Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia 2

Welcome to part 2 of my series on synesthesia, a harmless quirk in some brains—mine included—where one “sees” colors associated with letters, numbers, tastes, or sounds. Post 1 introduced what synesthesia is. Today we dig into a hot-topic among scientists in recent years: is synesthesia useful to those who have it? What can studying it yield?

Before the meat-and-potatoes of science, I’ll start you off with a gorgeous amuse-bouche. (Don’t worry: the science part is more like wild steak tartare or Japanese uni than any humdrum fare.) I heartily enjoyed the Synesthesia video by Future Shorts (found via Motherboard and pictured above), but its goal isn’t so much to depict real synesthesia than to riff creatively on the idea.

For a decent grounding on the basic science behind synesthesia, try Synesthesia directed by Jonathan Fowler (found via BoingBoingVideo and pictured below).

Synesthesia is indeed a low-fi groove, and its creative uses are legion—also exaggerated by envious non-synesthetes. But is synesthesia helpful as more than a parlor-trick? The scientific tidbits I’ve collected suggest the answer is yes. (Actual Scientists! I invite you to correct the following facts.)

It’s a crackerjack memory aid (or obstacle). I can attest to this personally. I’m an excellent speller and phone-number-remember, thanks to my grapheme (letter and number) synesthesia. If the colors of a given word seem “off”, it’s a dead giveaway that the word is misspelled.

Paradoxically, this trick cuts both ways. Often I mis-remember a name or transpose numbers due to their similar color profiles. You wouldn’t mix up the names “Brandan” and “Nathan” easily, would you? I would, because the preponderance of colors—a wash of sandy golden browns in the T, N, and B, with dots of cherry-red in the A’s—are too similar to me.

Hello? on Flickr

It’s a window into brain cognition and perception. Here we hit more scientific paydirt. Synesthesia is one of those rare cognitive phenomena that’s both exhibited by healthy people (but not all of them) and can be easily communicated to scientists. (It’s surprisingly difficult to fake with the right perceptive tests, too.) Studying synesthesia allows neuroscientists to explore crannies like brain processing, cross-modal perception, sensory and linguistic functions, and others. In fact, the pickings are so rich, the neuroscientific journal Cortex devoted an entire issue in 2006 to synesthesia.

It’s hard to cram in all the fascinating science surrounding this, so I’ll share only two items. I was riveted by a 2005 article in Cognitive Neuropsychology that grappled with a big-picture question I’ve always wondered about: how did that color get matched to this letter or number? Is there any agreement between synesthetes as to the “right” colors of the alphabet? In my experience, that would be a hot-headed no, but these amazing scientists suggest otherwise.

Alphabeat on Flickr

The article’s basic findings jive with my native suspicions: for example, that the first letter of any color-word tends to take on that color. Native English speakers in the study tended to see the letter Y as yellow, while native German speakers associated G most firmly with yellow – not surprising, since the word for yellow in German is gelb. The same held true for V and L (violet or lila in German).

It gets juicier: less frequently used letters are often associated with exotic colors, whereas the workaday letters are matched to more “standard” color. Since my B is rich basic brown and J is a silvery green-blue, I couldn’t agree more.

Synesthesia development is also limited to a certain window of one’s life. Having learned the English alphabet as a child, I’m firmly synesthetic for those letters. While I minored in Japanese in college, the letters of their hiragana alphabet did not take on any colors for me.

Synesthesia leaps off into intriguing byways too. Many synesthetes visualize time or number sequences with distinct mental maps, like this one documented in the 2009 book Wednesday is Indigo Blue by researcher Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman. I chose it, of course, because it’s vaguely reminiscent of my own:

Now to test another pet theory of mine: I imagine lots of designers and design-fans are synesthetes. How many of you are?

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

26 thoughts on “Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling Color: Synesthesia 2

  1. Jude Stewart

    Thanks, KM Dean – I hadn’t heard the phrase “ticker-tape” synesthesia, but as you describe it I realize I have the same thing. I HAVE to see a word spelled out in my mind to make the colors register, and hence the spelling. Thanks for sharing!

  2. K M Dean

    I have both ticker tape and spatial / time synaesthesia, my daughter has both of these as well, and my son has ticker tape and a color-taste form.  When we first figured out that all three of had ticker tape but my husband didn’t have ANY forms of synaesthesia, my son said, “He doesn’t see the words??!!!”  I find that I can’t learn a foreign language word without knowing what it looks like, and while I can ignore what’s going on in my head with English, I’m almost always aware of the visualization of words if they’re another language.
    I’m a software engineer, and the spatial / number form synaesthesia is involved when writing software.  I think I always have a visual representation of the code in my head, whether I’m debugging or writing or just talking about it.

