Synesthesia and the Kingdoms of Numbers

Synesthesia and the Kingdoms of Numbers


One day in May Bella started talking about the colors of numbers and how the Cuisinaire rods weren’t the right colors. I wondered if it was possible she has synesthesia. I thought it an interesting curiosity and made some notes but didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

She said that nine is an orange number and eight is a red number and twenty is a purple number. The numbers one to ten are white. 31 and up are gluey and sticky. 100 is a white number. Eight is sometimes red and sometimes white. Or maybe it’s red on its own but white when considered as a part if the set of numbers one to ten?

I wanted to know more, but she didn’t want to talk about it any longer and I didn’t push it.

* * *

Last week after watching her struggle through a page of what seem to me very easy addition problems I began to wonder exactly what the problem was. I know she knows how to do these problems, so why was she grabbing her head and closing her eyes and groaning? It struck me that this was something different than wandering attention, it was more like she was struggling to remember a word on the tip of her tongue, that sort of “I know this but I can’t think of it” sort of frustration that I’ve experienced myself with language but never with math. I asked her what was going on in her head when she was having these difficulties.

She says the number world can be enclosed in walls. “Each group of numbers has it’s own country and sometimes the country I need to get into to do a problem is locked up. On days when I don’t have problems the gate is open. On days when I do have trouble the gates are locked and I have to batter them down.”

Then she elaborated a bit more on the kingdoms and here came the synesthesia numbers and colors again. I jotted down notes as she spoke and noticed that the colors matched almost perfectly to what she’d told me before. She was just adding more detail.

The numbers 1-10 are the white kingdom and each number also has it’s own color, (1 is black, 2 is red, 4 is orange, 5 is green, 6 is yellow, 7 is dark black or purple, 9 is yellow)

11-19 is the black kingdom,
20-29 is the purple kingdom,
30-39 is the odd kingdom,
40-49 is the orange kingdom,
50-59 is the green kingdom,
60-69 is yellow kingdom,
the 70s are the soldier kingdom,
80s are red kingdom,
90s are the orange kingdom.

* * *

When she’s trying to batter the gate she hold her breath and closes her eyes and sometimes groans and grabs her head with her hands. It’s very dramatic. And she can be baffling stymied at the simplest sums: 3+4 can have her absolutely stumped. Not because she can’t count it out, but because there seems to be some block in her brain. She later told me that when that happens everything goes black and she just can’t see it.

She says the walls around the hundreds and thousands are not as strong and those kingdoms are easier to get into.

In 346, for example, the 4 and the 6 exist in the 300 kingdom and are easier to manipulate.

* * *

As we spoke, she and I both began trying to think of ways to make it easier to negotiate doing math problems. Cuisinaire rods can be hard to use because they are the wrong colors. I asked if painting the rods might help, but she wasn’t very interested in that idea.

She had this vague notion for a kind of peg board on which she could hang numbers and move them around. I could tell that she was grasping for a way to make her inner world into something concrete that she can manipulate. Then she thought maybe she could color in the hundreds board with the right colors and use it to do the math, hopping her fingers along the boxes to add and subtract. She colored in the background around the numbers with dry erase markers but after doing most of the board she decided that the markers were the wrong shade and didn’t look like the colors in her head. She was able to use the hundreds board to do some of her math problems, so it was a little help. But it didn’t make the struggle go away.

* * *

Interestingly, clocks don’t exist in the number kingdom. They are much easier to do for her. No walls, she says.

Letters have colors too, she says, but they don’t seem to have the same problem with being behind walls.

She’s told me that numbers have colors before, but this is the most she’s been able to articulate. I have a feeling that if she could just learn how to navigate those walls and gates that she could be a whiz at math. When things click they really click and on days when the gates are down she whizzes through her math. It’s like night and day.

I also wonder if for a kid with synesthesia if the Montessori method would preempt color assignment or if it would just frustrate them when their colors didn’t match up. I suppose it depends on how exactly it works. Does the child have control and assign colors or are the colors independent of the child’s intention? I really have no idea how it works. Bella was using the Cuisinaire rods pretty early and yet her colors do not match the rods.

* * *

A few days later, we watched a video of a young woman describing her number to color synesthesia and then Bella and I talked a bit more about her experiences.

I asked her about the numbers from 11 to 20. Interesting how they take on the color of the ones digit.

11 black lines, outline
12 reddish purple
13 white
14 orange
15 green
16 yellow
17 outline
18 red
19 yellowish orange
20 purple
21 outline, some days I can see the purple, some days it’s not

99 the orange number squeezed up beside 100.

She gave me the rundown of the colors again and was a bit more specific this time:

2 purple a nice number
3 thin pencil line
4 orange
5 darker green
6 yellow
7 purple
8 always red

The times sign is green, she said.

