Sunday, September 8, 2013

Math Is Hard If Trees Can't Grow In Volcanos

As discussed in previous posts, some people experience a form of synesthesia called Ordinal-Linguistic Personification or OLP. From what I have read on Facebook pages where synesthetes share their experiences, people with OLP have very strong and specific experiences of numbers and other similar ordinal things--days of the week, for example--as personalities. Another thing that stands out reading about other OLP synesthetes' experiences is that this personification can cause some synesthetes problems in math.

Last summer, Meredith began to spend time with a new friend. As they spent more time together, I began to observe many traits in Meredith's friend that suggested she might have synesthesia. In asking her a few simple questions (I almost always start with, "Do your days of the week have a color?" as that seems to be one the most common forms of synesthesia), it became pretty obvious that she was very synesthetic.

As the three of us discussed the girls' similarities, we began talking about numbers and math. Both girls said that they had a terrible time with math facts. However, it was clear that both girls were intellectually advanced in other areas. I confirmed with the friend's mother that this was the case. On educational testing, both girls scored very poorly on math facts, but very high in math concepts. That seemed very peculiar to me and I was exploring with the girls why that might be.

I asked them how their OLP/synesthesia interfered with math facts. Meredith's friend quickly came up with an example. To her, number nine was a wise, old tree and zero was a volcano. She explained that if she has to add nine plus zero, she comes up with nothing, or zero, because she knows that trees don't grow in volcanoes. She told me in a very sincere manner and had a look on her face as if she was hoping I could shed some light on how she could get around this fact that was very real for her.

She offered a second example. When she would have to add two numbers together and the sum was a different color (in her mind) than the combination of the two numbers' individual color, she would be confused. For instance, if she saw 5 as blue and 6 as red, she would expect the answer (11) to be purple. But for her, 11 is yellow. She told me that once a teacher was helping her and she told the teacher, "...but the answer is yellow," and after her teacher gave her an odd look, she dropped it.

Bringing these examples to the fore and discussing them, I sensed that for the first time, Meredith's friend realized that this personification may be the reason why she has struggled with math facts. It was as if a lightbulb went off and she was able to look at her experiences from outside herself. We talked about ways she might be able to get around her issues with the wise, old tree and the volcano. Maybe she could figure out certain scenarios in which trees could grow in volcanoes. I brought this issue to the staff at their school which they now both attended. I was happy to hear that instead of trying to "cure" this issue, they worked with Meredith's friend's personal framework. Her friend began writing different story lines and scenarios for those math facts that confused her.

I asked Meredith if she remembered a time she said something to a teacher about some synesthetic experience and received an odd look. (It seems relatively common that synesthetes have some early negative encounter with a friend, parent, or teacher after sharing something about their unique synesthetic experiences and that may be one reason they keep it to themselves from that point on. For example, once I was at a party and a guy brought up the fact that his wife always makes fun of him because he says his letters and words have different colors. His wife jumped in and said something to the effect of, "I know! Isn't he just silly?!?" That was a fun moment for me to inform her that no, he was not!) Meredith told me that in second grade, her teacher was holding up flashcards with the different vowel sounds on them (e.g., short a, long a). The class was supposed to say the correct pronunciation of that particular vowel sound out loud when the teacher flashed the card. But when the teacher held up the "short a" flashcard, for example, Meredith would say, "Red," as she sees the letter A as red. Meredith laughed because she said her teacher would just keep holding the flashcard closer and closer to her face hoping to elicit the correct response from her.

It seems to be a surprise to most synesthetes that not everybody experiences the world like they do with different synesthetic experiences. After all, most people probably assume that everyone thinks more or less in a similar fashion and thus, never question it as being "different." In my experience with my family, friends, and other people I have met or read about online, learning that they experience the world a little differently than most due to their synesthesia allows them to bring their unique experiences to the foreground for the first time and perhaps gain some insights as to why they may have felt different at times or had some confusion. Many have expressed relief that they now really understand what is going on.

With child synesthestes who struggle in school, I believe that recognizing their synesthesia is very important in preventing any roadblocks to their school success and self-confidence. As I wrote in an earlier post, Meredith was finally able to figure out how to get around her number personalities distracting her in math class and as a result, her math scores have increased significantly. Perhaps she would have eventually figured it out on her own, but I believe if she can be an active participant in that process and make it happen sooner rather than later, she will be better off. She would experience less confusion, stress, and falling behind in school. That is why I am passionate about spreading the word about synesthesia and how it may impact a child's learning and school experience.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Song Associations and Earworms

I recently learned of more examples of how Meredith visualizes almost everything, including things she hears.

Meredith shared with me that when she sees or thinks of something that reminds her of a song, one of her little ants puts the song on a record player.

If Meredith has an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head), it shows up on the repeat menu of an ipod.

And of course, she can always go to the Kariokie-Dokie to get the lyrics to any song!