Celebs like Lorde, Pharrell and Kanye West have all talked about experiencing it.
Ever since I was little, I’ve thought of letters and numbers as masculine or feminine. Not purposefully, but when I see or think of them, it pops into my mind clear as day: A is a girl, E is a boy, four is a girl, ten is a boy… There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just the vibe I get off them. It was only a few years ago that I learned this was a) not something everybody does and b) a ‘thing’. Associating numbers and letters with personalities or genders is known as ordinal linguistic personification, and it’s a form synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which the stimulation of one of your senses triggers a sensation in another. Studies have estimated that anywhere between one in 2000 and one in 23 people are ‘synaesthetes’, but it’s hard to know for sure, as many people don’t even realise they have it. I certainly went through a large portion of my life assuming that everyone felt like the number 18 was a kind woman. Isn’t that obvious?!
Some common forms of the condition include associating letters, numbers, or the days of the week with colours, or ‘seeing’ sounds in colour. Lots of artists and musicians claim to have this type of synaesthesia, including Lorde, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. “You pick a chord then all of a sudden there’s this flood of colour or a different texture,” said Lorde, explaining how the phenomenon influences her songwriting in a 2017 interview. “It’s exciting and it’s strange and it makes everything feel a little bit more vivid.” It’s also been compared to ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), that nice, tingling feeling people get from watching videos of people whispering or tapping their nails on YouTube.
Now, I can’t claim that my tiny bit of synaesthesia informs anything in my life other than how I see certain numbers and letters, but it was fascinating to discover that it’s something I share with lots of other people. I didn’t even have to look too hard to find another synaesthete – when I initially floated the idea for this piece, it was revealed that STELLAR’s designer Katie Gilligan has it too. For her, numbers and letters have very specific colours and personalities.
“My synaesthesia is mainly experienced with numbers, letters, and colours. All numbers and letters have a specific colour to represent them, and this has never changed,” she tells me.
For example, four and eight are both shades of a deep red, with eight having more of an orange tone and four having a blueish tone. This gives numbers and letters their own little personalities, or allows me to see the word as opposed to just hearing it. It also comes through slightly when I think about time frames or hear sounds.
Like me, Katie always assumed everyone saw letters and numbers like this, or visualised time ahead according to the ‘colours’ of the months. While it doesn’t affect her life in any huge way, she suspects it comes into play subconsciously when she’s making decisions about life or work.
“I was doing a presentation in college and part of my project was based on using three different colour filters over the same image. At one point, I was trying to explain why specific filters justified the size I’d chosen the images to be, and I said something along the lines of ‘And that worked out well, because you know how nine is like, a forest green’,” she recalls. “I just kept talking away, but it wasn’t long before the confusion kicked in and I realised nobody had a clue what I was talking about. Now it makes sense that the number nine is not actually forest green, but sure at the time, I had never thought about it before.”
Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes synaesthesia – we could be born with it, or we could be picking it up somehow along the way. Studies have found that the condition tends to run in families, and more women than men report experiencing it. Whatever the reason, this mysterious phenomenon is endlessly intriguing.