Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wait, Do I Have Synesthesia? Or Am I Just Looney Tunes?

This is blowing my mind right now. After all these years thinking myself "normal," I've been forced to reevaluate all I thought I knew about my cognitive preconceptions. I was talking to Lisa the other day about how the number 5 was always my favorite number ever since I was little because: one, it was a boy like me; and, two, it was a sensible and well-behaved number. Which is how I wanted to be in school.

Lisa looked at me like I had two heads and said: "Wait, wait, wait . . . back up. The number 5 is a boy?" She couldn't understand what I meant, and I couldn't understand why she couldn't understand.

"Don't you have genders for your numbers?" I asked.

I think she actually turned pale and gave me a funny look. "Uh, like . . . noooooo?"

Suddenly my whole world came crashing down. "So I guess this means letters don't have gender for you, either?"

Her concerned expression only confirmed my sinking feeling. Yes, I was a freak! Luckily, she didn't think I was crazy at all and actually thought it was kind of cute, if not downright hilarious. But it was a shock to me to realize that I had this thing I did that perhaps not many others do.

See, I've always lived with the knowledge of gender association with letters and numbers ever since I was taught to read and count in preschool. I thought everyone else did this, too. In my mind, every number and every letter has a very specific gender: male or female. They are not randomly assigned, and they have never changed in my mind since childhood. Also, some of them even have personalities. I actually *hate* certain numbers and letters because of their bad attitudes. That number 7, for example, is a real snide bitch! And the letter M . . . well he's a smug little bastard, he is.

No, I'm not joking.

I thought this was normal. So normal, in fact, that I've never had occasion to think about it much until now. But now I found myself asking questions I didn't have any answers to. WTF is wrong with me? How is it that I see these things, or sense them, when my own wife cannot? Is there a name for this condition? And if so, do others have it?

Keep in mind, I'm the farthest thing from a hypochondriac as one can be. I do not go out seeking conditions to explain away the woes of my existence. I've not yet interviewed all my family members and friends yet to see if, perhaps, one or more of them might share this ability. But I'm willing to bet not a lot of people do.

Doing some online research, I came across this article on Discover Magazine's website about a condition known as "synesthesia". This is the ability a select few people have to "smell" colors or "taste" shapes. In fact, this is not a condition that's new to me. I remember seeing something about this on CNN a while ago. People with synesthesia make other weird associations, like seeing colors when they hear music, or feel sensations on their skin when certain words are spoken. Problem is, as much as I researched this phenomenon, I could not find note of ANYONE who did what I did. I started to think that maybe at some point in my childhood I had made this all up. Like some really weird, twisted form or Imaginary Friend Syndrome or something. In the absence of any real friends in school, perhaps I was creating personalities for inanimate objects to keep me company. Or, rather, intangible objects. Things that could never be taken away from me or decide they no longer wanted to be my friend.

Not an unreasonable association, right?

But then I did some more digging around, and it turns out there ARE other people who have the exact same form of synesthesia that I have -- if, indeed, it is synesthesia at all. In particular, I found this one woman's blog that described it perfectly:

"Yesterday while driving, out of the blue my 7 year old says from the backseat, 'Mama, 9 is a girl.' I immediately disagreed with her and told her that 9 is indeed a boy. About that time I noticed my 11 year old looking at me like I was nuts. So I asked her if she thought 9 was a boy or girl and her response was, 'I have no idea what you two are talking about.'"

Tammy goes on to explain the specifics of her gender association by giving some examples:

"So inquiring minds (mainly just mine) want to know... Do your numbers have genders? If so what are they? For instance my numbers 1,6,7,9 and 0 are all males while 2,4,5 and 8 are female. I've never really been able to put a gender label on 3, I think he/she might have numeral gender identity issues. Someone told me 3 should be a female because it's curvy. That then led me to wonder why exactly my numbers have the genders they do or why I've gendered my numbers at all. It's not something I did consciously, it's simply always been that way for as long as I can remember."

It was at this point that I came to the next phase of my discovery: that not all of us had the same associations for our letters and numbers. My numbers and letters don't share the same genders as Tammy's, for instance. Not even close. Also, the majority of mine tend to be male, with a 60:40--or even perhaps a 70:30--split between male and female. It kinda makes sense that this would be the case, but it also lends support to the theory that perhaps this is something I've made up, just at random, as a psychological coping method for whatever weird issues were going on in my life as a child. Maybe.

