Cognitive Daily

Synesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon: It almost seems impossible that some people can see colors associated with sounds, emotions, or letters and numbers. Yet many do — as many as one percent of people experience some synesthesia.

V.S. Ramachandran and others have suggested that synesthesia is less of a disorder than an exaggeration of some aspects of the perceptual system. At CogDaily, we’ve even informally found that some colors are more frequently associated with particular emotions among our readers.

Now a new study has found some patterns in the perceptions of synesthetes:

Psychologist Daniel Smilek and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo have found that a relationship exists between how frequently a synesthete uses a given digit and the brightness of synesthetic color experiences. That is, the more often letters or digits are used in everyday life, the more luminous the synesthetic colors.

But this phenomenon extended beyond synesthetes:

The researchers also found that this relationship is not limited to synesthetic color experiences. When non-synesthetes were asked to select a colors to associate with each letter of the alphabet and the digits 0-9, the non-synesthetes also selected more luminous colors for digits and letters used more frequently.

The relationship between luminosity and frequency of use wasn’t as strong in non-synesthetes, but it was measurable. This certainly seems to support the notion that we all have a little synesthesia.

Comments

  1. #1 OsakaGuy
    September 20, 2007

    I have vague memories from a very young age (maybe when I was just learning to talk) about associating words or numbers I heard with various images that seemed unrelated to the meaning. I’m not sure if that was synesthesia though. Whatever it was it went away when I got older. I wonder if synesthesia is something left over from when the brain was developing and sorting things out during infancy.

  2. #2 Travis Seitler
    September 20, 2007

    I blame those magnetic alphabet sets. To this day I consider some words more “colorful” than others, based on the letters that appear in them. (BTW, “O” seems the most “colorful” to me–like a bright red.)

  3. #3 Jordan Peacock
    September 20, 2007

    I’ve never known a term for it before, but I can ‘taste’ certain things on sight or touch. It only occurs for orange juice or salsa, usually when I’m reaching for said item in a refrigerator, when I’ll have to stop because my taste senses just flood with the most potent feeling of the citrus or capsicum flavour.

    Doesn’t happen in any other contexts though.

  4. #4 Abby, 15 from Iowa.
    September 20, 2007

    I was so excited when I saw the title of this blog entry.
    I have experienced this for many years, not too strongly, but just enough to know that this is exactly what it is.
    About 2 years ago, a report was done on one of the late night news channels, primetime or the likes, that explained synesthesia.
    Other things associated with this are things like mental visuals of things. For example, when I think of the calendar, a year, January is about 2-3 feet above my head, whereas December is at my feet.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. #5 outlier
    September 20, 2007

    I thought for sure this post would be about phonic associations (sounds to letters/symbols), since most Americans know how to read.

  6. #6 Ryan Fox
    September 21, 2007

    It’s good to hear of interest research coming out of Waterloo!

  7. #7 Nelson
    September 21, 2007

    I have a weird one for you. When I was a child I associated numbers with a gender. Usually, even numbers were female and odd numbers were male. For some reason, though, 6 was male. This association only went up to about the number 12 or 13 (maybe that’s how high I could count!) Additionally, 8, for example, was slightly less feminine than other even numbers. Weird, I know.

  8. #8 mrG
    September 22, 2007

    When you think about it … our cognitive reality is not differentiated into channels, but one cohesive whole experience that we subjectively call ‘now’, made up entirely of the electro-chemical information coallated from all sorts of flesh-ware inputs. While the ears look different from the eyes in construction, both are electrical transducers, and the form of the information which reaches the neurocognitive system are all only “impulses”, rhythms and melodies of electrical potential. Does it not therefore make sense that the perception of the sum-total of these inputs would be holistic and gestalt, a single experience, and therefore quite open to synaesthetic phenomenon?

    It doesn’t surprise me that so many people are synaesthetic. It surprises me that so few are. I wonder if perhaps we are all synaesthetic, but through cultural conditioning and public education we have become so conditioned against it, so expecting of labels of ‘sickness’ and ‘broken’ that we learn at a very early age to simply not “see” the sounds or letters, and we stop listening to colours.

    But maybe it is still there. Every performing band knows that, and every movie score or restaurant ambience knows what “goes together” and what doesn’t.

  9. #9 Larry A. Noble
    September 22, 2007

    I can thank my daughter, a Psychlogy major at UC Santa Barbara for sending this article to me. I had no idea there was a condition known as synesthesia, but I believe I might have a version of it. I have associated color with hours of the day, days of the week, months of the year, years of the decade, decades of the century, and so on, and numbers too. I have been this way for at least fifty years and have never questioned it nor known anyone else who did this. I have worked as an artist/sculptor for 35 years, however, I’ve not met other artists who associate color in this way and I don’t, or haven’t, seen a corelation. I don’t see extremely bright colors, they are more pastel or muted. It has always been a “natural
    occurance” as I’ve never put a lot of thought to it, it just is the way I think. I’d like to know more about synesthesia.

