The Bluest A

I’m an Anglophile of sorts. I’ve been to England a half dozen times, mostly for pleasure but occasionally for work. I adore London and its wonderful arts and culture scene, and I am captivated the city’s innovative restaurants; hello, Cambridge Street and your sublime Cornish cod. I love the sense of history both ancient and recent, and the ways in which the English have managed to soldier on for centuries, even through bloody wars and pestilence and Brexit. I’m oddly fond of England’s mercurial weather too, which reminds me of my San Francisco home. 

I was recently in London to collaborate on a project with Storyvault Films. This documentary is focused on the ridiculously talented, multi-award winning artist Christian Hook, and his creation of a portrait depicting the loveliest couple; I won’t yet name them, as this project is still in development. Christian is profoundly curious, and has been working with various neuroscientists and art + science innovators as he imagines this painting into being. I’m honored that he wanted to know more about the ways that my synesthesias impact perception.

Our first day of shooting was in the suburban countryside near Hemel Hempstead, where the snowdrops were just starting to emerge from under the trees at the Roundhouse Sacred Spring Sanctuary. I will forever hold in my heart that image, delicate white flowers rising from damp earth on a day so brisk my coat, hat, and gloves were barely enough to keep me warm.

Sacred Spring Sanctuary Roundhouse
At top, Sacred Spring Sanctuary Roundhouse in Hemel Hempstead, England. Below, CC Hart and Christian Hook; snowdrops pushing up from the grass.

I often wonder if people assume I use the British spelling for synaesthesia because I am angling for some sort of Anglo allure, or because I feel that including the letter “A” makes the word seem more exotic or appealing. Neither is the case. I may have much love for things English, yet at home in the US, I don’t call trucks “lorries” nor do I use the terms “lift”, “motorway”, or “chemist”. But, I do spell synaesthesia with an “A”, and I deliberately chose to name my blog about conflated sensation Vox Synaesthetica, with not one but two letters “A”. 

The majority of grapheme->color synaesthetes who use the Roman alphabet perceive the letter “A” as red, regardless of language. According to my mentor and IASAS executive board president Dr. Sean A. Day, “although “A” is represented by ten of the eleven colors (there was no case of a purple “A”, but, then, as per Berlin and Kay (1969), purple is in the final set of four colors to be added), 11.5 (which makes for 30%) of the 38 examples I recorded placed “A” as being red. This is not overwhelming, but significant enough to be interesting, especially in light of previous studies which also indicated “A” to be red.” Additional research by Jennifer Mankin PhD of the University of Sussex has determined that a red letter “A” is representative of [childhood] orthographic associations between letters and words.

It is worth noting that most children learn the graphemes (letters) in their name first, even though only a few of them will see those letter as inherently colored. Then, children progress to learning the letters of the Latin alphabet in order, A through Z. When children who use the Latin alphabet have synaesthesia, regardless of the language they speak, they will likely experience “A” as some shade of red. In fact, synaesthetes who speak languages that are NOT dependent on the Latin alphabet are still more likely to perceive the initial grapheme of their language in shades of red. Research on this topic can be found in multiple papers, including this one by Nicholas Root, Romke Rouw, Michiko Asano, and Chai-Youn Kim.

My letter “A” is not red, but a luminescent and saturated aquamarine/teal meets cerulean struck by starlight blue. I love that color so much I can’t help but include the letter “A” anywhere it naturally fits. Therefore, I spell the word synaesthesia as the English do.

I find myself curious to understand my own shot-full-of-light “A”. Is my difficult to define yet lustrous blue a remnant of my mid-century American upbringing? Or, is my unusual “A” just another quirk of my neurocognitively aberrant brain? I can’t answer these questions, but I can continue to allow my bluest “A” to shine in the word synaesthesia.

I am glad to have the 96 pack of Arteza “Real Brush” paint pens, which helped me to illustrate my very azure letter “A”.