[Updated from April 08, 2009] Do you hear in color? Many people do! And this is just one form of crossing perceptual modalities. Since this trait can impact learning, it is important to be aware of it and how it can be a gift or a challenge – or both!
I have always associated colors with different things such as sounds, words/concepts, days/months, and even letters/numbers. I also perceive all of these, and many other things, to have genders and personalities. My first clue that not everyone thought this way was when, as a child, I asked my grandmother if my ring finger was a girl or a boy. She told me that all of my fingers were girls because I am a girl. I decided to not ask Grandma these types of questions.
There are tests you can take, but they have some limitations. My scores on a battery of tests I took range from .36 to .76, and anything below 1.0 is considered synesthesia. The tricky part for me is that I sometimes perceive more than one color as well as textures (thick liquid, metal, etc.), and the battery of tests didn’t account for this. Also, colors can cause emotional and even physical reactions, especially with certain hues or color combinations. A thing I wasn’t tested for was my association with physical sensations and pitches/frequencies of sound.
People who have this “sensory crossing” are impacted in how they perceive and process information, which includes learning. It makes the perceptual modality aspect of “learning styles” a bit more complex. However, it can also be used to one’s advantage (i.e. color-coding notes or using different highlighters, or associating different music, etc.); it is a very personalized process for each person.
Sometimes there can be modality interference; for example, what if a teacher’s concept map or feedback put things in colors that don’t match what the student’s perception is of those concepts? In my experience, this can be rather distracting! Ideally, the student would be able to adjust the colors to match his or her perceptions.
By the way, there seems to be a genetic link. My youngest daughter has strong synesthesia associations; however, they are different from mine as there is no link for what the actual associations will be.
Think you might experience synesthesia? If so, you can try one or more tests: http://synesthete.org/
I would love to hear what your results were!
“And how might this event impact the hero on his journey? Tammy?” I immediately stopped writing so I could answer the question, and with ease that surprised my middle school language arts teacher who thought she was catching me not paying attention. We were a week into a novel that I finished the first day, and I was more than paying attention; I was writing my own story, applying stylistic concepts I learned, combining it with the other dozen novels I had read that month. As for the hero’s journey, that is a favorite topic I like to apply to real life. We are all on our own journey, each on a unique path that should be respected.
Just as in the stories I read, my journey included both special powers and monsters. I often felt like an anthropologist in my own culture, marveling at the natives who, in turn, found themselves marveling at me and my lack of assimilation. I perceive the world in a unique way, both philosophically and literally, and life experiences – including a violent childhood – only heightened these traits.
I never subscribed to social hierarchies and other conventions requiring blind conformity, including that of the public school I attended. From my earliest memories, I saw everyone as being equally human – both fallible and worthy of love – and applied this to both students and educators. Friends with anyone friendly, I ignored cliques and pedestals – including the ones people tried to put me on. I also have always required a clear purpose for any task or expected behavior. Not motivated by gold star foil stickers or their equivalent, I needed something more meaningful. “What’s the goal?” is a question people learn to expect from me. “Because I said so” or “that’s just how it’s supposed to be” are never acceptable answers. And even if the goal is agreed upon, the path to that goal is a separate conversation.
I also have a “super power.” Neurodivergent, I perceive and process information in a sometimes intense way that can be advantageous for learning and creating. I’m a synesthete, crossing perceptual modalities and even abstract concepts. For example, each number, letter, month, and day of the week has a color, gender, and personality. Sounds, especially music, have colors and textures. So will your personality once I get to know you. Perceptions are sometimes amplified – with sounds, textures and scents proving overwhelming. When preparing to write this post, ideas formed in the air, some moving through me to hover behind me, others clustering together as I saw their connections. Suddenly tired, I closed my eyes to more easily sink into the ideas without the distractions of the physical world. Yes, I literally work in my sleep!
When allowed to learn and work in a way that meets my needs, I can absorb information and produce work at a greater level. Other than those moments of sleep-working, I am usually moving; a standing desk and pathways for pacing are ideal, along with a large table or floor space to spread out. I will take the ideas in the air and map them on graph paper so others can work with me. The challenge for me is to clearly communicate the many connections I am making in my head, sometimes including concepts for which spoken language is limited.
I learned early that not everybody understands this way of perceiving. I remember asking my grandmother what gender the ring finger was since it wasn’t clear to me like the other ones were. “What? You’re a girl. They’re all girl fingers.” I continued staring at my fingers, wondering why I felt she was wrong, and I decided to not ask certain types of questions. By the way, years later I would learn the word “androgynous.” In public school, I remember feeling intellectually stifled by being forced to sit in a hard desk for hours each day, and I most enjoyed classes that allowed for movement and active engagement with the task at hand. Meanwhile, if I wanted to sit quietly with a book, why not outside on the lawn, or better yet, up in a tree?
The monsters are not something I want to spend too much time on here, but they played an important role. Being a survivor of child abuse and other forms of assault, and having to engage in physical battles to protect myself and family members, are definitely things that impacted my ability to learn and engage in school-related activities. My biological father was traveling the country from one job to another and was unaware of what was happening. I remained quiet because I didn’t want to be separated from my half-brother, and I was warned of the far-reaching consequences of breaking that silence.
I really should have slipped through the cracks.
One of the reasons I didn’t is because a school principal refused to let me. Robin Emmingham became principal at the elementary I attended, and the same year I moved to the combination middle/high school, so did he. I just couldn’t get rid of the guy. He knew my dad’s side of the family and seemed to take it upon himself to keep an eye on me. I would appreciate this later in life. Thanks to him, I was enrolled in classes that challenged me and enriched my education beyond the typical choices, turning learning challenges into special skills. I found myself attending musicals, enrolled in clubs such as drama and problem-solvers, and participating in off-campus learning conventions. During my senior year, I only had to take two classes on site, and the rest of my learning was on a job site earning work-based credit.
Where the principal noticed me, the counselor didn’t until near the end of my time there. When Pre-SAT, ASVAB, and IQ/capability test scores came in, she called me into her office to inform me that I earned the highest scores in my class, and was only ever outscored in some areas by one other person in the school. While her voice and face expression seemed negative, her words sounded positive, so I smiled at the news. My smile quickly faded when she began scolding me for not having a 4.0 GPA, and proceeded to lecture me about priorities. My legs started to give out as I began to shake, biting out the words, “You. Have. No. Idea.” And she didn’t, so I proceeded to tell her about those monsters. Outside of the school walls, I had little time for homework; I was too busy just surviving. The silence was broken, but it would take a few more years to free myself, and decades to heal.
I am thankful for both the principal and the counselor, and the many other educators who were part of my journey. The result of even the negative experiences is a well-rounded perspective that gave me what I needed in order to go into education as a change agent. After earning my teacher certification, I jumped immediately into working with at-risk youth and developing personalized education programs in various forms. I especially connected with neurodivergent students and found myself becoming an advocate for student-centered education, using technology to facilitate that process. I experienced growing success, but that didn’t prevent my own daughter from facing adversity. What happened to her was an important turning point in my own life. I was motivated before, but now my passion and drive was all the more fierce. And that is its own story.
Connect with Tamra
“The neural tangling known as synesthesia may have survived evolution because it offers benefits in creative thinking, a new study hints.” ~ National Geographic News
“A mysterious phenomenon called synesthesia occurs when stimulating one of the five senses triggers experiences in an unrelated sense. Now researchers suggest this unusual trait can provide numerous mental benefits, potentially explaining why evolution has kept it around.”