I look upon synesthesia as a gift-a memory device that helps me recall numbers, names, and the stuff of life'

By Robert Kunzig|Tuesday, February 01, 2000
Senses and Sensibilities
Yes, 5's are green! but p's are navy blue! My husband drew my attention to your article on synesthesia ["Do You See What They See?" December] by saying that Discover is talking about "one of you." I have always thought of letters and numbers in color, but I never heard of anyone else who knew what I meant by "e is green"-not even in my own family. Now I find that I apparently have the most common form of this condition! I look upon synesthesia as a gift-an automatic memory device that helps me to recall telephone numbers, names, and the stuff of life. The article was an eye-opener.

Sheila Tenneson
Laval, Quebe

I am curious about synesthetes for whom numbers and letters evoke colors. Do similar letters and numbers, such as O and Q, trigger similar colors? Do particular fonts or handwriting styles trigger specific colors? Does a capital A trigger the same color as a small a? Lastly, have there ever been two synesthetes with identical interpretations of colors associated with letters?

Nani Obringer
Lake Ozark, Missouri

Dr. Peter Grossenbacher of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, responds: Many aspects of synesthesia are idiosyncratic. So, questions often do not have answers that hold true for everyone who experiences synesthesia. But your questions happen to have answers that apply to most synesthetes.

Typically, two printed characters that resemble each other physically, such as O and Q, do not induce similar synesthetic phenomena. Other differences, such as font, handwriting style, or upper versus lower case also do not much affect most people's experiences of synesthesia. Rather, it is the symbolic identity or meaning of the letter or number that matters most. No two synesthetes have ever been reported to experience the same colors or other synesthetic phenomena. The specific synesthesias themselves are determined individually, not according to universal or culturally determined rules.

Research with synesthetic participants is the only way to obtain answers to these and other questions. I am always happy to have individuals who experience synesthesia on a regular basis contact me. I can be reached at 301-496-7672 or at Peter_Grossenbacher@nih.gov.

Editor's note: The correct e-mail address for Sean Day's Synesthesia List, mentioned in our December Resources section, is daysa@cc.ncu.edu.tw.

Observing Observatories
Your article about the very large Array ["Tuning In to Deep Space," December] and other radio astronomy sites reminded me of my summer vacation, at the end of which I stopped to see the Very Large Array in New Mexico. I highly recommend it, especially for families. The visit is free and the self-guided tour is fun. Pictures are wonderful, but the only way to appreciate the size of those dishes is to stand next to one. A visit to the VLA could inspire our next generation of scientists and explorers.

Philip Belmont
Denver, Colorado

Size Matters. Timing Does Too
In the article "no place to hide" [December], you state that a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale had determined Mount Everest to be slightly less than 29,000 feet in height. An article from the Chicago Tribune cites a recent study by the Boston Museum of Science and the National Geographic Society, which found Everest to be 29,035 feet high. Which figure is correct?

David K. Williams
Spartanburg, South Carolinas

Until last November, Mount Everest's official height was 29,028 feet. It has never-to our chagrin-been less than 29,000 feet. Our December issue went to press before the November 11 announcement of Everest's revised elevation of 29,035 feet, which was established through GPS-based measurements at the summit of Everest on May 5, 1999.

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