand. He was a computer programmer and mentioned his colored letters, etc. to one of his co-workers in the navy. His co-worker recognized it as synesthesia, and that’s when my grandpa had a name for it. He never mentioned it to anyone else until he read that it was genetic, on the internet some 30 years later. That’s when he asked all of his grandkids, “What color is 3?” Turned out he and I shared colored letters. However, he also had colored hearing and perfect pitch. He could name any song by just hearing one note from it. We used to play that game a lot.

You are a nurse. Are there ways that synesthesia affects your work, which makes being a nurse a different experience for you as opposed to non-synesthetes whom you know? 

Yes. I am exceptionally good at picking up on others’ feelings. I can anticipate their needs more because of it. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes not. It’s easy to help put a family at ease when they are stressed, but it’s very difficult to feel their emotions when they are losing a loved one or are very anxious.

How did synesthesia affect your life as a student and growing up? Were your friends interested in it, as sort of a “super power” you possessed?

The way I study is strange. I have to write everything over and over in colored marker. I remember not only the colors I wrote the information in, but the area of the page I wrote it on, and the shape I arrange the words in. Sometimes I listen to music so I can remember what I was listening to when I was trying to learn certain things. I’m not sure how it affected me growing up. That’s difficult to answer since I don’t know what it would be like not to have it. Most of my friends thought it was neat, but weren’t particularly interested in it. Some I think were jealous in a way. Others thought I was looking for attention. It was something I liked about myself, though, and still do. It makes me different and interesting, but I don’t know if I’d call it a “super power”. As you can imagine, I was sometimes ashamed of my differences and didn’t always like to talk about them. I’m in a place now where I can, and I hope to encourage others like me as well. I never want my son to feel ashamed for what he “sees” if someday he has it as well.

You see specific colors that overlay certain letters and words. How did that affect the naming of your son?

I was very picky when it came to my children’s names. My husband and I agreed on a boy name right away: Caleb Maximus. Caleb is very cobalt/babyish blue. Maximus is red. Our last name is brown, so his whole name, I feel, has very masculine colors. I’m not sure why this was important to me, but it was. We have picked out girl names already, and they are very feminine colors.

For Megan, letters depicted in colors that do not match her color projections can be frustrating. For one of her son’s Christmas presents, she is ordering custom-made wooden blocks with all black letters. That way, if he is a synesthete, Megan says, he will be able to “see them in his own way.”

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in Philosophy, Psychology and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She directs the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab. more...

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