Monday, May 24, 2010

on synesthesia

I can smell the colors outside on my lawn
The moist green organic that my feet tread upon
And the black oleander surrounded by blue
I get so overwhelmed by olfactory hues

Synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes stimulus in one sensory pathway to trigger involuntary responses in other sensory pathways (ie hearing colors, tasting pain, touching flavors), kind of sounds like it's made up. It kind of sounds like the thing that happens to people that take hallucinogens and maybe insane people.

But doctors estimate that anywhere between 1 in 100000 to as many as 1 in 200 people are legitimate synesthetes. The most common type of synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein letters and numbers (called collectively 'graphemes') are perceived to have a distinct color--about 65% of people with synesthesia experience this. And I am one of them! offers a full grapheme-color synesthesia test. In the test, the letters of the alphabet and numerals 0-9 are flashed randomly and the user must pick a color associated with each one. Each grapheme is posted three times. After the user has selected a color for each grapheme three times, the results are analyzed. Here are my results, which as you can see very conclusively determined that I have grapheme-color synesthesia:

Nabokov, whom we've established is one of my favorite authors, was a grapheme-color synesthete too. He described his experience gorgeously:

In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull, green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e's and i's, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u. In the brown group there are rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h.

I have a similar idea of my letters, bordering on and perhaps fully qualifying as grapheme personification, wherein letters and numbers have genders and personalities. Soft, feminine bilabial plosives B and P are a soft, maternal pink. Masculine, nasal M and N are a macho dark green and blue. Simple I and O are white--something that many grapheme-color synesthetes experience in common.

It is difficult to explain but I do not see these colors when I see letters and numbers in front of me. I see that the text I am typing is black on white. But somehow I perceive the letters and numbers to have the color. Whatever part of your brain lights up when you see a blue ball--that's the part of my brain that lights up when I see an E or an S. I am fully aware that it is not actually blue, but my brain recognizes it as being blue. Am I making any sense?

Over the last few years, I've realized that my grapheme-color synesthesia isn't just a random experience that I have. I've come to understand how much it affects my day-to-day life--basically always for the better.


Which seems like it would be easier to remember? You can ask me a year from now what number I used in this example and I'll still remember--that streak of yellow-pink-green is impossible to forget.


Times tables are boring, right? No. They are gorgeous.

Most people can recognize the elegance of the x9 times tables--how the digits in the products all add up to 9, how the first and second digits in the products run exactly from 0 to 9 backwards and forwards, respectively. With the benefit of color, these fineries are amplified and put on display.

Moreover, I have realized recently that I work arithmetic in my head using color. When I see a simple sum, I think not 2 + 3 = ? but rather something more like pink plus yellow equals what? I think when I'm moving really fast it's more like just pink yellow blue. This makes me pretty handy with mental math and adding long columns of numbers and stuff.


Grey is not the preferred spelling in the US for the shade between black and white. But in my mind, it is the only way to spell it. Just look at this.

Does it make sense for there to be a big splash of RED in the middle of the word gray? Ew. No. Grey it is.

Or how about:

Even though Vergil is *technically* better, since his full name was Publius Vergilius Maro, Vergil just looks so NERDY. Everything was fine until that blue E came to town.


You can't crack a book about synesthesia without seeing this chart:

It demonstrates how synesthesia makes inconsistencies jump off the page. A non-synesthete has to hunt around for the 2s mixed in with the 5s. For me, the pink 2s leap out among the blue 5s.

This skill comes in handy, since I make a living as an editor. My grapheme-color synesthesia makes typos and other errors pop out.

My brain immediately identifies that gold-red-pink-yellow ("wakl") is an odd combination before I even consciously realize that there is a typo.


Perhaps my loyal readers who remember my academic background are wondering whether I have a synesthetic reaction to Greek letters as well. The answer is yes. I had never really thought about it very hard until this moment, but I do. I was lost so far in thought as I made this chart that I forgot the omega! Shameful.

