Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The colors inside my head

Anyone who has read this blog regularly for more than a month knows I have this thing about color. But it's more than an interest, or a hang-up, or an obsessive-compulsive issue. Without trying to sound dramatic, color is a part of me. I was born with it. Think of someone who is color blind. Well, I'm the complete opposite.

I'll explain. Color is the reason that I can forgive Upper Deck Spectrum for all its issues when it features a Dodger on a blue parallel or a Cardinal on a red parallel. It is the primary reason why I love 1972 Topps, 1975 Topps and 1988 Score so much. While others see gaudiness or slip-shod photography, all I see is glorious color. Color cures all in my eyes.

I like to see colors match. That's why I have issues with presenting a pink design with the Dodgers or a blue design with the Pirates. If a card company comes up with a design that matches with a team perfectly, it is one of my favorites for life. An example:

The 1985 Topps' color selection with the Phillies cards is striking. Silver and burgundy works perfectly with the Phillies' color scheme. There is one other example of this that is from another year that I'm saving for Cardboard Appreciation. That's how much color can sway me as far as liking a card or not.

But before I sound too much like an interior decorator, I need to explain that I can't help seeing things this way. Because, according to what I've read and heard, I have a rare brain condition called synesthesia.

Some of you may have heard about this already. Others probably haven't and think it sounds like some sort of awful disease. But synesthesia just describes the way my brain perceives words and sounds.

Apparently 1 in 23 people have some sort of version of synesthesia. So I don't know how rare that is. All I know is for all of my life I have associated a color with each letter of the alphabet. And by expansion, I have also associated a color with each day of the week, each month of the year, as well as a variety of other words. You say a day of the week and I'll tell you what color it is.

For a long time, I thought everyone did this and I never mentioned it because it didn't seem like that big of a deal. But somewhere in high school or college, I did mention it and friends looked at me like I was more insane than I already am. Then they found it amusing. One friend in college would constantly point to a word and say, "what color is this? OK, how about this?" I put up with it because she was, to put it mildly, a knockout, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

Then, about five or six years ago, I was watching something and a commercial for "60 Minutes" came on in which they advertised this piece about people who saw colors when people spoke or played music, etc. I practically screamed to my wife, "That's me!" I watched the show and saw all these people talking about how they saw specific colors when they heard music or thought of food when people spoke.

It was called "synesthesia," and I couldn't believe there was a name for what I had perceived my whole life. Apparently some people are born with two or more of their senses joined together, so what they hear they also taste, or what they see they also feel.

My version -- that I see what I hear -- is the most common. It's bizarre to me how indepth the studies are on this. Check out the wikipedia entry. Yikes. I think they're doing all this research because they think we're wacked and that this whole "joining senses thing" is the sign of a greater problem. But I assure you, no matter what those close to me might say, I'm as normal as they come.

To me this perception "condition" is the most natural thing in the world. When people talk, I'm not staggering around, dazed as flashes of colored light hit me. It doesn't work that way.

According to what I've read, I don't have a very strong case of synesthesia. There are people out there who read books and are hit with all kind of colors in their head. That doesn't happen to me. And the guy who "tastes" food when he hears words, who I saw on "60 Minutes," that just seems weird. But the colors that I see when someone mentions a letter of the alphabet are actually there. I do see them, and they rarely change.

Here is the list:

A - reddish pink or reddish orange; B - light yellow; C - light purple; D - yellow; E - olive green; F - dark purple; G - orange; H - neon green; I - white; J - yellowish gold; K - purple; L - yellow; M - lavender; N - light blue; O - cranberry/magenta; P - blue; Q - pink; R - turquoise; S - blue; T - green; U - grayish blue; V - light green; W - gray; X - black; Y - yellow; Z - bluish purple.

Freaky, huh? Lots of purples and yellows in there. I don't know why. Can't explain it.

I do know that that is the part of my brain that's activated during grapheme-color synesthesia, which is the form I have.

What you're asking now is what does this have to do with baseball cards? Well, I touched on that a little bit, but here is some more.

Synesthesia for me doesn't affect my perception of what colors should go with team names. I think the team colors are so ingrained with the team that it trumps whatever color I may perceive. If everything was neutral, I would perceive the Dodgers as yellow because I see yellow with the letter "D." But in actuality all I can see is blue when I hear Dodgers.

