Grapheme-colour synesthesia: How I associate colours to letters
For as long as I can remember I have associated particular colours to each letter of the alphabet and each number:
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 worked well for basic colours like red, yellow or blue 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 I could only do so much with the limited colours available. 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.
I immediately began telling the other kids that their drawings were wrong.
I explained what colours each letter 'should' be and I was quite forceful about it. Many of the kids followed my suggestions but some 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 difficult. 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 that I finally came to understand my condition.
When I got access to the internet, one of the first things I researched was coloured alphabets. To my surprise, I discovered many people had similar experiences and the condition was well documented.
It was called synesthesia.
What is synesthesia?
Synesthesia can be explained as a kind of mixture or cross-wiring of the senses.
It's 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 as I do, this is called grapheme-colour synesthesia.
Interestingly, when comparing people that suffer similar forms of synesthesia, the details rarely match. One person's letter A may be red and another person can 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's there for life. Synesthetes tested decade's later consistently report exactly the same results.
I found the following video absolutely fascinating because it offers the first explanation of how synesthesia works that I have found.
A short summary of Ramachandran's explanation of synesthesia
Babies are born with a highly interconnected brain, then as they grow older the cross-wiring is trimmed down naturally.
In some families, there must be a genetic condition that causes this trimming to be less effective. The end result is synesthetes (people with synesthesia) have areas of cross-wiring still intact.
This causes normally separate areas of the brain to remain linked. For me, these areas are colours, numerals and letters.
Vilayanur argues that this cross-wiring of the brain leads to a greater propensity for metaphorical thinking and creativity. The condition is eight times more common in creative people like artists, musicians and novelists.
I'm definitely creative, and creativity runs through my family, particularly on my Dad's side (he was a full time artist and art teacher). Maybe there is a science behind creativity after all?
My wife also has synesthesia so if the condition is hereditary then the chance is our son may have it too.
If you find this talk fascinating then I highly recommend Vilayanur's book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind.
I first read his book a number of years ago but it wasn't until his talk on TED that I learned of his work regarding Synesthesia.