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The colorful life of Micah Haynes, an MU senior with grapheme-color synesthesia

To Micah, numbers and letters are connected to colors, and they are interchangeable.

September 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Micah Haynes, an MU senior, has the sensory disorder known as grapheme-color synthesia. She sees text and numbers as color. Photo by Naveen Mahadevan When MU senior Micah Haynes looks at a page of text in her favorite children’s book, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, without reading, she sees the colors that she associates with each letter. Photo by Naveen Mahadevan; illustration by Kristina HouserMicah neither sees grapheme-color synesthesia as a hindrance nor a tool; it is simply part of her life. Photo by Naveen Mahadevan

M is magenta. I is white. C is yellow. A is coral. H is purple.

Micah Haynes is 20 years old. The number 2 is yellow; 0 is white, always.

She is 6 feet tall; 6 is green, so is S.

Her brown hair hangs four inches below her shoulders. Sitting at a small table in the back of Kaldi’s coffee shop in Columbia, she gently runs the ends of her hair through her fingers as she explains there’s no number or letter for brown.

Micah lives a colorful life, but as she sits across from me and warms her hands on her cup of green tea, it’s difficult for her to explain what that means. This MU senior, majoring in communications, has grown up seeing the world in a different way than most. She has grapheme-color synesthesia, a condition that causes her brain to form pairings of colors with letters and numbers.

It’s not a disorder that’s cured; it’s a neurological condition that’s lived with.

“Just like other people smell hamburger, and they think, ‘food;’ to me, I see ‘E,’ and I think, ‘red,’” she says. “It’s the same association.”

The link between a number or letter and its corresponding color occurs automatically in Micah’s mind. It requires no thought; rather it’s as if the pairings are synonymous. The number 2 is yellow. Yellow is C. Yellow is also Y. Sometimes there are repetitions, but only with letters.

Based on her experiences, Micah describes synesthesia as a cross wiring in her brain that prompts reflexive associations.

Researchers are still unsure about which genes cause synesthesia, but they do have an understanding of the basic mechanisms involved. Edward Hubbard, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied synesthesia for the past 13 years. He says the condition is a result of altered neural connections in the brain. The area involved in recognizing letters and numbers lies adjacent to the brain area that recognizes colors.

When Micah looks at a clock face, she sees a color wheel. When she looks at a page of text without trying to read it, she sees a mosaic of small colored tiles.

How Micah sees the colors is where things get tricky. She explains it as seeing them in her mind.

“It’s connected to that color, but I also see it as written in that color,” she says, trying to find the right words.

“It’s not like the letters are wearing colored sweaters; it’s like they innately are that to me. That’s like their skin color.”

Hubbard says the experience differs for each person. For some it is more like a memory; for others the colors are projected out onto the world.

“They simultaneously know the colors aren’t real — they don’t see them out in the world — but at the same time, they’re almost superimposed onto the world,” he says.

Hubbard had one synesthete describe it as looking through a shop window. He could see things through the window as well as things reflected on the glass. The colors are there but not there.

For Micah, seeing colors is hard to explain, but it’s hardly new. She pauses in our conversation to point out that the red pillows on the couch in Kaldi’s are the precise shade of E and 3. Synesthesia is part of her everyday life and has been since before she had ever heard the term.


Embrace the weird

As a child, Micah thought everyone saw the world through the same shop window that she did. She rarely talked about the colors because, for her, it wasn’t unusual. This left her parents, Bryan and Petra, with questions but never concerns.

Micah’s parents knew that colors were especially important to the older of their two daughters, but they assumed it was a part of her creative nature. Petra recalls Micah describing people as different colors.
Sometimes Micah would forget someone’s name and say, “I can’t remember the name, but I know it was blue.”

As Micah learned to write letters and numbers, she preferred colored pencils so that she could match the color she saw. But she didn’t embrace all colors equally. Micah refused to wear beige and brown because “something was off.” Colors are more than connections for Micah. They have inherent meanings, emotions that she feels and memories that they kindle.

Her two favorite colors mirror her personality. Turquoise is her nature. It’s bright but has subtle, melancholic undertones. Yellow is vibrant positivity and good energy that Micah thrives on.

“I tend to be a little bit pessimistic because of my perfectionism,” she says as we sit down at her kitchen table, “so (yellow) kind of balances me out a little bit.” A few minutes earlier, she walked across the room to unplug the red two-slice toaster from the wall — just in case it caught fire and burned the house down.

She tries to keep her turquoise side in check. “I can be wild sometimes,” she says swinging her arms in a circular motion at her sides to make a point. A moment later, though, she is back to her usual composed self. With her right hand, she methodically strums her fingers on the table. Her left hand rests on her face. One finger arcs across her pursed lips as she thinks.

Micah prefers to wear muted colors. When we first met, she was wearing a long, flowing dress. It was a faint shade of coral. This time she is wearing a cream tank top that hangs on her tiny frame and black pants tucked into a pair of suede boots the color of sand. Because colors embody real characteristics, like personalities, they almost overwhelm Micah when she wears them. Orange is hyper and loud, so dressing in orange is exhausting. It’s as if the color itself is so hungry for energy that it drains hers.

“Colors speak so much for themselves that sometimes they don’t leave a lot of room for anything else,” Micah says. “That can be good or bad, but I guess I just subconsciously choose to be a black slate in my own mind when I get dressed in the morning.”

The importance of colors in Micah’s life was innate to an extent, but her father’s work as an artist coupled with her desire to be more like him prompted her to embrace the meaning of each shade from a young age. She remembers sitting behind him and mimicking each pencil stroke as he drew. When she was around 8 years old, the two of them spent hours at the Saint Louis Art Museum creating their own masterpieces as they sat on the floor surrounded by colored pencils.