But synesthesia does have an effect in other areas, especially the American and National leagues. For me the American League is always red because "A" is a reddish color, the National League is always blue because "N" is blue.

Through my years growing up I would notice what colors were used with the American League and National League.

Here, according to my brain, Topps got it right. The all-star bar for the National League is blue and the American League is red. Really, I paid attention to stuff like this. I STILL pay attention to stuff like this.

Along those lines, Topps got it right on these 1971 playoff series cards, too. You may say, "wait, you said the National League was blue and the American League was red." Yes, but I also associate the American League with "warm colors" (red, orange and yellow) and the National League with "cool colors" (green, blue and purple). I'm sure some of you remember that from art class and the ol' color wheel up at the top of this post.

To me, this is correct because the tint on the National League card to me is more of a reddish-purple and therefore it works in comparison to the American League. Again, you probably think I'm nuts. But this is just the combination of senses talking. I have no control over it.

I almost find it jarring when a color is presented with a word that I don't think goes. I'll use the American League and National League example again.

The 1983 Topps All-Star cards presented the National League All-Stars with a red backdrop for the "NL" abbreviation. The "AL" abbreviation had a blue backdrop. That really grated on me. I never liked these All-Star cards, and that is the entire reason why.

Here are some famous people who are supposed to have or have had synesthesia, just so you know I'm not the only loon out there: Hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams, singer and songwriter John Mayer, composers Duke Ellington and Franz Liszt, and actress and soloist Stephanie Carswell all are "synesthetes." There's even an American Synesthesia Association.

Also, the "condition" is inherited, and my daughter sees the same things. But not the same colors. We often argue (because, wow, does she love to argue) about what color Wednesday is.

I believe all of us bloggers bring our own personality to our card collections. And this is where I bring my personality, quirk, issue, whatever you want to call it, to mine. I'll continue to talk about color on cards, because it will always interest me. And, really, I can't help it.


  1. that is both interesting and awesome. as someone who has studied color theory, i would like to hear the world through your eyes for a day.

    thanks for sharing the intimate and unique way in which you see the world.

  2. That is interesting! I have never heard of that before.

    I have a question and I do not want to sound like the "knockout", so you don't have to answer if you don't want to.

    As a journalist, I'm sure you have been typing for a long time and are very good at it. But, when you have to type (or even write) a word that you don't use very often or an unusual name (or doing word verifications), do you ever find yourself spelling it out to yourself in colors?

    That may be a stupid question, but I am just curious. I am sure that when you typed out the color alphabet, you didn't even have to think about it. If anything, you had to think about how best to describe the color of the letter to the readers.

    Great post. It is always good to learn about non-baseball related stuff while reading the blogs.

  3. I don't mind questions like that Zman, even if you don't look like she did :D

    Actually I have read about how "synesthetes," when they were young, learning the alphabet by spelling it out as colors.

    I don't remember doing that, nor do I do it when I'm typing now. I do type very quickly, but like everyone else, if I get stuck on a word, I just look down at the keys on the keyboard.

  4. I usually associate years by colors. I've always done that. Now that I know that other people associate colors with things, it makes me feel more comfortable.

  5. I am not sure I am buying the purple burgandy thing for the Phils. but looking at the cards with the gray maybe it works.

    1985 isn't the only year that Topps connected the Phils and purple. 1979 comes to mind quickly and I think there are more examples. I was going to delve into the topps purple phils at some pt, but haven't had the time to give the item proper thought.

  6. Off the top of my head, deal, they also used purple for the Phillies in 1980 and 1989.

    Topps also used green a lot with the Phillies '78, '81, '88), which doesn't make sense, but I like for some odd reason.

    I just think the '85 colors go perfectly with what the Phillies were wearing then.

  7. Thanks for sharing Night Owl, that was a really interesting post. My wife's ex-boss had the same thing, and I'd never heard of it at the time, but find it pretty fascinating!

  8. This is one of the most fascinating posts I have read and guaranteed will read again. Thanks for taking the leap and sharing this.

  9. The National League is warm colors, American League is cool. You are wrong. Fix your brain.

    (From a red/green colorblind guy)

    Great post! Top ten this year!

  10. Very interesting indeed. I had a girlfriend once who had another form. She would describe tastes as physical sensations. E.g. if we were eating ice cream and I asked what flavor it was, I would get an answer like "pointy" or "round". Cool stuff.