Synesthesia & the Way We See Colour

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


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.


Naomi Bulger said...

What a lovely and fascinating post. Yes, I've heard of synaesthesia, but alas I find it hard to understand. I think the closest I come is that I see colour when I listen to some music. But I suspect that's more of a sensation, like "this music is sea blue" but really, I say that because the music feels like being under water. I once watched a documentary about a deaf person who wrote music seen in colour. I think you are so lucky to have such a beautiful affinity with colour.

Amy said...

This documentary sounds enthralling. What was the title? I've always been interested in how we each see colors - perhaps because my father and maternal grandfather are both color blind. I remember learning that some of my favorite artists and composers had some type of synesthesia - Duke Ellington, David Hockney, for example - and being that much more pulled into their work. Did you ever have creative writing or art classes as a child that involved listening to music or looking at an artwork and interpreting it through art or writing? That seemed to be a very popular lesson plan at the schools and camps I attended - and when I think about letting my imagination and emotions pick out a color (or word) to go with the sounds I was hearing, it must have been a very different experience for a child with synesthesia.
I also wonder about how we hear things differently - especially for people who are very sensitive to sound, or who are affected by stressors easily. People who have certain kinds of neurological disorders often interpret a sound as threatening or interpret a vocal pattern as loud or obnoxious when most other people may not - I wonder how much of that is what they really hear and how much of it is in how the brain interprets the signals. People are so fascinating in so many ways.

Jane Flanagan said...

Ahh! I had no idea you are a synaesthete. I did my masters research on synaesthesia and perception of abstract art, so this is a topic very close to my heart and head.

It is fairly uncommon to be diagnosed as synaesthetic and in those individuals the correlations are not just between scent and colour, but can also include tactile responses to visual stimulus, taste responses to tactile stimulus etc. any cross-sensory perception. There was one memorable documentary called "your kisses taste like orange sherbet".

The interesting thing is the correlations in synaesthetes are consistent, so they are not simply cultural or memory based. But the common idea is that we are all born synaesthetic and gradually our sensory modules are separated, in different degrees in different individuals.

We all remain somewhat synaesthetic and can provoke a synaesthetic experience with the use of certain drugs. Some psychologists argue emotional responses to colour are actually synaesthetic responses. And of course language is littered with synaesthetic metaphor, like "bitter cold". David Hockney and Kandinsky are among some famous synaesthetes.

I'm happy to learn this about you! Thank you for writing this post!

hila said...

Jane, thank you! I didn't know this about you either. Thanks for correcting some of assumptions I made here, I find this all so fascinating. I admit, I'm coming purely from my own perspective and personal theories about it all.

I was tested for it. Up until then, I didn't really know whether I was one or not. My experience is based less on taste (although this is evident to a smaller degree), and more on colour and scent. Although, as you said, it's hard to differentiate. I wish I could describe it better.

I think we're all pretty amazing, this kind of stuff just confirms it for me. I wish I could read your thesis!

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

oh i saw the BBC documentary which was really quite interesting! i was also happy to discover how many creative people have synesthesia. quite amazing!

Jane Flanagan said...

oh whoops - I didn't mean to say all synaesthetes experience all types of cross-sensory perception, only that all types of cross-sensory perception can be deemed synaesthetic, so it's not limited to colour responses / associations. apologies for confusion!

if you're interested, I recommend papers by Richard Cytowic and Simon baron-cohen :)

Camille said...

I will most certainly try to find this documentary, it sounds fascinating. I first learnt about synesthesia when I read that Nabokov and his wife were both synaesthetes, and that their son would see (sees?) a combination of the colours his parents would envision.

I believe I might indeed have synesthesia, although my only symptoms are that I see numbers in colour and place numbers and years in a spacial order. For years, it's as if I was standing at the top of a mountain, representing the present day, and looking down at the past years although at some point they turn into parallel lines. I can also "transpose" myself in a different year, although then I will be facing the future and the further away years will be behind my back (it's a bit difficult to explain).
I am pretty sure my mother has it as well (she does see numbers in colour--and she was a math teacher, imagine the result!); she often helped me study for exams by making me place dates or names in houses in my street (although that might just be a studying trick).

Thank you for sharing this with us, I had been looking for the term describing this phenomenon for some time, and I didn't know it was a condition which I might have until recently.

Sasha said...

The documentary sounds amazingly thought provoking. I love that moment when you're watching something and everything tumbles and clicks into place and all you can do is marvel at the how complex and mysterious humanity is.

Wishcandy said...

