Number Form: A Neurological Phenomenon

Monday, July 20, 2015

I am ninety three. It is almost unbelievable that this has happened. Today is a red-letter day, one to be remembered! I learned something about myself that for long I’ve been aware of, but never understood. My unorthodox relationship with numbers has always puzzled me.

Today I gathered two completely new pieces of knowledge. The first came from reading an article in the Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail. The second was in an article forwarded to me by my daughter, Mary. She, like the rest of my brood, is well aware of the peculiar way I regard numbers.  

Both of the new articles I acquired deal with neurological phenomena. Many different kinds have been identified. My Number Form is one, and it deals with numbers. The Globe’s article deals mainly with colours.

The Globe and Mail goes on to say, “It is not linked to mental instability but is a Neural Processing Phenomenon, a short circuit of sorts. A common ‘disorder’ shared by millions.” Synesthesia is the name used to cover the many types of this disorder, including my Number Form.

“A Number Form is a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences Number Forms thinks of numbers. Numbers are mapped into distinct spatial locations. The mapping may be different between individuals.”  This I experienced from the time I first met numbers in school.

Born and raised on the prairies of Alberta, my schooling was done in a one-room country school. South Valley School’s teacher faced a difficult situation with very little education or experience. She was very committed. A job in those depression years was valuable. Our school was like many rural one-room schools: registration, about fourteen students; grades, from one to eight.

In the evening the teacher put assignments for the next day on the blackboard. When the school day started, everyone went to work. Grade two and up followed the board assignments. The beginners were taught by the teacher. When she was finished, she left them to continue going through the grade one book. For help they turned to the next row, where the grade two kids sat. Meanwhile the teacher toured the room, helping those who needed it.

I loved school, and was a serious student. By the time I reached grade three I was leading my grade, in everything but mathematics. Why, no one knew. The teacher was concerned, but had no idea of the cause. She solved the problem by giving me half the assignment that the others in my grade had.

And so it went. Through elementary, junior high, and high school things remained the same. I did well in every subject but mathematics, and passed the latter by memorizing rules and methods, not by understanding.

Fast forward to 1942. I was in my second year at the University of Alberta, and living at the Tri Delta sorority house. It was lunch time, and eight of us were at the table. Somehow a number was mentioned. I have no recollection of what the conversation was that produced it, but what followed is crystal clear. I said, “Oh that’s a terrible number! It’s on such a difficult part of the path. Number nine is where the path has to cross a busy road and a hiking trail. It takes me longer to locate it.”

My friend Jean at the other end of the table, replied, “Not for me. Mine is on a path by a little lake. There are flowers everywhere.”

The two of us laughed, but then the conversation exploded. Our table mates wanted to know what we were talking about. Jean and I couldn’t understand what they were asking! Confusion reigned until it dawned on all of us that something strange was being uncovered. Jean and I somehow had a different relation to numbers than did the other six. After some debate they elected the two of us to talk to Dr. Mackenzie, our psychology professor.

And so it was that at the age of twenty I finally learned that the whole world did not see numbers as I did!

When Dr. Mackenzie heard the account Jean and I gave, he was amused. He said, “You two are a classic example of people who have number patterns. Something makes them place numbers in a ‘place,’ and that complicates math for them.”

“Dr. Mackenzie, we both know that! We want to know what causes this, and what can we do about it.”

“That’s more difficult. The truth is we recognize number patterns and other similar oddities do exist. Why, we don’t yet know. As for what you can do about it, the advice is simple but not easy. You have to train yourselves that when you have anything mathematical to do, you must shut out the thought of where (as it seems to you) your numbers reside, before you start.”

Jean and I protested, almost together, “How in the world can we do this? We’ve been struggling with math since we started school, and we didn’t even know our perception of numbers was different. Now you say to change it!”

“Young ladies – the ball is in your court. I know of no one at this time who would be able give you specific directions. To be in university shows you have a certain degree of intelligence. Use it! Learn to fix the problem or live with it. Your choice.”

Did I succeed in following Dr. Mackenzie’s advice? Yes and no. My use of numbers has remained shaky. I avoid them as much as possible. When I must do math, my learned procedure takes over: Concentrate. Keep the spatial concept out of this. Add everything twice. Keep a good calculator at hand!

Has this Synesthesia of mine made my life difficult? No.

Has it caused obstacles that have changed my life’s direction? I don’t think so.

My preferences in reading, activities, likes, and dislikes were formed early in life. I did not even know there was a problem until that day at the lunch table, at university. Is the number pattern gone from my life? No. I did not create it, and it will always be there, but more like a humoured friend than a hazard. The very fact that all my children know of it is proof that it continues to be part of who I am.

That brings me to this thought. Not many people have the exciting experience of learning at the age of ninety three, to understand a part of their make-up which has always been a mystery. My salute to the researchers and scientists and the knowledge they have accumulated, in the many years that have passed since I was twenty. Much that wasn’t known then, is common knowledge now. It shines a welcome light on my understanding of myself.

Knowing that I am in the company of many others who live with a Synesthesia is a comfort. It’s a close call, receiving all this wonderful knowledge so near the end of race – but I’ll gladly take it!