  10. #10 zeferino
    October 1, 2007

    Tomatoes smell like green. I can’t explain it except to say that when I smell freshly picked tomatoes, my head fills with green like I’m seeing with my nose and green is all that exists. It is a very euphoric experience. My elm bonzai tree gives a diminished version of the sensation when I trim it and smell the clippings. Maybe I should take up gardening!

  11. #11 Annette Shiley
    October 13, 2007

    I was interested by Nelson’s comments on associating gender with certain numbers. It reminded me that when I was in third grade my family moved just before the end of the school year. For some reason I turned my domino set into a replica of the classroom I had just left. There were just enough dominoes to match one to each classmate, plus the teacher and one for the door(!). I must have missed them a lot, because I played this ‘classroom domino’ game a lot. The interesting thing is that certain dominoes had to be females and certain males. I’ve posted a gif file of which dominoes were girls and which were boys…I wonder if this was some form of synesthesia? (Check out the file at: http://picasaweb.google.com/anetsstuff/DominoClass/photo#5120739573060072258)

  12. #12 J
    November 13, 2007

    Jordan, that’s not synesthesia… that’s good old classical conditioning!

  13. #13 Michael Keenan
    November 13, 2007

    Try a little LSD and then listen to Jimmy Hendrix. The so-called five senses is a weak model. 5 x 5 permutations is more like it. I think we are acculturated not to fully use our senses in the quantum field. Remember the tribe that could not “see” the Polaroid image of themselves.

    Happy Trails, Michael Keenan

  14. #14 David Harmon
    November 13, 2007

    MrG: Your version of the idea that “perhaps we are all synaesthetic” is surely well-meant, but I suspect you’ve slipped into the error trying to “simplify” human variation. It’s not just the confusion of senses that’s interesting here — it’s also the diversity of the phenomenon: Most people don’t experience it in everyday life, but some do. Those who do seem to fall into more-or-less distinct types, and that in itself is a hint about how our minds work. So is the gradiation in “strength”, ranging roughly from association to hallucination.

    The direct involvement of letters and digits is noteworthy in itself, because unlike sight, hearing, smell, etc. those are “evolutionarily novel” developments. Yes, there are various areas of the brain known to handle letter recognition and such, but of course various humans developed writing systems that most of them could use! So here we have these new functions crowding into the brain, and oddly enough, they sometimes get crosswired with some of the other visual pathways…. (Hey… does anyone know (of) a synaesthete who assigns non-verbal sounds to letters and numbers?)

  15. #15 musical synesthete
    November 14, 2007

    There are several different variations of synaesthesia.

    Personally, I have a form of synaesthesia that allows me to “see” music. When I hear music, I can see the notes in my minds eye.

  16. #16 Drugmonkey
    November 14, 2007

    know those little pockets of baking powder that turn up in very badly mixed muffins? I used to taste those very strongly as “blue crayon” as a kid. this was the percept anyway. not that I equated it with any real crayon taste of any color…just that my percept was of a blue crayon for some reason.

  17. #17 Drugmonkey
    November 14, 2007

    oh and what’s with all the Rama fandom around SB these days anyway. sheesh. like his head isn’t big enough already…

  18. #18 Luna_the_cat
    November 28, 2007

    I’ve always wondered if I were a little bit synesthete. Music is color as well as sound, to me; I don’t see musical notes, I hear complexes of color (I also “hear” some colors when I see them; for example, the classic #0000FF blue is the D below middle C, the #00FF00 green is E flat above middle C, and the #FF0000 red is B flat above middle C). And numbers are definitely gendered: 2,5,7,0 are female and 3,4,6,8,9 are male, and 1 is ambiguous — but they also have personalities, weirdly, and a certain non-taste taste, unique to each. I have no idea why. There is a certain amount of that effect with letters, but it isn’t so strong. I wonder if it’s because I actually learned numbers and started learning maths about a year before I started to read the alphabet.

  19. #19 oddmartin
    December 10, 2007

    I’ve always been able to hear patterns, the pattern of leaves on a wet pavement for example, or the sound of shadows on the grass. I love to travel by air – because the music clouds make is beautiful. I also hear emotions – which will probably not surprise anyone – but it can make it hard to manage intense emotions sometimes. The most beautiful ‘music’ comes from intense emotional and physical interactions. The sound of my fingertips over my lover’s thighs is like wind through pine trees. Her eyes are like dripping water (but after a storm – does that make sense?) it sounds poetic, but it’s just what it is. It’s not what you would expect either. The image may be peaceful, but the sonuds are confusing or complex for example.

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