I once mentioned having it in my painting class, wondering if it were common among creatives. Nobody else had it.

I hear images and color palettes fairly often. It's also not odd for me to eat something and taste color. It is hard to explain when these things happen.

wingeddeer said...

what a nice article. I've always been interested in synesthesia, mostly because of Nabokov, but some composers and musicians have it as well, like Scriabin, or...Kristin Hersh.
I tend to associate certain chords with colors too, but I don't think it's as consistent as it might be with them.
Anyway, your last bit about the perfume made me smile: I looked at the color and thought - could it be the one I use, that's the color I always thought it would be...and it was!! said...

I have synesthesia especially regarding touch, smell or taste and color. I often describe or categorize sensations as colors. I believe it is what led me to study art history, since I also remember paintings in real space, as if it is floating in front of me.

I had a student do an independent study on synesthesia the summer before last. It was fascinating to follow along with her studies, though I was never comfortable with the tendency to pathologize or diagnose it, perhaps because it is so natural for me.

andrea despot said...

That is all so crazy and interesting!! I remember you mentioning this before and I always think of how I think of certain numbers and certain letters as colors, though not all of them. Like "a" has always been red, "b" has always been green, and "c" has always been blue.

Heather said...

I love that your posts are so thoughtful and original, and look at your comments! Nice long juicy ones.

This reminded me of how in the Iliad they describe the sea as "wine-dark". Not at all how we'd describe it now, but something about it makes perfect sense too.

Katarina said...

This is so interesting. I have absolutely everything connected with different scents...every memory every experience. I can't recall specific details of a day in the past, but when I remember the scent and the flavours that connected with it, all the details begin to appear as if by magic :)

soph (owl vs. dove) said...

I don't have synaesthesia but I've always found it an interesting concept.

I did a research assignment on synaesthesia in first year uni and found it absolutely fascinating - so much so that I kept on researching it after I handed the assignment in.

Although I have to say my interest in colour perception probably all started with me pestering my dad about his colour blindness ("so what do you see instead of red and green?" ... "do you know what red and green are?" etc) haha

Off to investigate this documentary now. You've piqued my interest!

Monica said...

i would thoroughly enjoy that documentary. i have a deep interest in perception. how subjective it is, and how objective we think it is.

i write about it sometimes in light and indirect ways, like just recently about how others interpret what we say through their lenses.

language is the big one for me. i am awed that we manage to communicate at all sometimes. :)

jennifer said...

Thank you for this post! Like the others posting above, I've been fascinated by synaesthesia for years. I think it's a beautiful gift - I imagine it makes the world that much more lovely to live in.

I'm a medical student but currently taking an Honours year in Psychology; one of my classes is on perception and, as you say, it's so intriguing that we create every perception in our brain. Smell, colour, music, all ways of encoding the stimili around us into wonderful things. Our memories of objects and the context influence our perceptions of them: we expect bananas to be yellow and oranges to be orange, for example. And now I might pretend that the documentary is part of my revision...

Danielle P. said...

This is so fascinating! I had some idea of what synesthesia is, but not of its complexity. As usual, the comments make for interesting reading. (It all makes my little "visualising" thing seem very boring!)

rooth said...

I never knew this was the official term for what I do with colour! The most obvious example is that I assign or associate colours with people and the relationships I have with them. Ever since I was a child, I would colour code people, particularly classmates. Thanks for opening my eyes to this whole area that I had never known about!

B said...

A friend of mine has synesthesia. I asked her once what colour she associated my name with, and she said "orange", which makes me very happy.

The human brain will never cease to amaze me.

Sarah said...

oh wow! i never knew about this! thanks for sharing, hila! i am aware that people perceive colors differently, and it seems pretty subjective though it revolves around the same color schemes, so to speak.

well, i think the name of a perfume would also play a part in determining the colors that pop up in our minds. and in the same light, words and descriptions would help us visualize a color that matches? and to help us further experience a certain scent, or emotion or activity?

ah this is REALLY interesting. i'm super fascinated now. haha. :)

elliottwithlove said...

What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing. :) I'll see if I can obtain a copy of the BBC documentary you mentioned; it sounds fascinating, especially from what you shared about how culture shapes the way we understand and perceive color.

Synesthesia fascinates me. I'm not sure if I have a form of it: I "see" geometric shapes and patterns when listening to music; and I "feel" different textures when I hear different words. They may just be residual of the auditory-to-visual association I formed as an adolescent from listening to music on computer media programs that have a visualization mode.

anabela / fieldguided said...

