I spotted a peculiar mental exercise pinned to the wall of pediatric doctor’s office today. It was apparently devised to a create a left-brain, right-brain conflict when one says the name of a color, rather than the word in which said color is applied. Since the left-brain processes language and the right color, some order of Crayola-cognitive-crash is meant to occur. This particular version of the exercise also seems designed to arouse conflicted feelings regarding Anglophilia. Note how the top of the chart reads “Look at the chart and say the colour [sic] not the word,” despite the fact that anyone who might encounter this particular sign would necessarily be in America where color is spelled like so. The whole debacle brings to mind Monty Python’s “Bridge of Death” scene from the Holy Grail, when Terry Gilliam’s bridge-keeper asks Michael Palin’s Sir Galahad his favorite color and the errant knight-errant first answers “blue” then unsuccessfully tries to correct his answer to “yellow,” before being launched into the “Gorge of Eternal Peril.”
It occurred to me that if someone with synesthesia spied the same exercise, they too might be hurled into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
“Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense,” writes R. Cytowic in “Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses.”
Now, I’m no synesthete, but the weave of my brain’s dendrites are either tight (or loose) enough that the wires cross with enough regularity as to bless (or curse) me with a surplus of free-associations. Perhaps I’m a victim of too many “show, don’t tell” creative writing courses at San Francisco State University, but be assured purple isn’t the only prose style on my color wheel – I’m also a journalist and on the wheel, the opposite of purple is yellow. This is relatively common amongst writers. Common among synesthetes, however, is the association of letters of the alphabet themselves with individual colors. A language researcher profiled on an MIT website, for example, reports that her synesthesia causes her to perceive the word “linguistics” as “a grayish-purple-blue word.”
I know the feeling. I couldn’t say “blue” when the word read “red” without feeling grayish, purple and yellow. I mean blue.