When emotions make you see colors

i-765f5d0ceb6d9abc4c0d174db05683c8-synaesthesia1.jpgA Witches' Bible states that "the sensitive is psychically aware of character qualities, or emotional or spiritual states, in the subject, and this awareness presents itself to him or her as visual phenomena." It's easy to dismiss such claims as pseudoscientific claptrap, yet there exist humans who, when presented with nonvisual stimuli such as tastes or smells, perceive visual imagery. I'm talking about the scientifically recognized condition, synesthesia. Synesthetes are people who perceive stimuli presented in one mode (often corresponding to one of the five senses) with a different mode. For example, musical tones might also be perceived as colors, or a friend might appear to have blue lips (as rendered in the photo of my son Jim at left).

Might it also be possible for a synesthete to associate emotions with visual images? British psychologist Jamie Ward believes he has found an individual (a nineteen-year-old woman whose initials are GW) with just such a condition. GW says she perceives "auras" around the faces of certain people, and when she sees or hears some words, she perceives colors (the same color always associated with the same word), which occupy her entire field of vision.

But how does Ward know GW isn't just fabricating the entire story?

GW was given a list of 83 words and asked to indicate any colors she associated with them. One week later, she was given the same list; her associated colors were 87 percent consistent. A group of (non-synesthete) volunteers performing the same task achieved an accuracy of only 47 percent. Even four months later, GW was still 76 percent consistent.

Even more remarkable were GW's results on the Stroop task. In the classic Stroop experiment, we are shown a word, such as GREEN, and asked to indicate the color it is printed in. When the meaning of the word itself conflicts with the word's color, the task is more difficult. There's a good demo of the effect here. For GW, the task was modified: in pre-testing, she had identified fifteen names of friends which were associated with particular colors. Now these names were presented back to her on a computer monitor. Her task was to name the color the names were displayed in. Half the time, the text was displayed in the color she associated with the name, and half the time, the text was displayed in a different color. In a second task, she was asked to identify the color which the name induced for her. Here are the results:


When the color of the text matched the induced color, she was significantly faster in naming the color. When there was a mismatch, naming the color, whether of the text itself or the induced color, was significantly slower. In non-synesthetes, there was no significant difference when they performed a similar task.

Unlike many other synesthetes, most words do not induce a color at all for GW. Ward found that the words which most frequently induced colors were names of people she knew, with almost 80 percent of well-known friends' names inducing a color, but even common names like Anne or Edward, which didn't happen to correspond to someone GW knew, inducing almost no colors. Ward speculated that an emotional connection, rather than the names themselves, was possibly what induced the colors for GW. When tested on ordinary words, the incidence of synesthetic responses was considerably lower, around 15 percent. But words which rated highly on a scale of emotionality induced colors for GW nearly 40 percent of the time. Moreover, different emotions tended to elicit different colors, with negative emotions trending towards dark, less saturated colors like black and grey, while positive emotions trended towards brighter, more saturated colors like yellow, pink, and green.

Ward points out that several other studies have shown a similar correspondence between color and emotion -- people tend to associate lighter and more saturated colors like yellow, green, and red with positive emotions, and darker and less saturated colors with negative emotions. GW, he argues, may be merely experiencing an exaggerated version of this effect. Neuroscientists have suggested that the cause of synesthesia may be related to hyperconnectivity between brain regions; the particular regions that are connected then explain the particular instantiation of synesthesia.

Synesthesia may also explain why so many folkloric traditions involve special people being able to see "auras" or other mystical features in others. These individuals might then be imbued by association with other "magical" abilities. Though GW doesn't claim to have any additional special abilities, Ward argues that it's not difficult to imagine people in a different time and culture attributing supernatural powers as a way to explain why rare individuals seemed to possess additional sensory capabilities.

Ward, J. (2004). Emotionally mediated synaesthesia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 21, 761-772.

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V. Ramachandran has researched and published on synesthesia, offering evidence and hypotheses for cross-wiring in different sensory-processing regions of the brain. I had wondered if historical individuals considered highly 'spiritual' possessed the trait, which concurs with your ponderings. Regardless, like Ramachandran, I wonder if we all have some tendency for a degree of synesthesia. Perhaps it is not a 'black and white' phenomenon.

A friend who is more than slightly Aspergers' syndrome is also synesthetic. We've had some very enlightening discussions, and he had to learn why his synesthesia was considered 'abnormal' :)

Thanks for the post.

V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard had an article, "Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes" in the May 2003 issue of Scientific American. You can buy it at SciAm's website. Back then they said their research was pointing to the TPO junction/angular gyrus as the main place synesthesia happens. To me, even more interestingly they make a case their research "also found new clues to some of the most mysterious aspects of the human mind, such as the emergence of abstract thought, metaphor and perhaps even language." - from the Sciam website.

They published a paper, Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought, and language [pdf] in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3 - 34 (2001). Many newer publications on synesthesia are available on Hubbard's website.

