Last week’s Casual Friday study attracted the most e-mails and questions we’ve ever received. It also attracted the largest number of responses ever: we cut it off at 400, before our Surveymonkey bill got too large (this is probably thanks mostly to our mention in the Seed Daily Zeitgeist on Monday).
What was all the fuss about? First of all, the experience of taking the survey seemed awfully random: first, you were asked your birthday. Then you were asked to think of something sad, happy, or anger-inspiring. Or you were asked about the last time you had something to eat. Finally you were shown this picture:
The picture, as many of you surmised, contains no colors: it’s all different shades of gray, but you were asked to name any colors you did see. Gray, Black, and White were not in the list of choices.
So what was going on here?
The study was inspired by a study on synesthesia by Jamie Ward, which we analyzed in Cognitive Daily yesterday. Ward reported on a synesthete whose initials are GW. GW saw colors when she heard or read certain words; words associated with strong emotions were more likely to elicit a synesthetic response. One explanation of this phenomenon, put forward by neuscientist V. S. Ramachandran (as several commenters pointed out yesterday), suggests that synesthesia might be caused by hyperconnectivity of perceptual systems. In other words, all brain systems have some connections to other systems; in synesthetes, there are simply more connections between certain systems. So, for GW, it’s likely that her emotion centers were more connected to centers for color perception than in other individuals. The interesting tidbit here is the fact that even in normal individuals, all brain systems are also connected.
Perhaps, we thought, with a large enough sample, we could find synesthesia even in normal individuals. The birthday question was simply a way to divide participants into even groups. We wanted four groups of individuals. We attempted to induce three different emotions: happiness, sadness, and anger, by asking participants to think about a moment that had made them happy, sad, or angry. The fourth group was a control, and we simply asked those people questions about their daily routine — no emotion should have been induced. Finally, we showed them the gray “landscape” image, and asked what colors they saw. Here are the results:
As you can see, plenty of respondents indicated they saw colors. What’s more, there were significant differences in the colors they perceived, depending on the induced emotions. This result was achieved despite the fact that nearly half the participants skipped the last question entirely. Before we get to the significant results, however, let’s take a look at the general shape of the data. The most common responses were light blue, light purple, pink, and beige. While there were a some yellows and greens, very few respondents indicated seeing red, orange, or brown.
For the happy group, the top three colors chosen were light purple, pink, and yellow. For the sad group, light purple, beige, and pink, and for the angry group, light purple, light blue, and beige. Let’s take a closer look at the responses for the most common colors:
The happy group saw significantly less light blue than the control group. For the happy group, significantly more participants saw light purple than saw light blue, whereas there was no difference in the amount of those colors seen by the negative groups (angry and sad). There was a trend for the happy group to see less light and dark blue compared to the negative groups, and to see more light purple and pink. These results and trends correspond to GW’s response to emotional words: GW saw darker and less saturated colors like blues and black when the word described a negative emotion, and brighter and more saturated colors like purple, green, and yellow when the word described a positive emotion.
Does this mean we really do all have a little synesthesia? Based on these results, that might be taking things a little too far. Remember, GW’s phenomenon was instantaneous, and directly associated with the emotional words themselves. By contrast, in our study, we had to go to some lengths to induce the desired emotion. Even then, only a bit more than fifty percent of the respondents indicated seeing any color at all. The largest result, 23 percent of the happy group reporting seeing light purple, is still less than a quarter of respondents in that group. But there is significant evidence that, for many individuals, specific emotions are associated with perceiving specific colors in a neutral-colored image.