Dear Teachers of Riley Boe

A synesthetic high school junior worried about this school year

Posted Aug 17, 2012

Dear Teachers of Riley Boe,

Hi. I'm an acquaintence of a delightful 16-year-old student of yours for this coming semester named Riley Boe. We're both members of a Facebook page called, "I Have Synesthesia: I'm Not a Freak, I'm a Synesthete." Pages like this are necessary because despite the many accomplishments of synesthetes, particularly in the arts as chronicled here in my blog for Psychology Today, we are still neurological outliers. It is still not safe to say in therapy or in a classroom that music makes one see color or math is a little difficult because of associated personalities for each number. Some therapists or teachers might see that as a red flag and believe the student is hallucinating or seeking attention. They are not.

It broke my heart recently when dimpled Riley posted a query to our community about whether she should admit her synesthesia to her new teachers this fall in the beginning of the semester or wait until she saw colored music or had difficulty with math or the sensory overload and migraines that plague her. Riley has many forms of synesthesia, the most fascinating of which causes each number to have a personality and she is particularly concerned about a nefarious number seven and how it treats the other numbers. This is not as strange to me as it may be to you.

Riley Boe

Synesthete Riley Boe.

Among the respondents, I urged her to fly her flag proudly. It is not up to her to explain it, frankly, it is up to you to learn about this unique trait and respond in kind. Riley is not alone. The Pythagoreans associated genders with numbers; in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the character Francie gives numbers and the letters X and Y personalities. The Wikipedia page on this form of synesthesia is here for your convenience: And she has a vast community of young and adult synesthetes rooting for her, I assure you.

Riley may have seemed hesitant in her posting, but she is braver than I was 30 years ago as a high school junior in even considering sharing her inner life with adults. Though I had private synesthetic experiences like memorizing the dates of current events through color (the United States entered World War I in 1914 — black, brown, black, red was my inner monologue) I didn't dare speak of my methods in that Dark Age. Since then, brain imaging has shown that this is a genuine experience, top researchers like Dr. Richard Cytowic and Dr. Larry Marks have published on its validity and countless accomplished synesthetes have "come out" — many of them in this column — and claimed their different minds and explained how it even informs their work.

So I urge you to see Riley Boe as a teacher herself this coming semester. This is your opportunity to teach as well as learn from someone who is very much in touch with her subconscious, highly creative and sensitive. Not everyone learns the same way and she will no doubt be a challenge in some ways. However, due to her synesthesia, she will likely have a very good memory (the colors and shapes and personalities she associates with her numbers and letters act as a mnemonic), be highly empathic toward other students and excel in the arts. I've done a little Q & A that may help you and the other students understand her better, here, with her parents' permission:

1. What forms of synesthesia do you have?

I have quite a few. I have, Sound-Color(and vice versa) -projected (seen out in front of oneself).
Sound-Touch -projected
Sound-Taste -projected
Sound-Smell -projected
Ordinal-Linguistic Personification -projected
Object Personification -associated
Number-Color -projected
Letter-Color -projected
Personality-Shape -associated
Personality-Color (Auras) -projected
Personality-Temperature -associated
Words-Taste -projected
Taste-Color (and vice-versa) -projected
Months-Color -associated
Days-Color -associated
Mirror Touch -projected
Phoneme-Color -projected/associated (both)
Sequences-Spatial Location - projected

2. When did you notice your trait?

As far as I can remember, I have always had it, but I started noticing that I was different when I started middle school. People would give me weird looks when I told them things like, "Stop tapping your pencil, I can't see the board." Or when I told them the color on their shirt was too loud.

3. Can you explain what OLP synesthesia is and how it affects you?

OLP stands for Ordinal Linguistic Personification, or the personification of letters and numbers. My OLP doesn't bother me for most things, but when it comes to math, I get stressed easily because it is really hard to do math when the numbers are having a party or the personalities of a math problem clash. Especially anything involving seven -- seven has a serial killer/psycho personality, so I end up feeling bad for the other numbers.

4. Why are you nervous about the coming school year?

I am nervous as to what kind of a reaction I will get. Some people think it's really cool and treat it like a superpower, whereas others treat me like I have some kind of disability; but I look at it as a gift.

Riley Boe

Riley Boe can teach others about synesthesia.

5. What do you think about the state of synesthesia awareness in the world today?

I think if more people were aware of this condition, it would be easier for synesthetes to let people know they have it if they need to.

6. Which subjects interest you most?

I have a passion for language and cultural diversity!

7. Which are your best subjects?

Art and foreign language. I have a passion for psychology, as well. I try my best, and I do pretty well at most subjects, but I find math and science to be more challenging.
8. What are your personal and professional goals?

Personally, I would like to be a housewife eventually, but during the time in between that and graduating high school, I would like to be a photographer or a flight attendant.
9. Tell me about your social life!

My boyfriend and I have switched our profile pictures actually on Facebook, my profile pic is of him, and his is of me. And we are long distance, so we run a blog at He isn't a synesthete, which is really interesting and can be very fun because of the way he reacts to the things I say when I am describing something synesthetically. Sometimes I think what it would be like if he was a synesthete, how we could relate with each other and compare our synesthetic reactions, but I love him just the way he is.

10. What are your opinions of synesthesia?

Synesthesia can be very fun and unique and beautiful in most ways, but there are also downsides to it. I get migraines every other day, and about twice a month I get sensory overloads, sometimes to the point where I can't function properly because the pain is so bad. But if I am left alone for a while in a dark quiet room, they will eventually fade away. All in all, I am quite happy with myself and the way I view the world, and I wish more people could see things the way I do! It's beautiful.


To Riley's teachers — thank you in advance for all you will teach Riley and the other students this year — some others of whom may have different learning styles as well!

And remember, Riley, and all of you other young synesthetes out there — you're not alone!