I think my synesthetic reaction to the Greek alphabet is very telling. The colors are by and large the same as the letters they closely correspond to in English, whether the letters look the same (as in alpha [Α/α] and A) or not (as in gamma [Γ/γ] and G). But what about the letters that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Like the long E sound eta (Η/η)? Eta takes on not the royal blue of E but rather the green hue of the H and N the capital and lowercase letters resemble. Theta (Θ/θ) makes a "th" sound, and the blue T and green H combine to create a lovely blue-green theta.

Perhaps most odd is psi (Ψ/ψ) and phi (Φ/φ), which make a "ps" and "ph" sound respectfully. My brain is so broken by these characters that they are the only graphemes I see in gradient--psis fading pink to blue to white and phis pink to green to white, mimicking the way the words "phi" and "psi" look spelled out in English. I don't begin to understand what all this implies about my synesthesia but I think it's pretty interesting.


While grapheme-color is definitely the strongest and most persistent and consistent synesthesia that I experience, I have a number of other synesthetic reactions. I often experience taste-color, but it so often corresponds to the color of the food itself that it is usually unremarkable. I mentioned a recipe not tasting "red" enough in this post. I also have music-spatial, touch-color, and a whole passel of other synesthesia-esque experiences.

I know that my synesthesia and my interest in writing have to have something to do with one another, but I haven't quite touched on how yet. Maybe my unique sensory perspective makes it into my writing? Perhaps it will make me Nabokavian. A girl can only type rainbow-colored letters and dream.

Discussion Question:
What is unusual about the way you perceive the world?


  1. you are my heeerrroooooo

    also, I TOTALLY AGREE about grey vs gray for the same reason but different colors! and i totally agree about all of the other grapheme-color stuff, except for the greek because i don't know greek. i am learning chinese and i having to transfer my synesthesia from the romanized chinese words onto the actual characters is damn hard.

    i also associate colors with music. i associate personalities with the integers 1-9. i am bitter because E is an unattractive beigey-pink for me, and it is the first letter of my name!

    that is all for now :)

  2. I'm so glad you read this, Erika! It's cool that you have the same experiences with how grapheme-color affects you. I can't imagine how Chinese is treating you--I read one account of a synesthete who just had to stop trying to learn Japanese bc all the characters were black.

    Oh btw K is hot pink, but that was my favorite color when I was very little and I'm not sure that's a coincidence :)

    What is your music-color like? I can't even put my music-spatial experience into words--different sounds kind of have positions in space.

  3. Interesting, I also have synesthesia, but not grapheme-color synesthesia. I do have mild grapheme personification synesthesia, among a few other types. This is a very neat post, thanks!

  4. Thanks for reading, Rae! I'd love to hear more about your synesthetic experiences.

  5. Interesting perspective into your brain babe ;-)

  6. Now if only we could put YOUR weird brain into words...

  7. Grapheme-color synesthesia is FASCINATING. I really do believe it's part of the reason why I have such great retention when it comes to the written word.

    Beautifully written -- I love seeing how other people see words.

  8. Thanks for reading, Bethany! I'd love to know more about your experience with synesthesia.

  9. My husband and sister in law hear colors. They are both amazing pianists. They had a whole conversation one day in the truck about what colors were in a certain Beethoven piece. I was blown away. I didn't realize this existed until I met them.

  10. This is awesome, Katie. I am jealous. I had no idea you were editing in color!

  11. Cassidy--That's incredible! I can't imagine what that's like.

    Sam--technicolor copyediting, baby!

  12. I have a real problem with the concepts of Left and Right, but last night I told Naeole the fastest route to the river from a house I stayed at for 3 days on an island in the Danube River in Hungary (ten years ago). East out of the driveway, South past an empty field and east again on the main road until you get to the water.

    My internal compass is never wrong- a serious gift!

  13. Hi! This is the second blog post that I've read of yours and I must say you are great at blogging (and therefore writing).

    I have been reading about synesthesia for awhile, and I think a I might have a (couple) form(s) of it. Not color-grapheme, which would be really easy to determine and quite frankly, make the world lovely. I do have mild grapheme personification synesthesia (single digits definitely have a gender to me). I also have the vision-->touch type. Most notably certain images have a distinctly "itchy-feeling" to me (like a magnified picture of a razor blade).

