Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia (Part 1)

It’s prime time to discuss an old favorite of mine (and of many color-fans): synesthesia, that curious trick of certain brains, mine included, that makes one “see” colors in letters and numbers in dry black-and-white, or see them in sounds, tastes or textures. Welcome to one of the more beautiful and strange wrinkles in the color-brain.

Number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9… on Flickr. Logo by Chermayeff & Geismar.

“The number 1, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow…. 

In an interview with talk show host David Letterman in New York, I told David he looked like the number 117—tall and lanky. Later outside, in…Times Square, I gazed up at the towering skyscrapers and felt surrounded by 9s—the number I most associate with feelings of immensity.”

That’s Daniel Tammet speaking, one of 50 living savants worldwide and an unusually articulate synesthete—a feat made more amazing by the fact that he’s also high-functioning autistic. Daniel’s book Born on a Blue Day chronicles the fascinating insides of his brain, how he finds not just color in numbers but the solace and particularities of old friends. Numbers reveal themselves to him in turn, complete with highly specific colors, shapes, and a specific location in his mental landscape.

His super-charged synesthesia enables extraordinary feats of memory, like the time he recited pi to 22,514 decimal places or learned Icelandic, his ninth foreign language, to fluency within a week. (Wire your jaw shut before watching this Channel Four documentary about Tammet, The Boy with the Incredible Brain.)

Something about synesthesia is devouringly fascinating, to the people who have it as much as the people who don’t. I’m no savant, but I’ve seen colors attached to my numbers and letters forever. The knowledge of what this feels like is innate; it challenges language to explain it.

As kids, my brother and I argued matter-of-factly about the assignation of colors to graphemes—his alphabet tends towards yellows, mine to various reds. We told my mother recently about this, who dismissed the whole thing as nonsense, until she didn’t like—or more accurately, felt, primally wronged—by the color-matches we were articulating. Of course, it turns out she has synesthesia too. When it became clear to her what the term meant (and how non-crazy she is to have it), we all chattered on happily about which colors go with which letters. My dad sat ping-ponging between the three of us, mystified.

Synesthesia from Flickr

Synesthesia has garnered enough headlines that most people know broadly what it is. (If you have it, you’re likely already aware of that fact—but this battery of psychological tests will help you pin the answer down.) So where does synesthesia come from?

It’s a dreamy, harmless quirk arising from “cross-talk” between tangled areas of the brain. Usually baby-brains prune themselves over time, separating brain regions with differing functions. Pruning may be incomplete in synesthetes in the fusiform gyrus, where the regions responsible for graphemes (letters and numbers) lie snugly next to each other. Studies show synesthetes pack more connective “white matter” tissue between these brain areas than non-synesthetes do.

This 2007 TED talk by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran summarizes these origins nicely, while hinting at synesthesia’s possible usefulness—the whole talk is interesting, but skip to 17:00 for the synesthesia stuff.

So what’s the usefulness of synesthesia—is there evolutionarily any point? And what other avenues of brain investigation do scientists use synesthesia to explore? I’ll save those answers in tantalizing style for my second post in this series. For now, suffice it to say: synesthesia is famously, but not narrowly, helpful in boosting a brain’s creativity. Ramanchandran ventures only that synesthetic brains are hard-wired to make unexpected leaps. But naturally that feels like a bloodless definition. To prime your color-mad pumps for next time, I’ll leave you with this plummy evocation of creativity and synesthesia than this quote from synesthete Vladimir Nabokov’s 1967 memoir, Speak, Memory. Swoon!

“The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet…has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French ‘a’ evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r’ (a sooty rag bag being ripped). Oatmeal ‘n’, noodle-limp ‘l’, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of ‘o’ take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French ‘on‘ which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass.”

A Redbud on Ice on Flickr

P.S. Let’s leave the record straight here. I picked that number 9 image leading this post because it’s the proper color, a bold cherry red—although my 9 tends towards brick. Nabokov is right on about on’s limpid pallor, but he’s mad if he thinks ‘r’ is sooty-brown, when it’s so glossy licorice black. The color-squabble continues next time!

For More Resources on Color:
Color Inspirations: See top color palettes from the popular website,

Pantone Essentials with Effects Package: Get Color Guides.

