Colorful Composters“What’s the purple guy’s name?”

The question came out of the blue from the backseat of the car one afternoon driving home,

I looked around – nope, no one dressed in purple out shoveling their driveway or going for a jog that he might be looking at.

Just a moment or two ago, we were talking about the music on the radio. He always likes to ask “What’s this guy’s name?” which I’ve come to learn is his way of asking who the artist is. I tend to keep it to two channels in the car when he’s with me – SiriusXm Symphony Hall for classical and sometimes 40s on 4 for some music from the Big Band era. (I save the 80s and 60s music for when I’m on my own.)

We go over the names, and his retention has been fantastic, remembering names like Mozart and Beethoven, and even Vivaldi, of whom he says “That’s a silly name!”

So, as he kept asking me who the ‘purple guy’ is, I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.

Then he kept going, informing me that Beethoven is red, Mozart is blue, and Vivaldi is orange, and asking once, again “What’s the purple guy’s name?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but while confused, felt like I finally had some kind of explanation. Whoever this ‘purple guy’ was, it must have been someone associated with the music.

This could have just been some one and done car game he was playing, but it also made me look a little further into something I was only peripherally aware of previously – something called synesthesia.

I’m not saying that what he did was any indication of synesthesia, just that it prompted me to look into it a little more out of curiosity.

Synesthesia is defined as a condition where one of our senses (such as hearing) is, at the same time, perceived as if by one or more additional senses, such as our sight. There is another form of synesthesia that associates objects like letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.”

The most common form of synesthesia is colored letters and numbers, when someone always sees a particular color in response to a certain letter or number. (“Nine is green, B is red,” that sort of thing.)

According to a Neuroscience for Kids site by a faculty member at the University of Washington, there isn’t an official way to diagnose synesthesia, but researchers have set up some guidelines (although it isn’t something all are in agreement upon; it serves merely as a starting point for diagnosis):

  • a potential synesthete does not actively think about their perceptions; they just happen.
  • instead of experiencing something in the “mind’s eye,” such as when you’re asked to think of or imagine a color, a synesthete often actually, physically sees a color projected outside of the body.
  • it has to be perceived the same way every time. If you see red when you hear the letter B, it has to be red every time.
  • the color is often remembered better than the object, name, letter, etc associated with it. (i.e. you’d remember orange better than you would Vivaldi).
  • The perceptions also cause emotional reactions and feelings.

There doesn’t seem to be a definite estimate of how many people can have synesthesia, according to the research by the Washington University faculty member. The ranges seem to go from 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000, and notes that there are probably many more folks who have it but don’t realize they have it. They often tend to be women (three times more likely in the U.S. than men), are more often left-handed, are of normal or possibly above-average intelligence and that it often times seems to be inherited.

I find this to be a fascinating area of study, and whether the little guy actually did see a color, or our little composer bit was just a one and done episode of silliness that prompted me to learn a little more about synesthesia, well, color me interested.

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