Unearthing a More Colorful Brain.

“1 is red – right, mom?”

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This matter-of-fact question Noah asked Monday morning while doing his math (in my dirty dressing room floor as I hung up clothes) turned his school day on end. What followed was a fascinating day of me interrogating him while becoming more and more intrigued with his brain as he very factually and without hesitation answered all of my inquiries.

“Do all numbers have a color?”

“Yes!”

“0?”

“Black.”

“2?”

“Yellow. 5 is yellow too.”

“3?”

“Blue.”

“4?”

“Orange. And 6, 7, and 8 are purple, 9 is pink. 10 is obviously red and black.”

Now it made so much sense why, after deciding to use colored pencils for math a couple weeks ago, he had started to want to do more math each day.

“What about letters? Do they have colors?”

“Obviously. A is red. B is blue and pink. C is yellow and D is brown. E is orange and F is blue and purple.”

“Days of the week? Do they have colors?”

“Yup. Yesterday was a yellow day and the day before that was a red day. Wednesday is probably a brown day. Brown or beige.”

“So what about Saturdays?”

“What did I just say that they were?? Red, Mom!!”

I had just discovered that my six-year-old had grapheme-color synesthesia. AND I WAS TOTALLY GEEKING OUT.

Grapheme-color synesthesia: When an individual’s perception of numerals and letters is associated with the experience of colors. Like all forms of synesthesia, Grapheme-color synesthesia is involuntary, consistent, and memorable.

I’d heard about synesthesia in all its forms in my psych classes in college (a fascination that I pursued in my electives), and had more recently listened to a podcast about a woman with Mirror-Touch Synesthesia – a very real and terrifying condition that caused her to physically feel everything that she saw anyone else physically experience. Hug, punch, shivers, itches – whatever.

Synesthesia is a phenomenon where two or more senses are triggered by each other in an involuntary way. Color Synesthesia is the most common, and approximately 1% of the population experiences it. A theory is that it is associated from first memories of learning the letters – kids latch onto the colors of their refrigerator magnets, or the letters in their alphabet book. But this was disproven when they discovered synesthetes who couldn’t possibly have had those early life associations. I can’t help but wonder if there is still some connection there, and if more kids have synesthesia now that they learn their letters with blazingly colorful learning apps.

There are many more bizarre synesthesias, such as where you experience tastes when certain words or sounds are spoken, where smells have a color, when time has a spatial place around you, and where letters and other things are personified as little personalities. Often, people who are synesthetes will experience more than one type, so we had other fun conversations yesterday as well, such as,

“What color is the smell of chicken fingers?”

“What?? Mom! That’s disgusting!!”

“Where is Wednesday? Is it to the left or right of you?”

“I have NO idea.”

I found an online test for synesthetes and started Noah on it. It asks you to pick a color from the whole spectrum for each letter and number, randomized and multiple times, to see if you’re consistent with your answers. It was a bit long for a six-year-old’s attention span, however, so we haven’t finished it yet. But it was delightful to listen to his dialogue as he tried to pinpoint the colors.

“No…it’s a little lighter than that…more of a lavender. Mom, how do I get this to be lighter?”

“It’s more of a green-yellow. No, not that green. Not that one either.”

“9 is definitely pink. Not green. Help me get off the green!”

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What fascinated me most was his complete consistency. When he got to B on the test, he asked “B is blue and pink. How do I do that on here? Should I just pick one or the other?”

All day long I randomly asked him the color of numbers and letters and he’d shoot back, with complete accuracy, what he’d told me before. I kept a running note in my phone because there was no way I could possibly remember his answers from one ask to the next.

While he was taking the test, Ali walked in and asked what he was doing. I explained to her that Noah saw letters and numbers in color.

“Oh! I do too. 1 is blue, 2 is lime green – “

“WRONG!” Noah didn’t even look up from his test to inform his sister that she was categorically incorrect about the properties of numbers.

Ali wasn’t so convinced that letters had a color, but she did think days of the week had color.