ColorLovers ColorSchemer Studio, A Professional Color-Matching Application

Design TV’s exclusive video with Jude Stewart: Color Trends and Inspiration

12 thoughts on “Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Meet the Mavens of Color: Winners of our 2011 Color in Design Award — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  2. Jude Stewart

    Cheryl: you’re reading this on Imprint, Print Magazine’s online community for designers. Google us at work and you should find us easily enough. And thanks for contributing your impressions about number formations! I can imagine seeing numbers in a dice formation could get cumbersome at times, but it’s really hard – impossible, I would submit – to change these impressions once they stick in your head.
    Blokhead: I think of that synesthesia cello guy as a little Suessian Sneetch of color-music synesthesia. But instead of having a star on his belly (or not), he’s got synesthesia. Hmm, it’s a novel explanation even if not a perfect one…

  3. blokhead

    Can someone explain “synesthetic-cello.gif” (it’s the third image from the top)?
    What the heck is it?  There’s a torso with protruing hands touching the cello. Where is the head? What is the ball of fuzz that is above the torso? Is that supposed to be the head?
    Basically, what does this image have to do with synesthesia?!?!

  4. Pingback: Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia 3 — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  5. Cheryl

    Kat — I’ve never before heard anyone else describe the calendar pretty nearly exact to how I “see” it. The names of the months aren’t positioned the same for me, but I find my months in the same position on the circle, as well. I also see the days of the week stretched out before me, always the same.
    I position numbers like how they appear on dice. I can’t count any other way. It’s really frustrating because it slows me down. I’ve learned to compensate as I grow older, but it was terrible for me going through school. I don’t see numbers or letters in color. But I do “design” words in my mind. 
    see you’ve linked to a graphic design website, presumably yours (my works internet policy won’t allow it to load properly)? I have my degree in graphic design. How interesting.

  6. Jude Stewart

    Allan: thanks for sharing your lovely poem. Not only is it a wonderful evocation of that elliptical experience of synesthesia, I enjoyed it on another level: my whole family on both sides stems from Louisville, Kentucky. I know the landscape and attitudes you describe well, and fondly.
    Thanks again, J

  7. Allan Hoving

    I can taste shapes (or, more accurately, feel tastes), as I described in this poem 30 years ago:

    Approaching Beauty, Kentucky
    1.The startling imagery comes later.For now, let’s enjoy the foliage,Fine weather and good road.Elsewhere, others are nominally employed.
    They may do this: sit out all dayUntil our car goes by the house.And when it does, you can be certainThey don’t bother to look up.
    2.Hereabouts, by definition, the best shots are missed:Black mountains swathed in clouds,Rusted shacks adjoining scratches in the land.
    What we hold is something smooth,Though largely indescribable, in our handsLike a wheel that steers itselfOr the late taste of hickory-smoked ham.

  8. Pingback: Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia 2 — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  9. Jude Stewart

    Thanks for the great comments. One of the things I like most about these kinds of conversations is that rare glimpse it gives you into the shadowy impressions inside someone else’s brain, images so inchoate you can surprise yourself in articulating them.
    Kat: that phenomenon you describe is called number-form synesthesia and is indeed related to the color version. (Here are a bunch of scientists saying so: Interesting that you can experience this without the colored-numbers/letters part. I experience both myself…
    Look for part 2 of this series in about two weeks!

  10. Kat

    Fascinating. I don’t believe I am a synesthete, and feel somewhat sad and left out that I am not. However I do visualize numbers and dates in certain arrangements, is there a term for that? For example, a calendar year of months appears in my head in a circle, actually in perspective, with December being at the ‘bottom’ or nearest my vision and July at the top or farthest from my vision – however this part of the circle has the largest/most prounounced perspective distortion – with the name of each month protruding from the center outward. Days of the week are in columns with sunday at the top and friday at the bottom, saturday sort of stretching to link the two. Housr of the day are in linear form, AM at my right and PM at my left. And so on…

  11. Moxie

    Thank you for writing about Synesthesia.  The first memory I recall about it was when I was 5 years old. I was helping my mother with the laundry. I told her the box of detergent (Tide) was the color of Wednesday. Her reaction was puzzled and a bit dismissive. Her reaction stunned me, I assumed she knew what I was saying, she didn’t! 🙂  I quickly learned not to speak “my language” with others.
    It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that this language I spoke, seemingly with myself only was shared by a classmate, and that is had a real definition!  She was talking about her alpahbet and numberic system has colors… it stopped me cold. It was a breakthrough and I will always be grateful that I took that class and sat next to that particular student. I do have an unsusally good memory, which can have it pluses and minuses.
    By the way, number 9 is an opaque purple. And “O” is matte white in uppercase. Looking forward to your next post on Syns.