  3. Sarah

    I just love learning about how others experience synesthesia! I see the colors of numbers, letters, and words. Some are easier to see, like A is definitely red, and Z is black, except it’s Color seems duller and a little blurred. I have a hard time learning other languages- I’m taking French in school. Some of my friends don’t believe me, one even pretends to have synesthesia, but it is very obvious she does not. In some cases, I can see the colors of personalities, but only of those I am closest to. Also, but only occasionally, I can taste sounds, letters, textures, and numbers. I am an advanced reader for my age, im 13, but I can read at a highschool level. I find it difficult to read out loud, because sometimes I get words mixed up, and sometimes I’ll even say the Color instead of the word. Is there any way to find out for sure if you’re a synesthete? Because I’m pretty sure I am, and I found it EXTREMELY annoying when others think I’m weird when I tell them about this.

  4. lotusgreen

    as i get older, the “blurs” are getting more interesting/odder. because for me ‘E’ and ‘3’ are both the same yellow, i have begun to exchange them by mistake. this never used to happen. other stuff too, but this one is the clearest to explain.

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  7. Jude Stewart

    Here’s to the conversation lingering on – I love all the comments pouring in on this!Alex: I read somewhere that synesthetes actually do have a higher incidence of problems w/ math, paradoxically enough. That suggests the color-coding of numbers can produce impedance as much as it can aid in memory. Your mention of the highlighter reminded me of a classic test of synesthesia, the Stroop test. In essence, the psychologist asks the synesthete for his or her colors first – say, 5 is red and S is yellow. A true synesthete should be able to pick out a 5 amid a sea of similar-shaped graphemes, in this case the letter S, because of their different colors. In a variant, the clinician creates a test with the “correct” color-coding and compares it to one with “incorrect” color coding. (I believe the classic version involves writing a color word, like “blue”, in a differently colored ink.) A true synesthete’s response time should be slower when the “incorrect” colors are used, since he or she has to overcome their natural color associations to see the actual color.Caveat: I just reprised those tests from memory, so I may’ve jumbled some facts. But the gist is still pretty juicy, no?

  8. Nathan

    Sounds like Jimi Hendrix was a synesthete, if you consider his lyrics to Axis: Bold as Love:
    Anger he smiles tow’ring shiny metallic purple armour.
    Queen jealousy, envy waits behind him.
    Her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground.
    Blue are the life giving waters taking for granted,
    They quietly understand.
    Once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready,
    But wonder why the fight is on.
    But they’re all, bold as love.
    Yeah, they’re all bold as love.
    Yeah, they’re all bold as love.
    Just ask the Axis.
    My red is so confident he flashes trophies of war And ribbons of euphoria.
    Orange is young, full of daring but very unsteady for the first go ’round.
    My yellow in this case is no so mellow.
    In fact I’m trying to say it’s frightened like me.
    And all of these emotions of mine keep holding me From giving my life to a rainbow like you.
    But I’m a yeah, I’m bold as love, Yeah yeah.
    Well, I’m bold, bold as love.
    Hear me talkin’, girl.
    I’m bold as love.
    Just ask the Axis.
    He knows everything. Yeah, yeah.

  9. alex

    I have grapheme – colour association as well, and agree it’s a brilliant memory tool. But interestingly, no one writes about the problem that being faced with ‘wrong’ colours can be counterproductive. As a child, I insisted on using a black pen in school and found highlighters, far from being useful, made it impossible to remember passages – now I realise they turned everyting yellow which interfered with my ‘proper’ colour recall for words. As well brightly coloured classroom charts were no help if the words were the wrong colours – and I’m sure this is why I don’t like shopping centres… (or at least one reason) with all the coloured signs. It would be useful to explore this especaially as it may affect some children’s learning.

  10. Jude Stewart

    Golly, there’s something so intimate about all this, isn’t there? It’s not often that you’re offered a ticket into the more shadowy reaches of someone else’s brain.
    I also can’t quite believe how many types of synesthesia are represented in these comments. My kind of synesthesia – the grapheme-to-color variety – is the most common, and the one I expected to prevail among designers. I had no idea beating the bushes would yield so many other varieties, though.
    Charlotte and M.: if you watch that Boing Boing video all the way through, there’s a clinical neuropsych guy who gets into the causes of synesthesia in the brain. It gets slightly technical, but he differs from some experts in that he doesn’t think synesthesia arises from cross-talk in white matter of certain brains, because there are people who aren’t usually synesthetic but experience color-sound correspondences during migraines, at the edge of sleep, or in response to talking psychoactive drugs. So clearly your brain structure doesn’t temporarily alter to enable that, right?
    Laurel, I never really thought about it, but I do often see words typed out in my head. Strangely that mode does feel B&W, but if I focus on a specific word the colors are there, if obscured for the moment.
    Thanks for writing in, everyone. Look for part 3 pretty soon!