And this time she told me her colors for letters.

a red
b purple
c white, very nice
d brown
e bright skin color, a sort of orangey pink
f green lighter than i
g orange
h black
i green (same as 5)
j orange (like e)
k blue closest to black
l yellow
m darkish blue but not as dark as k
n brown
o white?
p green
q like e orangey pink
r blue lighter than m, but not much
s white
t like e orangey pink
u yellow
v red, a sharp red
w light blue like the sky
x black
y yellow
z black

She said that A is red because A is for apples. And Z is black because of zebras. She talked about letters that have the same color being in families. And M is a nice maternal letter.

* * *

She tells me today that the days of the week have colors too.

Sunday is yellow
Monday and Wednesday are blue
Tuesday and Thursday are brown
Friday is green
Saturday is white.

Part of me wonders: is she telling me this because the video mentioned that some synesthetes see the days of the week as colors? Or did these colors always exist? Does my interest create the phenomenon or does it exist independent of my interaction? One test for synestheisa I saw involved asking the person about their colors six months apart to se if there’s persistence.

* * *

But what I really want to know is, is any of this synestheisa exploration going to help us crack her math problems? Is the math blockage being caused by the synesthesia or is it just a coincidence, an oddity that has no bearing at all on her ability to do math? Can we use these colors and her awareness of them to some kind of advantage?

And what am I to do about math? If she can’t reliably even do simple addition how can I continue to teach her more complex math? She’s taken to multiplication and division and fractions pretty well, she gets the theory and can frequently do the math with no problem. But again the actual operations can often stymie her. I’m not the world’s greatest math teacher anyway. It’s probably the thing I’m weakest at as a homeschooler. So what do I do with this child who struggles in such an odd way?

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  • Melanie, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but your Bella reminds me **so strongly** of my Calli. Both reading and maths flunecy were a long time coming for her but they did come … This post brought back so many memories for me!! Oh my.

    One thing that became very obvious for me with teaching Calli maths was that she absolutely could not cope with manipulatives of any kind. They were invariably the wrong colors, wrong shapes, didn’t group properly to make the right color for the new number (well, how could they if you’ve got three red bears added to three green bears to show that 3 and 3 make 6, right?). ….. Her frustrations were so hard for me, as her mother, she was clearly in such pain over it all …. A very bright child for whom the world represented itself in her brain in such challenging ways ….

    So, stopping using all manipulatives helped Calli. That may not be helpful for Bella, but it is an idea. For Calli I had plain paper and pencil only. No colors. Workbooks have to be very plain and simple with nor colors or cartoon figures. In addition, I had to teach her maths alone. Meaning, no other child in the room: we set aside time four days a week, just she and I. This isn’t practical or possible for every family of course, but it made a big differnce for her: alone with me and the plain books in a silent room.

    Beyond that I think the main thing that helped her was me simply being supremely patient. More patient than I thought I could be. There were a lot of tears on her part over the years. A lot of frustration. It was really really hard. But day by day by week by month by year we worked through it. By age 13 she was at grade level and now on the cusp of 16 she’s got just a couple of lessons remaining in High School Geometry (and I am prepping for Algebra II). Once in a while we have a maths day where the numbers fly at her and all tumbles to chaos once more, but for the most part, she is past the worst of it. (And she and her brother have been together for daily maths for the last couple of years).

    I hope our story is helpful to hear? Encouraging, at least, to know it is possible to get through to the other side.

    • Oh thank you, Ellie, This is most helpful and encouraging. You were also so very encouraging about our struggles with reading and now look at her whizzing through books. You give me hope that someday she might not struggle so much with math.

      Manipulatives seemed so very helpful when Bella was younger, but I think you’re right that at this point they are more of a hindrance than a help. That’s partly what’s so mystifying, that they did seem so very useful early on and that suddenly they weren’t any longer.

      I do think it would very much help Bella if I could carve out time to be alone and quiet with her. I’m just not seeing how I can manage that with our mix of kids. Anthony and Ben are both wanting to learn to read and needing much attention and time. Especially Anthony, but Ben is being sucked into the zeitgeist and wanting to read Calvin and Hobbes and I think is ready for a bit more method. And Sophie still needs a lot of hand holding and I am starting to feel, as Bilbo said, like too little butter spread over too much bread. I want to do it all and can’t decide how to prioritize.

      So which math books did you use for elementary math? Bella does like the layout of the Miquon, but the colored inks on the pages are really distracting to her. We definitely don’t like the Saxon. Too busy. And I’ve tried samples of MEP and Singapore and neither grabbed her immediately. She liked Life of Fred until the story got too tense when Fred gets his social security number stolen. We stopped and she’s never wanted to go back. I hate feeling so fickle about curriculum, but I also want to try to find something that will work and minimize the tears.