And I know some of you are probably wondering just what my specific associations are. Okay, well maybe you're not, but I'm going to list them anyway. Starting with the basic numbers, 0 through 10. Before you ask: no, I don't know why certain numbers are boys and why others are girls. I don't read into it too much because, like I said, this was more of a subconscious association when I was growing up rather than an active one. It's not something I sat down one day in Kindergarten and forced myself to figure out. They are what they are because that's just how it is. In my mind, at least.

Anyway, here's my list of numbers and their associated genders:

0 - MALE
2 - M
3 - M
4 - F
5 - M
6 - M
7 - F
8 - M
9 - M
10 - F

It's interesting to note that when you start getting into the double digit numbers, the rules for which numbers are male and which are female don't seem to follow any prescribed logic going simply by the list above. For example: 15 is male, even though it is comprised of both female and male individual components. Yet, the number 43 is female. I can count from 1 to 100 and give you specific and very random looking gender trends for each and every single number. Scared yet? Well wait until you see my alphabet.

For the letters A through Z, once again the trend is towards more masculine rather than feminine characters, although it's kinda interesting to see just which are what:

Yeah, like I told you. STRANGE!
And what's even more strange? Some of my letters--'O' and 'X', for example--have very hard to define genders. Honestly, they can be either. I only gave them what you see now after much strenuous deliberation. Perhaps they're hermaphrodites? Or transgender? Maybe they're confused about their lifestyle choices? Hmmm, as if all this wasn't already weird enough.

So naturally I must ask you all to chime in on the comments section below. Please write in and let me know what you think about all this. Do you have this peculiarity, or know someone else who does? Do you, perhaps, have another form of synesthesia like the ones mentioned in the Discover article? I really, really want to know!


  1. David - what you describe is definitely synesthesia. Do you happen to have colors for your numbers and letters as well? Visit to find about all the other types of synesthesias. Cheers!

  2. For some numbers and more letters I do. Most are black. I'm going to check out that website. This is all so strangely new to me. Thanks!

  3. oh my god I have exactly the same feeling as you do. I mean the number 5. It has been my favorite number since my childhood too, mine is a boy, well-behaved and sensible, just like YOURS !! ( and kind of dynamic as well )

    anw, not until today did I know about this 'synesthesia' lol, just ran across your blog when surfing the Internet.

    well, cool isn't it? :D

  4. i don't know if you are still interested in this topic cuz you wrote this like, 2 months ago. anw as you stated that you really wanted to know so..err...well... i can give the gender and personality for numbers, letters ( like you can ) and also tastes, colors and shapes. for example

    circle - FEMALE
    triangle - F
    Square - M
    Rectangle - M
    Oval - F
    trapezoid - M
    pentagon - F


    and one of my friends said that he could relate colors to sounds

  5. Thuy Tien,

    Wow, that really is quite cool! I can't believe there's someone else out there like me -- and with the same exact number 5 personality. That's simply amazing!

    Thanks for writing in. And you actually just made me realize something new . . . I, too, can do the same thing with geometric shapes. Whoa! That's news to me. I'm going to have to sit down and think about this new development some more.

    Shapes with genders . . . who would have thought? :)

  6. i know, right!!?!

    hey what about musical notes? for example Do is M and Sol is F

    ha ha this synesthesia thing kinda made my day lol, i mean not everyone has this ability, right? only 1 out of 200.000 ( as i remember reading somewhere)
    and it's also really cool to know there's someone who lives 'on the other side of the Earth ' ( i live in Vietnam fyi) has the same number 5

  7. No, sorry. I don't get anything similar for musical notes. But then, I'm not a musical person. I learned the scales when I was 9 years old, then never had to think about them since.

    Hey, great! All the way from Vietnam? I thought you were American . . . your English is perfect! Way cool! :)

  8. nah it's not that perfect, still struggling with the S.A.T and TOEFL stuff, thanks anw :D

  9. I just ran across this today after looking up information on this! As an experiment I asked people in the cafeteria if they ever felt inanimate objects/concepts had personalities and they looked at me like I was crazy. I thought everyone did this. Especially when I think back to kindergarten and all those cartoons of letters and numbers talking with their various faces and personalities. It made perfect sense to me. Do you also have personalities for colors and abstract ideas like "love". Also, What do you think about the 3? I think it's the most antagonistic number ever. When you do arithmetic do the numbers interact and create a sort of story?


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