“Ninety three – now where is that number? I’ve never had to look for this one before. Oh, now I see! Over there, down that gentle slope, near the end of the path. That’s where it’s been hiding!!”


This links to a simplified line map of my Number Form.


Filed under This & That

15 Responses to Number Form: A Neurological Phenomenon

  1. Congratulations on 93! Although she did not live as long as you have, my mother always said her interest in later life was wanting to know what would happen next and how things would turn out – family developments, learning new things, reading books, attending an entertainment, listening to the news, even moving and finding new friends. Glad to hear that you have learned about a scientific concept so fundamental to your own life.

    • Marjorie

      Judith – What a great comment on your mother! I love her outlook, as you describe it. Remember that saying “We have memories, so we may have roses in December.”

  2. Dorothy

    This is a concept that is new to me and yet another instance of how you enrich my world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. While 93 may be on the downhill part of your number path the road is still fascinating. Happy birthday!

    • Marjorie

      Indeed it is, Dorothy – and every day is a gift. Perhaps the only thing I regret about aging, is that one is never going live long enough to do all, learn all, that is there for the taking.

  3. Eveline Goodall

    Marjorie you are in good company. Liszt saw color when he played. He would tell an orchestra to play more blue or that this section requires rose. Kandinsky painted music, that is, when he heard music he saw color and then painted it.

    The same process, two senses becoming intertwined. Great gift, or usually it is. For you it made math hard. What has it added to you life?

    In addition to that the fact that you are truly an origignal.!!

    Much love to you amazing lady.

    • Marjorie

      Eveline – That is very interesting, your information about Liszt and Kandinsky. Certainly sounds like Synesthesia to me! The Google info which said “Millions of people have them” may be correct.
      What has it added to my life – never thought of that. My Number Form, while annoying, proved to be reasonably benign. With some concentration it could be pushed out of the way. As the years flowed by, it became weaker (or fainter). Perhaps what it gave me was the belief that one could work around most any problem, if one persisted in trying. Mind you, believing this, did not mean I always succeeded!

  4. Happy Ninety-Third !! — there, you don’t have to place the numbers. 😀

  5. Norma Lendrum

    I wish you a very Happy 93rd Birthday. As usual what you have written is so very interesting. I taught for 27 years but never heard of number synesthesia.
    It would have been interesting to have started to talk to the class about where they found the numbers and see if some of the poorer students in math responded to it. Thanks for another very interesting article.

    • Marjorie

      Norma – These comments have set me wondering. How much more is known now about this phenomenon? Are there tests that can identify them? Your idea about testing students who have trouble with math is exciting. Do you still have contact with today’s school or teachers and find out? Let me know, please.

  6. Ralph Gibson

    Terrific essay, Mom ! Interesting and well written. But why did you have the letters printed in different colors ?

    Somewhere I read the suggestion that we’re all born as full-on synesthetes, with all of our senses mixed up, and for most folks this gradually goes away as the nervous system completes its development and gets things “sorted out.” If true, maybe that’s what babies are smiling about half the time.

    On a similar note, most of us have Red & Green & Blue light receptors in the retina of our eyes, which the brain uses to generate our color vision. We all know that some individuals, more often expressed in males, have a nonfunctional version of one of the color receptors so they have, for example, red-green color blindness. Less widely know is that some individuals have a 4th color receptor (a different red, I think) so they have a “richer” color vision than do most of us. Of course, the affected individuals don’t know they’re different than others, just like synesthetes may not know they’re different, at least for a while.

    • Marjorie

      Ralph – First – a thank you for your help and encouragement. I loved trying to describe my “number pattern”, but also found it challenging. Secondly – I am really reaping a reward in the comment from readers, both those writing in, and my “In House” followers here at the Manor. Your response above shows you have more scholarly information about my odd number pattern than I ever knew was available. Know a good book on this?

  7. With your permission, your beautifully clear and very helpful essay will be added to my collection of cases of synesthesia. Synesthetes have right-ear audio-processing deficits that give them exceptional left-brain access to their right-brains where perceptions make loose or strong associations with one another and with feelings. The left brain cannot retrieve simple associations between the shape and meaning of a numeral but is forced to contemplate a collection of other associations made with the numerals. Just as there are degrees of intensity of other behaviour patterns caused by the ears, for example, depression from mild to suicidal caused by deficits usually found in the left ear, there are degrees of synesthesia. As the French otolaryngologist Guy Berard was able to define the exact audio distortions in particular frequencies in the left ear that define the range of depression, so, too, we are on the brink of learning the exact audio distortions in particular frequencies in the right ear that define excessive access by the left-brain to the right-brain. Yours is at the mild end of the range. “Born on a Blue Day” by Daniel Tammet describes some of his extreme synesthetic experiences as a savant, although he is unaware of the role of his ears in his behaviour. Thank you for sharing this fascinating aspect of your audio neurology.

    • Marjorie

      Laurna, Laurna — I am delighted. I just finished writing a response to my son Ralph’s comment, and asking him if he knew of a book that will help me add to my scanty knowledge of synesthesia of all kinds! My limited experience caused me to evaluate my personal case as a “benign” example. If you do know of a book which would add to my understanding of my own condition, please let me know.