Synesthesia: how I associate colours to letters

by Matthew James Taylor on 14 June 2007

Synesthesia: how I associate colours to letters and numbers
My coloured alphabet

For as long as I can remember I have associated particular colours to each letter of the alphabet. I thought I was crazy; that was until I discovered I was not alone with these experiences...

My synesthesia story

It all began one day in primary school when my class was doing a colouring-in exercise. The teacher gave us a piece of paper with the letters of the alphabet in an outlined font. Our task was to colour them; an easy job you might think, but for me it was quite distressing.

In the middle of our desks we had tins of coloured pencils and the selection of colours was poor, this was where my problems began. I had a very strong sense of which colour each letter had to be, and so naturally, I chose coloured pencils that matched. This was all well and good when I needed a red, yellow or blue pencil but things became difficult when I wanted an odd colour like faded deep blue or dirty pink.

I tried blending colours together to get the right hue but my colouring skills weren't very good at such a young age, the result was less then desirable. I decided it would be easier to look for more coloured pencils on some of the other desks. As I walked around the room I noticed to my horror that the other kids were colouring their letters in completely the wrong colours! I was quite upset. To me, the colours of the alphabet were such a strong sensation that I could never imagine them being any other hue.

Immediately I began telling the other kids that their drawings were wrong. I explained what colours the letters 'should' be and I was quite forceful about it. Many of the kids followed my suggestions but there were some that stood up to me and as a result of these disagreements the class was disrupted. The teacher stepped in to resolve the dispute and naturally she explained that there was no right or wrong colour for each letter. I was so confused. Obviously my teacher had never heard of synesthesia and she probably thought I was just being a difficult child. I went back to my desk disillusioned and continued to colour my letters in the right colours as best I could, all the while trying to understand the situation.

Because of my bad experience in the classroom, from that point on I stopped telling other people about my alphabet colours. I thought that something was wrong with me and I didn't want other people to know. I did share my experiences with some close friends and relatives but I always got the same response; are you crazy?

It wasn't until years later when I finally came to understand my condition. When I got access to the internet for the first time, one of the things I researched was coloured alphabets. To my surprise I discovered many people had similar experiences as me and the condition was well documented. It is called synesthesia.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia can be explained as a kind of mixture or cross-wiring of the senses. It is a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualisation of a colour. This secondary stimulus does not replace the primary one but is an additionally perceived input. In this regard, synesthetes can quite often see more when they look out on the world.

There are many forms of synesthesia and no two people who have this condition are the same. The most common experiences reported by synesthetes are associating colours to musical notes or seeing letters and numbers as particular hues. But when comparing people that suffer similar forms, the details rarely match. One persons letter A may be red and another person will see it as green. There does not appear to be a common basis as to which colour a sufferer will see but once the association is in place it is there for life. Synesthetes tested decade's later consistently report exactly the same results.

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Matthew James Taylor