She started going through her list, with very specific colors, like “Tuesday is lime green and light yellow mixed together” and when she got to Friday,

“…and Friday is sunshine yellow…”

Noah piped up, appalled, “What?!? That’s Sunday!! You’re so weird.”

I had never had a more surreal conversation with my children, and I was loving every minute of it. I had turned into psychologist mom and there was no going back.

I found this picture online and showed it to him.

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“What is in this picture?”

“Fives and twos.”

“How many twos are there?”

Without taking even a second to count, he said “there are six twos,” then pointed them all out. Because apparently, his brain comprehends them much bolder than my brain does.

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(I did ask him if he saw them in color or in black and he looked at me like I was crazy. “They’re black, Mom!!”)

The next morning, I had the kids separately make their color charts.

This is Ali’s:

Ali Synesthesia Chart

I checked it against my note, and she Ali stayed consistent with her choices, other than flip-flopping on 5 and 8 being light blue / dark blue.

And this is Noah’s. The really bold characters are due to the fact that they are supposed to be purple, and he wasn’t happy that they looked a little pink on first pass.

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The only deviation he made from the day before was that he decided that 7 was actually green, not purple. Additionally, he informed me that uppercase e’s are yellow, but lowercase are orange – and he preferred lowercase. I asked if all uppercase and lowercase letters were different, but he said only e and f – uppercase f is blue and purple (he got mad at himself for forgetting to add blue to it, although he did draw the dual-colored B), but lowercase is beige.

One interesting fact that I found while researching: although each synesthete has their own color-mapping, the majority make A red and O white or black. Noah has consistently told me that A is red and O is blue or black.

I have no idea what this brain phenomenon really effects, other than my children’s minds being delightfully more colorful than my own, but I’m excited to figure out how to integrate it into their education.

Noah Colors

As is, apparently, Noah.

So it might be worth the question – offhandedly, out of nowhere, to your kids:

“Hey – what color is the number 5?”

Report your findings immediately.

Note: an update can be found here.

Hands-On Alabama History: DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns was not on my all-encompassing spreadsheet of Alabama History. In fact, after studying Alabama History and reading one very detailed story about how Hernando De Soto came to Alabama with the sole purpose of stealing from and brutally slaughtering as many Native Americans as possible, I felt a bit queasy from the happy signs for “DeSoto Caverns Family Fun Park!!”

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But then, I happened upon a Facebook ad for a half price “Homeschool Day”, and I was feeling especially adventurous. Three days later, I found myself enjoying a laser light show underground with two other families that I dragged down with me. So congrats, DeSoto, your Facebook Ad was successful.

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But I quickly learned that DeSoto Caverns, despite its poor choice in names, should have been on my spreadsheet from the beginning. Our hour-long tour of the cave provided some extremely fantastic pieces of history.

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We learned about Mr. Wright, who happened upon the cave in 1723, carved his name and date in this rock, then lay down to take a nap.

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Poor guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t know that the cave was a sacred Indian burial ground and that they had someone to bury that very day. The Indians happened upon his happy little nap on their way down, and went ahead and killed him and left his bones beside his name. Mr. Wright had carved his own tombstone.

But on the plus side, it’s the oldest graffiti to be found in any US cave, so way to carve your way into history. Moist would be proud.

We also got to learn about how Civil War gunpowder was made in the cave, using its secrecy and noise-cancelling abilities to hide the production.

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But my favorite piece of history was about The Cavern Tavern.

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A 1920’s prohibition bootlegger had been using the cave to make moonshine. But he got tired of having to drag his large clay vessels up a mudslide to get out of the cave, so instead, he decided to open a secret speakeasy in the cave itself. And, well…I’ll let Ali tell the rest of the story.

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That jewel is by far my favorite report from our entire study of Alabama history. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s the all-important lesson of “Don’t go to an illegal bar in a cave with no way out except to climb up a mudslide. Especially if it’s named ‘The Bloody Bucket’.”

The caves, despite the stalagtites damaged for the long six-week tenure of The Bloody Bucket, were just magnificent.

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As we toured the cave, they pointed out all of the pieces of cave that looked like something else. This was the unanimous favorite – Yoda.

