Color Confusion

March 11th, 2014 at 10:02 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

car thermostat dial


On a recent weekend, snow fell overnight.

Usually my first look at the world on any given morning is through our bathroom window. Through that window all I can see is the neighbor’s roof, the sky, and the tops of trees – and there’s one broken limb which has dangled for a month, waiting to fall.

On that particular Sunday morning, the sky was blue and the roof was covered with three inches of snow and sleet. With the sun blasting away, the snowy roof was blinding white. For just a moment, the brightness of snow and the thousand glints of reflecting light tricked my brain into thinking “hot,” as in white-hot.

It was 3 degrees outside. Not hot at all.

This wasn’t the only time that color has tricked me, temperature-wise. One July, on the hottest day of the year, also known as Olpe Downhome Day, Dave and I got in the car so we could take in the festivities in the shining city to our south.

We drove with the car windows down for a few blocks to let the heat escape. Then I turned on the air conditioner and spun the temperature dial from the blue zone into the red zone.

“Why did you turn up the heat?” Dave asked.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I made it colder.” I put my hand in front of the vent. It was blowing out warm air. “Oh gosh, you’re right.”

Now it’s not that my mind shorted out, it simply reverted back to my childhood days when I first learned to associate colors with temperatures.

At 4 years old, I would come inside from playing in the snow, plop on the entry way floor, and release the clasp on my rubber boots. As I pulled off the boots, globs of packed snow came out as well. When I removed the wet socks, my frozen feet and ankles were bright red. And that’s how I first connected color with a temperature – and it stuck in my brain. For me, red equals cold.

It doesn’t help that I also associate blue with hot. And that’s another trip back to childhood. Our kitchen stove was gas and it had an open blue pilot light in the center of the stovetop which burned like an eternal flame, day and night.

When we’d light a burner there would be a whoosh, and a ring of blue fire appeared. My brother and I found that we could roast marshmallows over the burners. Stovetop hot dog roasts lacked appeal somehow, but the indoor marshmallow-roasting was a great discovery.

Anyway, for me, blue became associated with heat, and my red chapped feet were associated with cold. And that explains how my mind sometimes works contrary to the way everyone else interprets color.

Speaking of color associations, Andrea Scher, an artist, blogger and Facebook friend, recently mentioned that while her husband was cooking burgers, her preschooler, Nico, asked what the smell was, so she told him. And Nico said, “No, it smells like a color. It smells blue.”

In her post, Andrea then explained that she was “feeling weirdly excited” to learn that her son experiences synesthesia, which is the evocation of one kind of sense when another sense is stimulated. She said that she herself associates numbers with colors, that 1 is white in her world.

I like the idea of being able to mix and match sensory experiences. In general, I don’t connect colors with numbers, except for 4, which I think of as blue. And for me, Wednesday is green and the smell of Play-Doh is yellow.

With my tendency to reverse red and blue when it comes to hot and cold, I do have to check myself occasionally when I’m setting the car’s temperature, or turning on the faucet in a motel shower. I always figure it out, but every once in awhile I get burned by my color disorder.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, Flyover Weather, life on the ground, seasons

  1. Anna Keller
    March 12th, 2014 at 14:51 | #1

    I loved your column this week, Cheryl. Interesting how our color sensibilities are affected by early experiences…often we don’t even realize why. Thought provoking!

  2. eleanor browning
    March 13th, 2014 at 10:48 | #2

    I’ve never heard of this–but that’s interesting! –you must have a much more creative and imaginery mind than I do! You always write something to think about or something I need to know! thanks,

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