Bryan and Petra taught their daughters to learn by confronting new things. The family traveled frequently and tried foods from other cultures. In the Haynes house, the TV was usually off, and a round bale feeder doubled as a human-sized hamster wheel. Their mantra: “Saying something is weird means that you don’t understand it.” So even when Micah began to realize she was different, she valued that difference. “Appreciate the weird,” she says. She laughs. “I guess because my family is kind of weird.”

It wasn’t until Micah was 13 that she realized her color pairings had a scientific name. One morning, the family piled into their silver Jeep Liberty, and Bryan and Petra tuned in to NPR as they always did while driving Micah to middle school. Over the airwaves, someone with grapheme-color synesthesia began to explain the condition. Micah listened intently from where she sat behind her dad in the driver’s seat. A few minutes into the broadcast, she said with a hint of wonder in her voice, “I have that.”

Then, her father says, things began to make more sense. It turns out the condition runs in the family.


Color-coded

Synesthesia, in the broadest sense, refers to a blending of two or more of the five perceptual senses. There are many different forms, with Micah’s being one of the more common. This means other synesthetes can see sounds or taste shapes, just as Micah sees colors.

Micah’s sister, Demi, has sound-to-color synesthesia that causes tones and pitches to elicit paired colors and shapes. A snare drum would be yellow with friction, Demi says. A guitar, on the other hand, resembles more of a line in blue or purple. The fact that both Micah and Demi share this unique bond is not unusual considering their father also has a milder form of synesthesia similar to Micah’s, but they all experience it differently.

Family members might have varying types of synesthesia. The mystery genes involved in synesthesia make someone more likely to have the condition in general, not a particular form. The color pairings also vary for each synesthete. Both Demi and Micah have taken the time to create color charts that show others what they see. Micah gave one such chart to her boyfriend. With it he can communicate with Micah using only colors and their corresponding meanings.

“Love would be blue, white, orange, red, and I know what that means,”
she says, adding that he could draw a string of colored dots for each letter to tell her that he loves her.

Aside from writing in a secret, color-coded language, there are practical ways Micah uses grapheme-color synesthesia. During her first semester at MU, she was studying for a political science exam and struggling to learn the vast amount of information that she had tediously organized into a study guide. The way she studied in high school wasn’t working. There was too much data and too little time. It was then that her boyfriend suggested using colors. The thought hadn’t occurred to Micah because the colors had always been there. She neither considered them a hindrance nor a tool. But she took the advice and aced the test. Since then, studying for exams has become a well-honed process. The method is the same for every subject except art class: organize, separate, list and learn. By creating grouped lists, Micah can remember an order of colors instead of an entire test outline, like a color anagram.

“I can remember the lists by the first letter of the first word,” she says. “So it’s just a sequence of colors for
each section. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t.”

Instead of a list of vocabulary terms, it’s blue, orange, red, blue, green and yellow. The colors act as a flag that prompts her memory once the information has been encoded, as she says. Her method also helps her as a waitress at Addison’s. Thanks to her synesthesia, Micah is able to recall people’s names and lists of orders when the restaurant is packed on Friday nights. Every drink has a color depending on the first letter. Cavit wine is yellow. Pepsi is orange. This came in handy on a recent shift when a table of 16 sorority members stopped in for dinner. Three days later, Micah could still remember their order. Seats eight and nine had Dr. Pepper or black.

Micah admits that she relies on her synesthesia in little ways throughout the day, but she is quick to point out that she doesn’t view it as a benefit. She says, “It’s hard for me to see it as an advantage because it’s always been a part of my life.”


True Colors

No one can see what Micah, or any other synesthete, sees. But looking into her eyes, you can see a hint of blue mingled with foggy gray — a small reminder that color is there when it’s not, and that to Micah, it means something more.

Despite living with grapheme-color synesthesia, Micah doesn’t think it has changed who she is or will be. In fact, she wants to remove the ankle tattoo she got on a whim for her 18th birthday that reads “Coloro Vita,” which means “colorful life.” The colors don’t define her. They are her.

She sums up her experience of synesthesia with a quick story about a three-week road trip to New Mexico — just Micah and her dad eating hardboiled eggs and sitting in a field of vibrant yellow sunflowers sheltered by the turquoise Southwestern sky. That’s what those colors mean to her. When she describes the scene, the usual quick cadence of her voice eases as if she’s taking her foot off the gas pedal to appreciate the view. It’s a picture that she still remembers and probably always will.

Comments on this article

     

    My 11 year old grandaughter from Missouri just went on a
    trip to a literature fair and came across an author who wrote a children's book that is to come out soon about synesthesia. In listening to the author she discovered that what she was talking about was the same thing she sees. This had never been mentioned before, we assume she thought everyone saw things the way she does. Her letters and numbers she sees in black and white or in color. The best she describes is that she sees it from a different part of her brain. I have asked her many questions but do not want to overwhelm her. Perhaps you could suggest what I should ask or should it just be left for her to uncover. She is an A student with a great sense of humor, she loves all animals (has 4 horses, three dogs, 5 cats and a hamster). She attends a Christain grade school and knows who she is and where she is going. She loves the outdoors, hunting, fishing, leathercraft, arts and crafts of all kinds and of course like all kids, loves her kindle and I pod. I found your article very interesting and since this has all just been revealed to me since Easter. I am still researching and trying to find out as much about this as I can. Perhaps, you might like to share some insight?

    Posted by joyce ritzma on Apr 5, 2013 at 10:39 p.m. (Report Comment)

     
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