Brown and White are Red

alphabetMy “B” isn’t blue, nor is my “W“ white

I made a mistake at work this week, one that was bound to happen.

Among my new massage therapy clients in 2017 are two men who have the same first name, one that isn’t unusual, but is somewhat uncommon. For the sake of their privacy, let’s call them both Dennis. Not only do they have the same first name, they each have a “color” last name; one client is Dennis White, the other is Dennis Brown. Beyond these two similarities, they have nothing in common. They live in different cities, have very different musculoskeletal injuries, and look nothing alike.

Last week, Dennis Brown reached out to schedule an appointment. We found a time that fit his calendar, but unfortunately, I sent his confirmation email to Dennis White. This led to a series of somewhat funny exchanges between me and Mr. White, as he courteously told me that he had not booked an appointment with me, while I sent him screen captures of our text message exchange, certain that he had indeed requested an appointment. Finally, he asked me “do you have another client named Dennis White?” I don’t, but in an instant I realized my mistake: I’d confused my colors. Brown and White are almost the exact same shade of red.

Synaesthesia can create the strangest moments of dissonance in my day. Because I see all of my numbers and letters in color, I am at risk of making errors due to inattention to details that might be obvious to a person who does not have synaesthesia. For example, when I see the names Dennis Brown and Dennis White, they look very similar:

Dennis Brown                                      

Dennis White

I’m not sure how this works for people without synaesthesia, but I assume that there’s enough difference between the colors of Brown and White that one would keep these two names distinct from each other, that the difference would take precedence. For my synaesthetic brain, it’s the likeness that dominates. The colors for these two names are just too similar; I knew I would one day conflate them.

While this confusion is an inconvenience at work, it can actually be a little dangerous at other times. Sometimes I confuse medications, even though I have a fairly good understanding of basic pharmacology. I have multiple family members who work in healthcare, including my mother who was a highly skilled nurse manager. I know the difference between my over-the-counter NSAIDS, and which to take for various conditions. But, Advil is a brownish tablet close in color to the letter “T”. I have on more than one occasion reached into the medicine cabinet for Tylenol, and pulled out Advil because I’m thinking of the brown word and matching it to the brown pill. On another occasion, I couldn’t remember a crucial medication my elderly dog was taking because I kept seeing the beautiful periwinkle blue color of the medication, but couldn’t match that color to a name. I don’t have any periwinkle letters, and I got so fixated on the color as a clue, I couldn’t get my brain to pull up the name for the drug, Kepra, which for me, is a sea-foam green.

I make judgement errors like this frequently. I’m grateful that, to date, none of them has been detrimental. Unfortunately, I believe my capacity for making mistakes based on color and context miscues is quite high. For this, I must be extra diligent, to check and re-check when I reach for medications for myself. Sometimes, I even say out loud what it is I’m looking for: Advil is a brown pill, Tylenol is a white tablet, the aspirin is in a green bottle.

One of the reasons I launched my Vox Synaesthetica blog was to reveal synaesthesia in its diverse manifestations, not just the flavored words or the rainbow-hued music, but the ways in which synaesthesia can be a bit ugly. Currently, cross-modal perception is having its moment in popular culture and synaesthesia is often presented as a beautiful or alluring trait. It certainly can be fascinating. But, sometimes, it’s just straight up confusing.