What Color is Today?
One of the wonders of childhood is the supreme normalness of everything-all understanding reflects the experience and knowledge of the person who is perceiving it. Childhood memories are cast in a universal stone, planets orbiting the center of experience, ourselves. Growing, learning, changing, adds layer upon layer of imposed, discovered and reflected truth to what is and how we see it. We learn to be open to new ways to understand our universe, seen and unseen. In this essay, I’ll share with you my experience growing up surrounded by color, and my encounter with the black and white world.
My earliest memories are visual, detailed as photographs, sometimes including motion. I was the fourth child, fortunate to be far enough down the birth-order ladder to be largely left to explore an environment that was rich with visual, aural and intellectual stimulation. This sensory library was open to me, but no assignments were made. Like most younger siblings, I wanted to know what my older brother and sister knew-numbers, words, reading-but was too young for school, so I began to look at letters and numbers, trying to figure them out. Letters lay quietly on the page, but numbers had more life, creating a consistent feeling, a wash of color, like diluted watercolor. I could move them around, pile them up and sequence them, always enjoying the quietly pulsing cloud of color that surrounded them. Multiple digits aligned did not produce blended color, instead rainbows would appear, one band for each number. As I learned to read and play music, color and sound existed together, again not as a dominant sight, instead as a watercolor cloud, inseparable from sound.
When I started school, my color/number association was firmly established, and I assumed that everyone had their own palette. Math was fun in these early days, tables and memorization decorated by rings and clouds of color. As theories became more complex, the colors stayed, often helping me understand new concepts and ideas. The introduction on imaginary numbers and negative numbers, those which were simultaneously real and unreal created confusion and actual discomfort-how could a number be 4 and -4 at the same time? It was at this point, when asking for clarification in a high school math class, that I realized how different my way of seeing was. Unbelieving faces, laughter, and concern greeted my explanation of how I perceived numbers. Did I feel less than my classmates? Initially yes, being different was the last thing I wanted. However, in time I was happy to see the world as I do, to understand numbers and colors as inextricably bound, two images of the same idea.
Like establishing fluency in a new language, I worked on experiencing digits as just lines and curves. I wanted to be like native speakers, whose numbers lay obediently on the page. After a while, I could pass as a numbers native speaker, however my colors were always with me-adding lightness and motion to the black and white world of numbers. And for that, I am odd perhaps, but incredibly grateful.
When my friend Trish, creator of this website, asked me to weigh in on my experience seeing numbers with color, I was excited, wanting to share how the association with color has impacted my learning in many ways. Trying to define this experience in words was a challenge-how to define perception? The colors fade and dance around the edges of numbers for me, and I am certain there are many different ways to experience this. I perceive the colors-they do not appear as concrete entities attached to a digit, instead the color and number is associated, is linked, with all the variety of any phenomenon. Think about it-what is rain? Is the lashing storm less rain than the soft morning drizzle? Is the blaze of a sunset less sunlight than lazy morning warmth? For me, perceiving a relationship between numbers and colors is simply part of how I experience the world. How many of us close our eyes when we hear music? Seal off the visual world as we savor a new taste or scent? Why should the visual world be any different?
I look forward to hearing from you about your experiences and perceptions of the world. Visit the contact page to send an email that will be forwarded.
Footnotes on this page - none.
Artwork on this page by Deborah Borrowdale-Cox