  11. Laurel

    I’m a graphic designer and writer and have always seen words as they’re spoken. Not in color, just spelled out in black and white serif type (perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I adore type in design?). It’s particularly strong with names so when I discover that someone’s name is spelled differently than I have it spelled in my head, I get stuck and have a hard time making the mental replacement. On the other hand, I’m a terrific speller and rarely make typing errors. When I read your first article on synesthesia it felt familiar, which made me wonder if the way I “see” sound might be connected. Seems it is! I believe it’s called ticker tape synesthesia. I recently learned that my daughter sees what she says too. I’d never heard of any of this before, so thank you so much for shining the spotlight on it. Great articles!

  12. Koshka

    I visualize numbers and dates in a map, and I share that with my father. We differ when it comes to decades (Dad’s are steps, whereas mine are parabolas) but otherwise we seem to see them the same…

  13. M.

    It’s strange to see how many designers have this… I see sounds. Not all the time, usually when I am relaxed, like just before I fall asleep. The thing is, the images are sharp and jarring, generally, especially if the sound is. A loud, abrupt sound look like a flash of a Bridget Riley painting. High contrast, and the brightness is like light hitting my eyes when I’ve been in dim light, you know?

    I wonder if the number of designers describing their own synesthesia means that it is more common in our field, or if it’s just that your blog attracts a lot of designer readers. Either way, thank you for sharing this. I only recently discovered there was a name for this strange thing.

  14. Charlotte

    I’m a designer and a synesthete. I associate color and shape with sound, most often music. Tubas, for example, are like big green bubbles, piano is navy blue waves, etc. Numbers and colors also have gender.
    I also get migraines, and I’ve noticed that I experience synesthesia more strongly before and after I have one. That also frequently goes along with a big creative burst. I’ve wondered if the things are all related, or if the migraine just makes me more sensitive all around.
    Thanks for writing this series–interesting stuff!

  15. peter

    I’m a synesthete and I have no doubt whatsoever that it contributes to and inspires both my graphic design career, my personal art and filmmaking endeavors and my obsessive passion for music.

  16. Janet Maines

    I’m a graphic designer and a bit of a songwriter and I have synesthesia. I thought everyone was like me for a while. Wrong! I associate color with numbers, letters and sounds. I also associate color with feelings of warmth, insecurity, anger, peace, etc. I can’t remember a phone number to save my life unless I remember the geometric shapes the pattern makes. Is that weird? Glad to know I’m in good company!

  17. Erin

    This article sparked my interest because while I don’t associate colors with letters and numbers, I do associate a sex to them. As if the letter A is feminine, B is masculine, C masculine, D feminine, etc. This may be subjective of course but I just kind of personify the letter/number and thats how I determine that. I wonder if this fits in with Synaesthesia somehow…

  18. Jude Stewart

    Oooh, Denise, how juicy. I have always wanted to meet a gustatory synesthete, and your description of what it’s like for you is very eloquent. Thanks for sharing – same to you, Jane!
    This is a wee bit tangential, but I often cook based on color hunches. I’ll choose a cluster of spices – garam masala, angostura bitters, brown sugar – that are broadly in the same color family, in this case a warm orange. But that seems less synesthetic than bald common-sense: those accoutrements are all actually orange-ish, for everyone. Still, it’s funny to remark that this culinary hunch is really guided by color alone.
    Look out for part 3 of this series in a few weeks!

  19. Jane

    As children, my sister and I would argue about the colour of words and numbers. I grew up believing that everyone “saw” the colours of the days of the week etc. It was only when I spotted an article in a newspaper about 20 years ago that I realised it was unusual and was called synaesthesia. I was involved in research by Dr John Harrison and Prof Simon Baron-Cohen from Cambridge University who founded The UK Synaesthesia Association – find it easy to remember phone numbers, dates, passwords etc and I love colour! 

  20. Denise

    I taste shapes. It’s not really strong, but it’s there, like a shape in a dark room, a line being drawn with light, maybe. I didn’t realize that most people didn’t do this until I tried describing the taste of something to a friend. She seemed puzzled. I find it very helpful in determining the ingredients in foods. I think there are other forms that I may have, but even milder. What’s written here all makes sense to me—the names Nathan and Brandon have some equal value in my head, too. Thanks for the cool article.