Personification of abstract and non-abstract concepts. Object personification: when it is and isn't synesthesia

Personification of specific sequences of abstract concepts is considered synesthesia, if it is consistent over time. Such concepts could be numbers, letters, time units or directions. Although there is as yet no official line on whether the consistent personification of non-abstract concepts, i.e. specific groups/sequences of concrete, tangible concepts such as household objects is synesthesia or not, there is certainly a case for it as it appears to be a very similar process to the more abstract type, and occurs in the same people.

Object personification consists of attributing human characteristics, qualities and relationships to sequences of objects: they can have gender and personality, be members of a family or have special friends or particular enemies among the other objects in their group. The objects’ traits and relationships are stable and often go back to early childhood, although a specific series of objects can begin to be personified at any time in the synesthete’s life. It happens involuntarily: it “just is”, it’s “always been” or “you just realise it’s like that.” It is never a conscious process of assigning or choosing personalities for the objects or having to remember them.

Object personification could possibly be considered a type of synesthesia, similar to ordinal linguistic personification for example, when the objects personified are elements in a series or sequence (personification of sequences of concepts). 

It would not be considered synesthesia if the personification is of random objects not forming part of any series or sequence ("the big house on the hill has a personality", for example, "but other types of houses do not"), and other cases such as animistic thinking (naming or attributing human characteristics to individual objects that are particularly loved or appreciated, stuffed animals, etc., as small children do before they learn to correctly distinguish between the animate and the inanimate); affective anthropomorphism (empathy and concern for inanimate objects); or pareidolia (seeing faces in the forms of objects). There is a more detailed description of all these phenomena on the page on personification in general.

As to its prevalence, an interesting study by Amin et al. (2011) found that personification was very common among the synesthete population: 33% of the 248 synesthetes interviewed said they attributed gender and/or personalities to graphemes, and 82% of this 33% also personified objects such as fruit and vegetables, computers or household objects.

Another study on personification (M.Sobczak-Edmans and N. Sagiv in The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia), also reached some interesting conclusions, and is well worth reading if you want to know more about this subject as it deals with all aspects of it and is an entertaining read.

Here are some examples of personification of elements forming part of a series or sequence, some more abstract and others more concrete:

Personification of directions:

“Directions have personalities. They also have colors.

Left is male, blue, introverted, and careful. He's very precise, and he thinks before he does. He likes playing the piano. Right is female, dark pink, and aggressive. She's quick to assume, and does things without thinking.

Up is both male and female, yellow, a child, and playful. She's very happy most of the time. Down is neither male nor female, a grey-ish blue color, also a child, and somewhat depressive.

Forward and backward have weaker associations, but forwards is a faded purple, while backwards is yellow. They're twins, mysterious, and female.

More complicated directions, like forward and to the left, are usually the directions involved holding hands or doing something else together.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia and comments in The Synesthesia Tree. 2022.)

Personification of geometric shapes:

“To me octagon is the mom friend, who is responsible, likes plants, and cares for the other shapes. Equilateral triangle is childish and naive, and also very talkative. The other triangles are sort of indie or geeky. Circle is chill and goes with the flow, also really friendly. Square is a nerdy rule follower. Rectangle is like square’s older brother, who gives them lots of advice and also occasionally smokes pot (idk why lol). The trapezoid is sporty and does not care about their appearance, also very blunt and honest. Rhombus/diamond is preppy and wears trendy clothes, has hair and makeup done, is kind to your face and overall pretty nice but can get mad about little things and spread rumors. Hexagon is the annoying little brother who always wants to play and hang out, he’s really kind but sometimes gets made fun of.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Personification of fruit:

Fruits have such clear personalities to me...
Pears being the mild-mannered and most ‘proper’, strawberries are ‘badasses’, oranges are a bit bully-like (but with heart), lemons and limes hang with oranges but prefer to be neutral, blueberries are shy, mangoes are sexy/promiscuous, bananas can be sneaky but are quiet and calm, and so on....

(Source: this post in the Facebook group “Synesthesia”, 2021.)

For this synesthete, other types of food also each have their own personality and place in society: "String beans are pranksters/‘wise guys’, red peppers are outlaws and steak is a businessman in a suit (in a smokey bar)."

Personification of furniture:

“TV = male
Refrigerator = female
Piano = male, nice (of course, what kind of piano is NOT nice?)
Oven = male, nice, cheeky
Air conditioner = male (everyone’s best mate on a hot summer’s day)
Brown drawers = male, cheeky
Rocking chair = male, nice
Range hood = male
Ikea shelf = neither”

(Source: the blog Am I a Super-Recogniser? 2018)

Personification of school subjects:

"As for subjects in school, some of them have a clearer personality than others. Here are the most obvious ones, with their gender and approximate age...

Mathematics (30, f) leader, androgynous, quiet, untouchable, god-like. Biology (35, f) warm-hearted, selfless, cheerful. Chemistry (15, f) ginger, adventurous, fun, energetic. Physics (30, m) is all serious, all about business but when all the work is done he relaxes. He is not affectionate but other subjects like him. History (80, ?) is wise, an authority figure, rarely around. Sports (17, m) he's often thinking, daydreaming, sometimes rebellious, secretly talented in some craftsmanship. Religion (30, f) female, a bit bland personality, but overall pleasant."

(Source: a conversation arising from comments on a post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

Personification of the planets:

“Mercury is a peculiar little bald man. Earth and Venus are married, and Mars is a homely gal who wishes she were married to Earth. Jupiter and Saturn are married, and Saturn is always pregnant, and Uranus and Neptune are their twins. Ceres and Pluto are a couple of ragamuffin kids who wander the neighborhood, left to their own devices because their parents are inattentive.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)

Personification of towns, cities or villages:

“Also, some towns have personalities. The town I grew up in is a boy about 10 yrs. old, thin, tanned, wearing red shorts and a striped shirt (1970s style), with sandy brown hair. He is kind of neglected, needs a bath, and has a manipulative streak, but he is smart and has lots of potential if someone would mentor him.

The town where I live now, is a blonde teenage girl, pretty and athletic. She's nice to everyone, but secretly thinks she's better than everyone else.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)

Personification of left/right; left hand/right hand

"I remember that when I was a child my right hand and my left hand each had a personality and appearance, as well as a colour. Left was off-white, big and strong but slow, and right was little, black, scurrying and bossed left around a bit, being more intelligent."

"Both left and right are male. Left is clever, curious, a bit introverted. Right is a hero type, brave, confident, charismatic. They are best friends forever. But I'm talking about the concept of left and right sides, not my hands."

(Source: a conversation - comment1 and comment2 - on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

Cutlery personification:

Knives, forks and spoons are another good example of a series of objects that is often personified. As it is a particularly interesting case it has its own page, with numerous examples that give a glimpse into the world of synesthete cutlery personifiers.

Go to the page on cutlery personification

Other series or sequences of concrete concepts (often household objects) that people have reported having personification perceptions for include chairs, cups, skirts, coins, kitchen appliances, the hills in their village…

Go to the page on ordinal linguistic personification and personification in general

This page last updated: 6 April 2024

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