    Thanks for your post, it definitely broadened my understanding.

  14. Hey Lani! Thanks for reading! I just followed your two blogs.

    I have never met anyone with vision/touch! That sounds really neat! Do any images give pleasant sensations?

  15. hey katie, so update: i tried to taking the battery, and got stuck in this one part where they're testing month/spatial-location relationship, and can't figure out how to advance thru to the end of the section to see my results for any of the other parts of the test:(

    however, i did discover after trying to take the musical chords/color test that my music synesthesia is more about sequences and not invdidual notes/chords. it's also not a very vivid impression: just a vague association/

  16. Oooh, idk. I remember that test taking a million years.

    Isn't it weird how paying attention to the reactions makes you realize that they are so much more intense than you even register?

  17. ok, figured it out yay!

    yes, it was crazy. i had to cover up all the colors when i clicked "submit" so that i wouldn't be distracted when the new letter popped up. but as soon as it did, i'd be like 'YELLOW!' right away. i was only inconsistent on a couple, but they were ones that i could find the right color for. incidentally, there was no proper color for E, which shares its color with P and 3 (maybe i have a rhyming thing??).

  18. Hey Katie! Article on CNN today about synesthesia.

    Apparently your brain work differently depending on whether you only associate colors with letters or actually "see" the colors. Which would you say is your experience?

    I love advances in neuroscience. How unspeakably titillating must it be to watch someone's brain light up as he thinks?

  19. Hey I've just recently been reading up on synesthesia even though I've known I have grapheme->colour and sound->colour,spatial,shape,texture for a couple years now. I never tried the test until yesterday. (0.35-0.49 in the graphemes, week, month and 0.45-0.69 in all the music ones) Funny Erika, that you said you had to cover up the colours when you clicked submit cause I had to do the same thing!

    I actually laughed out loud at the grey vs gray thing. So true. And so interesting that you, Erika and I all think the same thing (e is pale green for me and a is vibrant red/pink) AND at that so many synesthetes consider O to be white, including myself. And that everyone with this seems to do math the same way.

  20. Thanks for reading, Steven! Glad you enjoyed finding some kindred spirits :)

  21. Also, is it just me, or does seeing text actually displayed in the physical world as the colour that you perceive each letter with synesthesia give a feeling of relief and comfort? Like when you illustrated the name Virgil...

  22. Ooh, not for me! It just stresses me out that they aren't quite right :)

    1. I can't help but notice that some of the colors on your chart appear to be the same. Is that simply because the computer doesn't offer adequate color samples for you to find the right match or would those letters/numbers show up as the same color to you? For example, if someone were to write dictoin instead of diction, would you notice the difference via your synesthesia, or simply because it looks entirely wrong? I'm really curious -- synesthesia fascinates me!

  23. I heard about Synesthesia before, but i'd forgotten what it was.
    When I look at a flow chart or brainstorming sheet, about three seconds or so in, I can see these little green lines connecting things that most people wouldn't connect. It's a happy green, kind of like a lighter version of your sevens with a smidge more yellow in it.
    It's always the unlikely things influencing each other that most people seem to ignore or not realize.
    I also associate object or colours with emotions.

  24. Cool post! :D I know I'm a few years late, but I just found this. I don't have any kind of color synesthesia, but I have personification synesthesia with just about everything: letters, colors, music notes, textures... You said you wondered if synesthesia had something to do with your writing; I was wondering the same thing about myself. I find stories all over the place because of personification; every song is a story with distinct characters, and every math problem is a drama (unrequited love, psychos, romance...the whole gambit). I'm mainly curious as to whether or not others can come up with a detailed story for every piece of music they hear, or if this is just normal. I love hearing about other people's synesthesia - it makes me feel less crazy when I share XD

    1. I don't know if it's really unusual to come up with a detailed story for every piece of music -- I mean, I do that. But then again, maybe I'm just the same kind of crazy as you! :) I'd really like to find out if, in fact, I do have some form of synesthesia. I've been fascinated with it ever since I read the book "Ultraviolet". I feel like there are some associations my brain makes that other people wouldn't, but I don't know if I really qualify as a synesthete or not. How can I find out?