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After the cave, we enjoyed the “Family Fun” part of the park. They had at least a dozen attractions to pick from – Mini Golf, a gold panning, gem searching, a maze, and a few fair-like rides.

I was kind of obsessed with finding gems in the giant sandbox,

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And we all enjoyed the maze. Mainly because Holland, one of the kids with us, taught us the trick to all mazes: never take your left hand off the wall and it’ll lead you out.

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Totally works, guys.

Some of the rides were more kid-powered than usual, which made it highly entertaining for the grown-ups to watch as the kids worked their hardest to peddle the “go-karts” up and down small hills.

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(Red faces are always a good sign of time well spent.)

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Overall I was extremely pleased with the park – the cave was bigger and more educational than I expected, and the kids had a fantastic time – both in the cave and out.

But I still think they could do for a name change.

Here was Ali’s report:

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Hands-On Alabama History: Helen Keller

So I think I missed a couple things in my own Alabama education.

I missed that Helen Keller was an international superstar, and I missed that she lived until the late 1960s – she died only 13 years before I was born.

The first fact I believe I missed precisely because I’m from Alabama. Sure, we studied her – but I didn’t fully realize that all of y’all did as well – and probably half the world (there were gifts from dozens of countries on the grounds of her birthplace, the subject of this field trip. Also, Helen Keller’s statue is one of very few women in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the Capitol, hanging out with Ronald Reagan, Sam Adams, and George Washington.)

(But, just in case you too weren’t aware of how great Helen was, she was the first deaf and blind woman to go to college, wrote multiple books, had an insanely high IQ, and traveled the world promoting women’s rights and rights for the blind.)

And as for the second fact – she was born in 1880, y’all. That was like an entirely different existence. How could she have been still alive when my Mom learned about her in school? And do our parents remember when she died like one of those moments where you’re all like “I remember where I was when…”?

So many questions that I pondered on our field trip last week.

We drove two hours northwest with our friends Christen, Luke, Aubrey, and Levi to visit Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Tuscumbia is a small town in Northwest Alabama that is neighbors with Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Sheffield. I don’t remember going there before, as Northwest Alabama is vastly unexplored by me, despite its unbelievable beauty.

We traveled with some friends, which is highly recommended – two hour car trips with kids entertained by their friends is significantly better than two hour car trips with bored and lonely children.

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Ivy Green was remarkably tiny looking on the outside, but had lovely grounds (10 acres of the original 640 that her grandparents built upon.) The surrounding neighborhood is full of far grander houses that resemble perfectly outfitted Victorian dollhouses.

The tour of the house is guided, pointing out photos of Helen and her family, along with tidbits from Helen’s life.

These were her actual dresses, again blowing my mind that she was still alive when my parents were kids. Or maybe my parents are just older than I realize.

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Each room was cordoned off to prevent tiny hands from ruining artifacts – something that greatly decreases the amount of Mommy Anxiety wasted on a field trip.

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Our tour guide told delightful stories about her family, her upbringing, and the house.

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Upstairs held three very low-ceilinged rooms, and this one was the one shared by Helen and Anne Sullivan, her lifelong friend and teacher.

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They also had one room open as a museum, including a replica of Helen’s statue at the capitol.

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The house was built in 1820, so to prevent fires, the kitchen was actually in a shed out back.

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The grounds included all sorts of unique and curious finds that helped the kids run off their two-hour-car-ride bundle of energy.

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And of course, the grounds tour included the pump at which Helen and Anne were able to first communicate.

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The kids learned a little, bonded a lot, and got to see another part of our state.

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Before we left, we visited Tuscumbia’s stunning Spring Park, where we enjoyed a playground and gorgeous waterfall,

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Water wheels and a pond,

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And a very impressive fountain that made the kids scream every time it reached its highest point.

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And of course, we moms enjoyed the long miles of Alabama backroad and its ever-present curiosities, including one very special town, which may become a primary entry into my personal dictionary.

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Alabama is awesome, y’all.

Here’s Ali’s report:

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