When I was a kid, I thought I would remember every experience I had in vivid detail and brilliant color. It was easy then. There weren’t many of them to recall. Naturally, as I got older, the memories faded to blurry impressions, the colors still there, but the lines smudged into haphazard brushstrokes. Now though, most of the oldest memories have finally faded into a misty gray fog punctuated with bright pops of small and seemingly insignificant scenes.
Not even the big moments stick out, really. But some of the random ones do, like stars puncturing an otherwise dark sky. Like Spring in Big Bend, brightly-colored blossoms showing themselves against a dusty backdrop of sand and sky.
Here is one: I was seven years old laying in the pitch black in my cousin’s bed as we giggled and talked through the night in hushed tones, careful not to wake Aunt Patty and Uncle Joe. That night we tried to figure out if we both saw the same green. And purple. Our results were inconclusive.
I can remember the temperature of the room, the feeling of her body near mine, the weight of the dog on the blanket at the foot of the bed. I can recall the feeling of squeezing my eyes shut and trying to see purple and trying to find words to describe it. I remember listening to her try to explain what she saw, and I remember trying to see it too. I remember being utterly overtaken by wonder when we realized just how inadequate words were at conveying meaning objectively. It was my first dance with Descartes. I just didn’t know it yet.
Perhaps this moment sticks out to me in perfect clarity because it set in motion my journey to understand the precarious relationship between perception and reality. We all learn early on that when we look at the sky, the color we see is called blue. We know that grass is called green. We know that an orange is, well, orange. But beyond that, we cannot accurately convey what we see. Not really. Maybe my pink is your green. Who knows?
Philosophers and physicists have been thinking about color for a long time. Newton famously wondered if colors existed in objects or in our eyes, and once stabbed himself in the eye just to see if he could find color there. Eventually, he put down the knives, picked up a prism, and came to understand color lives in light. White light carries varying wavelengths which produce various colors. Our eyes have rods and cones which perceive light in three primary colors: red, green, and blue. Any combination of these three primary colors can create the one million colors humans see.
Scientists posit that our perception of color is dependent on light stimulus and a collaboration between the eyes and the brain. You would think this explanation would satisfy me. But it doesn’t explain everything.
It seems to me that many folks see more than I do.
I am a high school English teacher in Alpine, and I was recently teaching a book by Vesper Stamper called A Cloud of Outrageous Blue. In it, the protagonist is synesthetic. Stamper defines synesthesia as “a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.” She knew a woman who heard colors, and she interviewed a number of folks who claim to as well, in order to research the character she was trying to create. She noted that each of the people described their perceptions differently, but she did find one common thread: they all discovered their synesthesia late in life. It is estimated that synesthesia impacts roughly three to four percent of the population, but it's difficult to know if this is accurate because most synesthetes have no idea most people don’t hear colors. They think they are having a “normal” experience. So it goes largely undiagnosed and unreported.
While reading this book, three students revealed that they hear colors too. A fourth said she sees numbers everywhere, all of the time. And they all had no idea this was unusual.
At a dinner party the other night with six dear friends, I talked about this phenomenon.
“Oh, yeah, like how three is blue?” Lauren said. We all looked at her, our mouths agape.
“No,” I said, “three is just three.”
We laughed, and by the end of the night, one more of them fessed up to having accentuated perception. She sees colors around people and these colors guide her attitudes toward and interactions with everyone she meets.
On a bus to Kermit for a UIL competition, I broached the topic with three teachers sitting near me.
“You mean how Tuesdays are always yellow?” Chris said. I immediately recalled Lauren telling me the number two is yellow. Twosdays… are apparently yellow?
I asked Chris if his “associations” (as he calls them) of colors with numbers and feelings affect the way he sees the world around him. He said he wasn’t sure; he had never really thought about it. “But, Emory Peak is always baby blue. I guess there is that.”
The stories each of these synesthetes told me about how they see things sound really wild and completely foreign to me. It reminds me of hearing ghost stories. I personally have never experienced any sort of weird happenings, but literally hundreds of people have told me their freaky stories of the unexplainable.
I am left to think one of two things: Either my perception of reality is rather dull, comparatively speaking, or they are all lying. And, I gotta wonder: why? Why lie about your experience? Can it be that they are all full of it? I am apprehensive to believe that.
Even though I don’t see funky colors when I hear a song, hear musical notes when I see numbers, or see something get knocked off a shelf for no reason, and even though three will always be without color for me, I do acknowledge there are parts of life, parts of our experience here that are simply beyond explanation.
Scientists fixate on the observable and often ignore what cannot be observed, which is a lot. We only see a fraction of the wavelengths surrounding us. Visible light only accounts for a tiny percentage of the waves making up our world, and by tiny, I mean less than half a percent. A number of animals can perceive ultraviolet light, and critters like the mantis shrimp have twelve to sixteen color photoreceptors in their eyes, putting our measly three to shame. Who knows what the world looks like to those little guys?! Maybe synesthetes are hallucinating, or perhaps they can see more of what is there.
The closest I have come to rubbing up against any unexplainable phenomenon is in Big Bend. Even without any accentuated perception, Big Bend is a sensation overload for me. I am taken aback by the sights. Sometimes I get headaches from trying to look at every single thing, like being greedy but overstuffed at a buffet. My eyes cannot physically handle all of the beauty. I am overwhelmed by the smells. The chalky dust, the creosote, the heat. The sun is everywhere. All of it together is enough to feel truly inundated by and with life.
I cannot explain the feeling I get here. Maybe that’s how synesthetes feel when they try to explain their experiences to me. I can’t put my experience here into words. But it’s real.
I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.