      • Melanie, sadly I cannot recommend a specific maths curriculum for we used none! That’s incredibly unhelpful, I know. 🙂

        Here’s what we did. As background, you know I’ve an older son? He was an only child for a long time and I homeschooled him from the beginning and there was never very much money. I didn’t have the funds to spare for year by year curriculum when he was in the elementary years, so I invested in things that would last: a small chalk board, seventy cent notebooks, counting bears, stacking fractions cubes. And then I simply taught him, like an old fashioned teacher I guess, with no textbooks. Once he was 13 and ready for pre-Algebra, I bought him a workbook at Borders, our favorite bookstore, because we’d reached a point where I needed something more than my own head to teach him.

        So, Calli. She and her younger brother had maths workbooks from the pre-K level on up only because her baby brother started throwing temper tantrums to beat the band starting at age three if I didn’t buy them for him. That child **shakes head** There we’d be, at the bookstore, and he’d find these workbooks and just go … Nutty to have his very own. The problem for Calli was that she couldn’t do them. Not at five and a half when he was three, not at six or seven or eight.

        So when she was nine I starting doing maths with her more like I had done with her older brother. I had a whiteboard by now, and we’d sit alone, and she’d use paper and pencil. By the time she was ten she could have a workbook again, and would simply cover up the top portion of the page where the written instructions (and illustrations) were. She’d learn from me teaching, and then she’d do the sets of problems as printed on the (black on white) page.

        I simply purchased whatever level maths workbooks were the plainest, and at her level. Like I say, this was at Borders, before they went bankrupt. She liked having the workbooks, I think she liked the officialness of it, and seeing the progress of filling one up and then getting a fresh one.

        Like Bella, manipulatives worked well at first and then less os as she got older. The brain changes and grows — if it isn’t working, just set it aside, I’d say.

        In terms of finding time to do maths alone with Bella, it may well be that she doesn’t need a whole lot, so long as it is regular, steady, you know? Maybe three times a week, evenings or weekends, for just thirty minutes at a go, while Dom is reading with the younger kids (or doing whatever) you and she can go into a room and close the door and have that time. And then, in the mix and tumble of the ordinary lesson time, she won’t have the stress of maths. She can join in if she wants, but won’t have to, because she knows her maths lessons are at a different time. Maybe just having that disciplined one on one time to rely on will make a big difference for her.

        And maybe it isn’t something you all would need to do for years, you know?

        • Ah. I’m afraid if I had to make it up as I went along math wouldn’t happen very often.

          We did have a little moment of grace today during math. Bella was flustered and frustrated and started to panic. Her breathing has been bad this morning and later we ended up getting her inhaler out, so I’m sure that didn’t help either. Anyway, I told her to stop and go to a place that is peaceful, a mountain or lake or stream or beach or some such. She started to visualize a green valley. She populated it with birds and flowers and imagined the sounds and smells and breeze and such. And was able to calm down and then bring that calm back to math and get through half a page at least. So I think some guided relaxation techniques before math might be of some use.

          • Are you familiar with Rod and Staff for maths? It is what Memoria Press is using now in their core curriculum packages (although one can always order individual items). I have heard lots of good things about it: it is plain and simple and solid. Just a thought? As far as I know it has a teacher manual as well as the student book, grade by grade, so it gives you something to teach from and her to work in. So perhaps that’s something to look into.

            • PS oh yes, had wanted to say that Calli feels the only useful thing she got from her therapist back in the day (three or four years ago) was the guided meditation/relaxation techniques for anxiety and panics!

  • It sounds like synesthesia to me, usually happens to really intelligent people.
    I used to associate sounds with images. In truth, I still do. When I have a waking dream, or have one that’s affected by external noises, there’s an image for what I’m hearing. This is a problem, because I have sensitive hearing and can hear all sorts of sounds from neighbors and people outside.
    It doesn’t happen that often, anymore, when I’m awake, but that’s because I think I learned to tune out most sounds when I’m awake. My sister always teases me about how loud I play my stereo, etc. I’ll explain that my hearing still tests well but, I have to turn up the volume to help block out ambient sounds.
    That’s why I’m obsessed with the sound engineering for show Daredevil. It’s clearly done by someone with the same sense of hearing.

  • Hi Melanie,

    Before reading your post I had never heard of synaesthesia and so I Googled the word and now have a rudimentary understanding. One fact which I recall is that synaesthesia experiences differ from person to person. There is work underway to understand more about S… How lucky Bella is to be home-schooled; with the best will in the world the average teacher wouldn’t know about the condition or how to work with a child who experiences it and teach the rest of the class at the same time.

    This website from Australia may be useful:

  • This is really fascinating to read about. I have never heard of this before.

    Note on Rod and Staff: my brother who loved math, loved those books. It is lots of busy, repetitive work. My mom only use them for the early grades.

  • More evidence for the synesthesia files: Today at Vacation Bible School Bella was sitting at table 5 and the number 5 was written in green. She was so very happy that the number was the right color.