By SkookumPlaanet (not verified) on 16 Mar 2006 #permalink

The answer to why people believe weird things may tell us more about how our mind and our world work. The pat answers, gullibility ignorance, upbrining etc may not be the whole story. I've wondered why shamanistic cultures world over think plants are "like people"? Hallucinogenic plants? Plant induced hallucinations often involve talking plants. Could this be like host manipulation? Its in the "evolutionary interest" of the plant to be seen as sacret and protected. Perhaps plant phytochemicals in ordinary vegetables have subtle mind altering effects we've missed. Or maybe I've been eating too much broccali lately.


It's not just plants that primal hunter-gatherer cultures saw/see "like people". It's also animals, rocks, mountains, rivers, clouds -- their entire environment.

Last fall I read a book I'd had on my shelf for years, The Prehistory of the Mind: The cognitive origins of art, religion and science, [1996], by British archaeologist Steven Mithen [2 sentence review -- He makes a good case for how the modern, modular mind that cognitive science tells us we have came into being during the so-called "big-bang of culture", 50,000 years ago, plus or minus. His contribution is accounting for the archaeological record leading up to this event and the problems and insights it presents.]

Relevant to your comment is something he pointed out, two things I 've long known but had never put together.

1) Hunter-gatherer cultures are renowned, in science and in larger culture, for their encyclopedic knowledge of their environment.

2) When you actually pay attention to how these cultures talk about and perceive that environment, it's always in terms of living beings the interact socially, more or less like people. It's the entire environment, not just plants.

Hunter-gathers don't know anything about the water cycle, trophic levels, instinctual behavior, what causes seasons or, in hunter-gatherer cultures I'm familiar with, the life cycle of salmon. It's all social interaction, codified into myths and stories so that this social knowledge can be transmitted down through time.

And, as a teaser for you, he shows this mapping of social intelligence onto natural history intelligence provides a key for understanding what took place in our ancestor's brains that led to the dawn of adornment, spirituality, and the jobs of all these SBers.

By SkookumPlanet (not verified) on 16 Mar 2006 #permalink

"1) Hunter-gatherer cultures are renowned, in science and in larger culture, for their encyclopedic knowledge of their environment.

2) When you actually pay attention to how these cultures talk about and perceive that environment, it's always in terms of living beings the interact socially, more or less like people. It's the entire environment, not just plants."

Perhaps this is multi-factorial, aka biology, psychology and sociology.
Our modern technological society tends to widen the gap between our interaction with the environment, even with each other. We may be adopting a social 'desensitization' or dissociation with our environment.

When I was at OSU long conversations over coffee with an organic chemist centered on ethnobotony (her interests were plant chemicals and their use in medicine and consciousness alteration). She suspected that several plant constituents permanently, as well as acutely, altered brain function hence their historic use in 'spiritual' ceremonies.

Some growing evidence supports this, oddly enough arising from addiction research. Ramachandran mentions this as well in his book "Phantoms in the Brain". Studies have suggested that some hallucinogens rewire the brain. Conjecture even explores if we are born with high perception capability which is lost as we develop into adolescence and adults. And perhaps some of these plants (and drugs) recover that hightened perception.

Although recently derided by modern neuroscientists, brain function studies of the Buddhist monks may also be revealing: what *is* the realm of our innate perception and capabilities? Or should we just remain in our little self-imposed closed boxes where it is comfortable and familiar? :)

I've always associated colors with letters and numbers, though I don't actually see them when reading. Black text is black text, but I "know" that 'A' is yellow and 'M' is purple. The first time I realized this was when we had to do a color-by-number in kindergarten and '7' was green and '8' was blue. I was mildly upset because they had it backwards.

Hello all,

Just a quick note about synesthesia, and the scientific research on it. The phenomenon was first discussed over 100 years ago, both in artistic domains like poetry (Rimbaud, Beaudelaire), music and art (think Kandinsky) and in scientific domains. Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin, notorious for his advocacy of eugenics) published a number of scientific papers in Nature in 1880. From then until about 1920, there was a huge wave of interest in synesthesia. With the rise of behaviorism in psychology, this interest died out until better methods to explore this phenomenon were developed.

My research with Ramachandran was part of a new wave of interest in this phenomenon in the late 1990s. Now there are perhaps a dozen groups around the world that are interested in the psychology and neuroscience, and even genetics of synesthesia. In addition, there is an international mailing list with perhaps 1000 synesthetes who subscribe at any time, who share their experiences, and find out more about themselves along the way. Many synesthetes have kept their experiences secret because they were afraid of being told they were crazy! Indeed, many have been told they were crazy.

I completed my PhD work with Ramachandran in 2004 and am now working in Paris as a post-doc, examining a form of synesthesia in which ordinal sequences like numbers, days of the week, and months of the year evoke spatial locations.

If you are interested in participating in this research, or in finding out more about resources for synesthetes, please feel free to contact me (edhubbard AT gmail DOT com).

Best wishes,


Edward M. Hubbard, PhD
NUMBRA Post-Doctoral Fellow
INSERM Unit 562 - Neuroimagerie Cognitive
Service Hospitalier Frederic Joliot CEA
4 pl. du General Leclerc
Orsay, F91401 France