lucky numbers


My lucky number is 27. I don’t know exactly why, but I do distinctly remember deciding, or discovering, that it is an auspicious figure. 25 is not bad either. I’m a grapheme-color synaesthete, which is a fancy way of saying that I see letters and numbers in color. That’s not strictly true, however. I can see that the letters I’m typing now are black. But just like the number 2 is a symbolic representation of two things or has a specific value, it’s also red in my mind: the symbol represents two-ness as much as it represents redness in my mind. So you might think that I chose 27 as a favorite number because I like that combination of colors, or because that was the day on which I was born, or some other obvious reason. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I chose it: but it hasn’t let me down yet.

courtesy of Kristin’s Lucky Tarot

The topic of synaesthesia will likely come up again in this blog, since it affects the way that I see the world, but today I’ve been thinking about signs and symbols, and how readily we assign meaning to abstract things. I’m preparing to fly to New York to sing at a marathon concert commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and I’ve been remembering what I consider the strongest episode of the show that I co-hosted on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Miracle Detectives. While we were shooting the episode, I was struck by how many people who had lost loved ones on that tragic day found comfort in the notion that their loved ones were communicating with them from beyond the grave by sending messages. These messages took a variety of forms: some were caused by weather forces (such as a breeze), others took the shape of animals (butterflies and birds in particular), some in the appearance of previously-lost jewelry or coins and many included the seemingly inexplicable appearance of abstract symbols such as a loved one’s lucky number.

I remember one story in particular, that a mother who lost her 30-something son when the world trade center towers fell, shared with us. Mrs. C. told us that she’d always been a spiritual person, and by that she meant that she had had ‘out-of-body’ experiences in the past and visions or premonitions of things that seemed to happen just as she had imagined them.

Because of the devastation, it took months to find and confirm the remains of the victims of 9/11. Many, of course, were never found, even with available DNA testing. The absence of remains and the uncertainty that followed the attacks left many victims’ families hoping that their loved ones were only temporarily lost. Closure was impossible to find.

Mrs. C. begged for a sign from her son in the days, weeks and months that followed the tragedy. He was a volunteer firefighter, and from eyewitness reports, she learned that he had run into the burning building three times to save the lives of others. How did she come across these reports? Her son used to carry around a red bandana, to keep the sweat off of his eyes, and the eyewitnesses remembered seeing a young man with that red bandana. When Mrs. C. was attending the birth of her first grandchild, years after 9/11, the first nurse to walk into the birthing room was also wearing a red bandana. She interpreted this as a sign that her son was present at the birth.

Mrs. C.’s son also had a lucky number: 1
9*: it was his lacrosse and ice hockey number, as well as the address of his apartment and the number of his favorite Chanel perfume. When Mrs. C. asked for a sign from her son, she often interpreted the appearance of the number 19 as his response from the other side: she might see it on a receipt, or a road sign, or in any number of ways. Once she saw it, she was comforted by what she perceived as his continued presence in her life and it helped her cope with her immense grief.

This search for signs that Mrs. C. described led me to think about how our brains are
predisposed to find connections and create meaning out of the abstract or the unpredictable. This need is especially great when we are in a highly emotional state, or dealing with a loss as devastating, unexpected and seemingly random as the loss of an innocent loved one in a terrorist attack. Our memories are selective: we don’t remember everything that happened to us because it’s much more useful to have a repository of relevant information rather than an unmanageable database of minutiae. Often, an event that elicited a strong emotional reaction such as fear, anger or grief is an important one to remember, so that it might be avoided in the future. As a result, our amygdala, or the almond-shaped structure that sends messages to our frontal cortex, or the part of our brain that makes decisions and evaluates evidence, modulates what we remember depending on our emotional state.

The old adage that seeing is believing has been turned on its head by psychologists in recent years: yes, experiencing something yourself does make you more likely to believe in it, but your beliefs not only affect what you remember but also what you see and how you see it. Two weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine,
David Amodio, published a study, in which his lab demonstrated that when people are worried about appearing to be racially-prejudiced, they perceive more racial differences between faces of people of their own race and those of a different race. This perceptual difference occurs very quickly - we can see a trace of it in the brain before the person is conscious of it. The motivation of a person affects his/her perception. If Mrs. C. is motivated to see signs from her beloved son, her brain will be tuned differently than if she did not have that motivation. As a case in point, her husband, who describes himself as ‘not very spiritual’, did not see any signs from his son and felt hurt that he was seemingly ignored. Then one day, in his garage, he sat in his car and begged for a sign: lo and behold, he noticed that a can of paint in front of him had the number 19 on its label. ‘It had been there the whole time,’ he says ‘I just hadn’t noticed it’. He’s absolutely right: with the right motivation, he finally perceived the sign that helped him deal with the loss of his son.

*in case you think that I see numbers as mainly red, here is the full palette: 1
234567890.Note that zero is white, so it’s there, but you probably can’t see it. And these are web-safe colors so they are not entirely accurate. The title of this blog post should read: Numb3rs