Synesthesia & the Way We See Colour


I mentioned once or twice on this blog that I have something called Synesthesia. This is by no means anything serious, it's sort of like a reverse form of colour-blindness in that it adds more colour perception to everyday life. When I was little, I didn't realise that not everyone 'saw' colour where I saw it. For example, when someone said a day of the week, or when I thought of a specific day, my head seemed to be flooded with a specific colour, which I would 'see' throughout the day. I've done up a small example above of how I 'see' the days of the week. But this also extends to other areas in my life: how I 'see' films, books, months, years, and so on. It's really quite difficult to describe because ostensibly, we're not supposed to 'see' or visualise through colour things like days or weeks in the same way that we would perhaps recognise a banana as yellow, or the sky as blue. But even those basic things we take for granted (the sky is blue, the grass is green, blood is red), aren't in themselves objectively observed, even if we think they are.

peachy blue

I watched a fascinating BBC documentary last night on how we see colour differently and alike. I was so drawn to this documentary that I felt like I had to write about it today, so I won't forget. The documentary sought to explore the main question of, do we all see the same colours? And the answer was suitably complex. What it shows is that colour is not an objective quality - a banana isn't really yellow, but we interpret it as such. Another way of putting this is that colour is not just 'seen' through the eyes, but created in your brain. This is pretty basic science, I know. But since I'm not a scientist, I approach this differently; it kind of opens up an interpretive door for me, creatively.

peachy pink

I come from a cultural studies background. So the suggestion that colour perception is dependent upon subjective qualities like the memories you carry, the moods you feel, the language you speak and the culture that you inhabit, seems to provide direct links between scientific and cultural understanding. In the documentary, there was a specific case study used as evidence to show that culture and environment play a large part in how we perceive and 'see' colour. A small African tribe, which only has 5 words for colours, as opposed to the general 12 words in most Western countries, couldn't differentiate between blue and green. Both colours looked the same to them. Yet, they were able to tell the difference between two shades of green, which look the same to most Westerners. The members of this tribe also referred to water as 'white' and the sky as 'black', which seems totally incomprehensible to most Westerners. This experiment sought to show that language and culture play a significant role in how our brain interprets the colours around us, and that even basic things like the colour of water and the sky, are not the same around the world.

colour associations

Isn't this just amazing? Don't you feel in awe of our brains when you find out stuff like this? I don't know why, but one of the ideas that popped into my head as I was watching this documentary was design blogs and colour. I wonder, how much of their appeal lies in the way they 'speak' to our colour perception? For example, some of my favourite posts on design blogs are about colour-coordinated designs. There is something about this colour coordination that instinctively appeals to me, like the smell of something good. In that sense, are our responses to surface design really that 'superficial', or are our brains simply responding to colour as a symbol of both our personal and cultural history?

peachy grey

Even in Western countries, while we may have common colour vision when it comes to most basic things, the personal way we see a colour when we're sad, happy, remember something, can be different. We may see the sky as blue, but maybe our individual perception of 'blue' is vastly different. This brings me back to my discussion of Synesthesia. It occurred to me that while my brain sees the basics like everyone else around me in my culture, it adds extra colour associations where technically, there shouldn't be any. And these associations are based on my individuality. I've filled this post with some of the shades/colour-coordinations that appeal to me for various reasons because they recall sensory experiences, books I've loved and involuntary colour associations I make. But this one in particular represents a connection I have between colour and scent:

rose copper

This is a colour association I make when I put on my favourite perfume. I wonder if the reason I love this perfume so much has anything to do with its actual scent, and more to do with the colour it evokes for me. Who knows. But isn't it fun to think about these things?

I've heard that Synesthesia is fairly common, does anyone else happen to have it?

EDIT: Sorry guys, I forgot to mention that the documentary is called 'Do you see what I see?' And the tribe it investigates is called the Himba tribe.