Synesthesia: student reads, writes in color

Ashanka Kumari

When Bria Mattox reads a book, she sees colors not printed on the pages. She sees different colors in each word, letter and number.

Mattox, 20, has a neurological condition known as synesthesia, which means “feeling together,” according to neuroscientists Bryan Kolb and Ian Q. Whishaw in their book “An Introduction to Brain and Behavior.”

When Mattox reads words such as her name “Bria” or “Roll Tide,” she sees each letter in a different color or shade, though they are consistent for each letter or number.

“In my name, the B is green,” she said. “R is orange-ish. I is white, and A is red. The letters in ‘Roll Tide’ look orange, clear, yellow, yellow for ‘Roll,’ and light blue, white, light green and black for ‘Tide.’”

Mattox said she doesn’t think of colors when someone speaks, but if she’s reading or visualizing a word intensely – while spelling, for example – her mind colors the letters.

Philip Gable, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Alabama, said synesthesia is similar to having perceptual wires in the brain getting crossed.

“Normally, projections from our senses get sent to the right spot, but sometimes these projections can get crossed and sent to the wrong centers of the brain,” Gable said.

Mattox said she can’t remember a time she didn’t have synesthesia, but she first realized it was not a typical condition sometime in elementary school during a conversation with her mother.

“We were in the car, and I asked her what color a certain letter or number was,” she said. “[My mom] didn’t understand what I meant and told me the literal color she saw on a sign or billboard. I did not have the words to describe the synesthesia.”

Mattox said that night, she typed out the alphabet on the computer and colored the letter the way she saw it in her head before showing it to her mom.

“I don’t remember how she reacted, but she realized I wasn’t making it up,” Mattox said. “She said she asked my doctors about it, but they didn’t know what it was either.”

Mattox said her mother returned to doctors after they learned the name of the condition on a television documentary, but they did not learn much more. There isn’t much documentation of diagnosis, Mattox said, so many doctors don’t know much about the condition.

Mattox’s color synesthesia is just one manifestation of the disorder. Some people imagine shapes when they taste food, or experience taste sensations when they hear certain certain words or word sounds.

Gable said he has also heard of a synesthesia in which sound is represented visually in colors or shapes.

“The quote I’ve heard from a synesthetic is ‘Turn the radio down, it’s blinding me,’” Gable said.

Mattox said her synesthesia may have played a part in helping her choose to major in mechanical engineering at the University.

“Through my research, I have heard of others with this type of synesthesia that have said it helps with their spelling or math skills,” Mattox said. “I do like math, so my synesthesia may have played a subconscious role in that but I can’t be sure.”

The synesthesia also affects the way she studies and prepares for classes.

“I have always hated textbooks that have a lot of colored text and colorful pictures,” she said. “It is way too much to interpret and way too distracting because of my synesthesia. I would rather have a book that has mostly black writing and maybe one other color, because I get too caught up in the colors and not the actual lessons in the book.”

Despite having difficulties with some books, she can’t really imagine life without the condition.

“I don’t know what it’s like to not have synesthesia,” she said. “I often forget that what I see is different from what others are seeing. Many may describe a word as sounding pretty, while I’d say it looks pretty in reference to the colors of the letters. Synesthesia, for me, is just a cool sixth sense that I notice every now and then.”

And while she finds her condition “cool,” Mattox wishes knowledge about synesthesia was widespread so more people could be diagnosed. She believes if more people realize they have it, scientists and doctors will be more likely to study the condition.

“I haven’t heard of it going away as you age, and I don’t want it to because I actually like having it,” Mattox said. “I just want to know exactly what is going on in my brain and in the brains of others with synesthesia”