For as long as I can remember, since I was a wee-little girl, I’ve been aware of the fact that every word I read and every word I hear is colored. In fact, every letter and every number has its “own color”. I see these so vividly and so automatically in my mind — without any conscious effort or control — that I’ve always thought it was a completely common experience for everyone.
My earliest recollection of it is in kindergarten; when I was playing with magnetic alphabet letters, I felt that “A” was indeed a very red letter (as it was in that set of Fisher Price magnets). I also remember that, in Grade 1, the teacher had posted large alphabet cards above the blackboard from A to Z, with a corresponding example of a French word that began with that letter. I remember thinking that île (island) was “a very yellow word”. Another very strong early memory comes from the times when my sister and I used to play the game of Life for hours on end, and I would spin the wheel and feel quite unsettled that the number six was yellow instead of olive green, and that the number one definitely should have been reddish-brown instead of blue. I didn’t vocalize any of this until sometime in early high school when I was shopping for notebooks and school supplies, and I finally told my mom that I needed a green notebook for Physics (“because Physics is a green subject!”) and a blue notebook for Math. I thought she knew exactly what I meant — well, because Moms know everything — but it turns out she had absolutely no clue.
It wasn’t until a Neuroscience class during the first semester of my Master’s (age 22 and still very much coordinating my school folders to the color of each course subject) when I finally discovered that this “condition” actually had a name: synesthesia. I approached the Prof. after class (as he does research on the neurobiological basis of synesthesia) and he enthusiastically asked if I would take a battery of tests. I sat in a tiny windowless office for two hours, answering detailed questionnaires, and assigning all letters, numbers and days of the week a precise shade of color in PowerPoint, until it was confirmed that I was indeed a synesthete. Who knew!
Synesthesia, from the Greek “syn” (meaning “together”) and “aesthesis” (meaning “sense perception”), is a relatively rare and fascinating phenomenon characterized by an unusual blending of the senses, where specific physical stimuli consistently elicit more than one perceptual experience, typically across multiple sensory modalities. There are different types of synesthesia, depending on which senses have been blended. Certain sounds (e.g. musical notes) or visual symbols (e.g. letters or numbers) can induce vivid experiences of color, touch, taste, smell, or can even evoke specific personalities. These experiences differ from synesthete to synesthete, but, in all cases, they are completely involuntary and remain consistent over time.
My own experience is termed grapheme-color synesthesia. The colors I see appear in my mind, although I can project them onto a page or a blank wall, if I just think of the letter or word. The first letter of the word usually colors the rest of the word. For example, the letter C is mustard yellow, as is the word “cat” or “catastrophe”. The colors really depend on the orthography of the word and not the sound it makes. For example, “photography” and “psychology” are both clover green, whereas “site” doesn’t share the mustard yellow of “cite” (and is dark red instead) although they share the same sound. Interestingly, the days of the week and months of the year have their own special colors, that do not necessarily correlate with the first letter of each word. Numbers, unlike words, are colored according to the individual digits; for example, 27 is not just one color, but is made up of a yellowish-orange 2 and a reddish-brown 7.
Some letters and numbers (and even punctuation marks) generate very salient color experiences – they pop out at me and I can describe or pinpoint their exact shade. Others, while still automatic and beyond my control, feel slightly less salient, although I can’t explain exactly why this might be. One thing is for sure, though: when I see font colors that are incongruent with my “own colors” it is such an anxiety-inducing feeling! I feel like part of me is running psychotically around in circles inside, or that I am about to bite off all my nails in angst! A synesthete’s experiences are so second nature to them, they are quite difficult to suppress.
[Do you think I sound crazy yet?]
I have these experiences in the different languages I speak, and I generally have the same letter-color associations in each of my languages. However, I’ve noticed that, in Armenian (my mother tongue), the script has its own colors, which don’t match up at all with the colors I see for letters in English, French, Italian, Spanish or German. I’ve also noticed that my synesthetic experience is not as strong in Armenian, possibly because I am (unfortunately) not as proficient in its written form anymore. Some letters are colored, while others are grey and I have to think about them for a second or two – something I don’t ever have to do in any other orthography. Similarly, languages with scripts I cannot read, like Greek or Russian, are not colored at all.
Although letters and words typically share the same color associations across my languages, some symbols do not. Quotation marks, for example, are red in English (” “), blue in French («, ») and yellow in German („“)! So, the colors seem to be tied to a particular written form, rather than to the underlying concept.
Another interesting observation is that, in some cases, the meaning of a word actually influences its color. “Acqua” in Italian is blueish-grey, instead of being red like the letter A. The word “blue” is actually blue, rather than being orange like the letter B. Oddly enough, though, the word “green” is brownish-red and not green, so I have no idea what makes the meaning prevail in some cases but not in others.
I feel by now that these colors are very much a part of me. I can peacefully co-exist with them without them without having to think much about them. There are many upsides to this form of synesthesia. For one, it helps me quickly detect information on a page or a list (I can search by color, as my eyes flit over the page!). It really helps me remember things, such as phone numbers or names (e.g. I know my doctor’s office is on the 3rd floor because I remember that it’s a green number!). Of course, this also creates problems; I often confuse numbers or names because of their similar color. For example, I always make the mistake of thinking that the metro station Vendome is on the green line instead of the orange line (because V-words are green). Then there’s also the disadvantage of being called a “weirdo” by your family members and friends who don’t see what you see … but you get used to that after a while!
In addition to seeing colors in response to orthographic symbols, there are a number of other “odd” spatial experiences linked to my form of synesthesia. Words and bits of sentences appear “on the screen” in my mind as they are spoken. Days of the week are organized in a specific way (left to right), as are months of the year (top to bottom). I find it really difficult to navigate in space and often get turned around very easily. I’m also not very good at giving or following directions. These are traits that have been associated with synesthesia, as have other cognitive characteristics like difficulties in arithmetic (simple arithmetic is challenging to me!) and left-right confusion (please don’t judge this PhD student who hesitates for a moment between left and right!), as well as high memory skills (thankfully, finally, a positive trait!).
Although the occurrence of synesthesia has been reported for over a century, it was long treated as a subjective experience unworthy of scientific investigation. Recently, however, a growing body of research has begun to investigate the cognitive and neural bases of synesthesia and has demonstrated that these experiences are real and verifiable. It has been claimed that synesthesia arises from neurodevelopmental differences in the maturation of the brain, which give rise to atypical connections between different brain regions that would not normally interact. In grapheme-color synesthesia, it may be that the brain areas involved in color processing and in the identification of letters and numbers are connected or “cross-activated”.
Brain imaging studies have revealed significant differences between the brains of synesthetes and non-synesthetes in the way they respond to linguistic stimuli such as graphemes and phonemes (written symbols and sounds). For grapheme-color synesthetes, letters and words have been shown to elicit activation in the brain regions actually involved in processing color, whereas this enhanced activation was not found in non-synesthetes, nor for stimuli that do not typically induce internal color experiences in these individuals. In addition to activating early visual areas responsible for the perception of color, synesthetes also activated “higher-order” brain areas responsible for the cross-modal integration of language and visual form (for details, see: Hubbard et al., 2005; Paulesu et al., 1995; Sperling et al., 2005; Weiss et al., 2005).
So, there you have it! A glimpse into my nutty world of colors. Maybe this is why I have so much color in my home (and at my desk at the lab) and a slight aversion to plain white. Needless to say, I find synesthesia absolutely COOL as a phenomenon — a unique occurrence that can serve to provide a window into perception, cognition and language, and the connection between them.