Tyler Alterman

Seen & heard

Suit you, sir

Tyler Alterman avoids cognitive effort with a synesthesia-derived wardrobe.

Edited and condensed by Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

When Tyler Alterman, a research assistant in Daniel Casasanto’s Experience and Cognition Lab, moved from New York to Chicago last fall, he developed a problem with getting dressed in the morning. “Choosing an outfit was very draining,” he says. “It’s a much slower pace of life here, especially in Hyde Park. I think I need my adrenaline up to do anything worthwhile.”

So he asked his ex-girlfriend, who has various forms of the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, to help contrive a wardrobe of colorful suits: “Whenever she sees a day of the week,” Alterman says, “she has a very vivid perceptual experience of a color.” (She also has number-color and personality-color-shape synesthesia; her initial impression of Alterman was “milky lavender … and slightly oblong circles.”)

His unconventional uniform has transformed his morning routine, Alterman says: “I’m not hit by the paradox of choice.”

What color is each day?

Sunday is dark blue, Monday is red, Tuesday is light blue, Wednesday is pink. Thursday was brown for her, but I made her choose something else, and she said orange. Friday is green, but I only have a dark green jacket with light green pants, so I treat it like a wild-card day until I can get a better green option. Saturday is bright yellow.

What did you wear before you started the suit regimen?

Suits, but mismatched colors. That started when I quit studying graphic design my junior year of college. I guess I needed some other outlet.

What did you wear as a graphic design student?

Polo shirts with ties. It was really bad fashion. My dad had all these ties from his private eye days. He was going to throw them out, so I had to find some use for them.

You didn’t want to wear them with a button-down shirt?

It didn’t even occur to me.

What about shoes? Right now you wear neutral shoes.

Certainly it’s a dream that I would have shoes for every suit. But that’s maybe vain.

Do you ever think, I just want to put on some jeans and be comfortable?

No. I hate being comfortable. That’s why I like New York so much. It’s really hard to be comfortable there. But that makes it easy to focus and stay productive. I have a bit of a productivity obsession. I tend to sit in the hardest chair.

What do people in your field, neuroscience, think of your wardrobe?

Surprisingly, it works in my favor. Whenever I go to a conference, it’s really easy to network. People definitely think I’m weird, but scientists are kooky.

You teach neuroscience to high school students. What do they think?

I get a mix of kids making fun of me and kids complimenting me, and often the two are intertwined. Usually it’s like, “Whaaaat?” followed by, “Oh, fly.”

How about when you’re walking around the city?

Whenever I go on the deep South Side or over to west Englewood, that’s when I get the most compliments. It’s always the scariest gangsters who love my suits the most.

What if the assigned suit for the day is dirty?

I’d just go to a different color, begrudgingly. Some people at UChicago have learned my routine, just from passive learning. And they’ll be like, wait, something’s off today.

Should we all have uniforms?

I think everyone should wear exactly what they are at any point in time. What you wear should be signaling something about yourself.

My suits help me find like minds. The people who really love my suits are the people I want to be friends with.

Do you enjoy the attention?

No. I’m a total introvert. Often, interacting with people really drains me. But I have to train myself. The brain is plastic, and just like you can do neurofeedback to make yourself more meditative, or be able to focus more, you can do the same with your personality.

I’ve been able to consciously force myself into social situations and train my brain to have less reaction. But it’s still a challenge because the world isn’t made for introverts.

Is your wardrobe a conceptual art project?

I’m tempted to say no, because I haven’t thought of it that way until now, but I want to say yes. People have asked me, “Why are you wearing pink today?” and now I can say, “It’s a conceptual art project.” In the past I’ve had to make up all sorts of answers.

Extra credit: The Think Tank

Alterman came up with the idea for the Think Tank, a mobile neuroscience lab with a glowing brain on its roof, while he was a research assistant for Daniel Casasanto at the New School in New York. When Casasanto took a job at UChicago last fall, Alterman came too.

The Think Tank’s programming includes Street Science—sidewalk talks and live demonstrations from the back of the truck—as well as School Science, a five-week neuroscience curriculum for high school students, developed with the help of the undergraduate club NEURO.

In March the final piece of Alterman’s vision fell into place: the Think Tank won a $9,000 award from the College’s Uncommon Fund to pay for the Illuminoggin, the glowing fiberglass brain atop the truck.


Tyler Alterman, cofounder and strategic director, the Think Tank. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)