I've been thinking about this post since last night, and ultimately it leaves me feeling a bit melancholy, really. It's a reminder that we know so little, that we are capable of so much, and yet we are all made to feel as though we have to conform to one way of seeing, doing, living, etc. I don't know if this makes sense to you but it's also one of the reasons why I feel so frustrated when I try to write about scent! I never feel very successful at it.

Anyhow, wonderful post. I feel as though I've been hearing quite a lot about synesthesia lately (I believe it was mentioned in an episode of Radiolab that I heard recently) and I love how you have illustrated your words.

My HTML tag isn't being accepted; the link to Radiolab is here: ttp://

Sam | ashore said...

Hila, this whole post on synaesthesia is fascinating (and really poetic).

I especially loved what you wrote about Coco Mademoiselle. I used to wear that perfume and the color experience your described is spot-on. You know what I think it is? The base note is Patchouli - the end is so warm and woodsy.

Lyndall said...

This post is so interesting! I've been fascinated with synesthesia since I first read about it. I think it must be lovely to have colours to associate with good feelings, like your favourite perfume.

nancy said...

this is fascinating! I remember once in high school, my friend and I were wondering if people could see different colours... as in, what I saw as red wasn't what she saw as red. we ended up in quite a heated argument with a boy in our class who was arguing that we were being ridiculous - that people all saw the same colour, that the proof was in "colour charts and things", and that anyone who saw any different was colourblind.
I passed your blog post on to her, and she loved it.

I saw the ad for that program too... I'll have to get my hands on it somehow!

synesthesia is fascinating... I don't have it, though sometimes I do associate colours with feelings or sounds. I think Wednesdays would be orange.

Olga said...

This is amazing, because I have synesthesia too. However, I really love your insight into this "problem". Throughout my childhood I have been told that I have a problem when I described my symptoms. I can really hear colors.

Tana said...

What a wonderful post!how deep the world is, the notions that go further beyond the regular things. thank you for posting this, Hila!

pierre said...

gorgeous !

SARAH said...

Synesthesia is fascinating, and SO useful for writers and other creative types. Nabokov writes about his experience with synesthesia beautifully in his memoir. And just the other day I picked up 'Tasting the Universe,' a new book about synesthetes around the world. But I can't read either one without being envious of their sensory superpower :)

milkofthepoppy said...

I really liked your post! It was very interesting!!! I didn't know about synesthesia...I hadn't thought about the link between the senses and the reaction of one sense to another sense's stimulus...
These connections between the senses reminded of neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has written many books describing cases of patients while he explains the correlation of parts of the brain and the senses. He describes how we perceive the external stimuli of the environment and how our neurological system works. Really complicated...but quite interesting!

hila said...

naomi: it's also hard to describe - it's something more 'intense' and involuntary than the sensation you describe. There's really no way to realistically explain what it feels like.

amy: no, I never had those types of art classes when I was little. They sound really great, I wish did. I definitely think this carries through to sound as well - it's cross-sensory.

jane: thanks for the recommendation! and again, for yoru insight :)

nancy: it is amazing!

camille: that sounds so cool, and in some respects, similar to what I experience. I wonder if it's hereditary.

sasha: I don't normally get this excited by documentaries, but this one was great :)

wishcandy: yes, it is so hard to explain - it's like trying to explain your imagination.

wingeddeer: a lot of people are mentioning Nabokov here, and I had no idea he had it - fascinating.

melancholyswan: well, I don't think it's generally considered to be a problem, so I've never really noticed the tendency to pathologise it. It seems natural to me too.

andrea: yes, I know what you mean.

heather: what a beautiful combination. and yes, I do love the comments here too - but I don't deserve the credit for them!

katarina: it is like magic :)

soph: I've always wondered what concept of colour blind people have (i.e. people who were born blind and had no prior 'knowledge' of colour). I guess that's similar. Trying to explain how you 'see' extra colour is a bit like trying to understand how others don't see it at all.

monica: ha, me too!

jennifer: it always seems so amazing to me what our brains can do, and how much they can create and transform.

danielle: ha, I wouldn't call it 'boring' :)

rooth: my pleasure!

b.: orange is good :)

sarah: a lot of associations that come with synesthesia are involuntary and hence, I have to explanation for them. I'm sometimes confused about my responses to things - are they involuntary, or to do with language and culture?

elliottwithlove: hmm, I really don't know - maybe you should get tested?

anabela: thanks so much for that link! yes, I do know what you mean. I don't know why it's so hard to understand that people are different, that we each 'filter' the world differently, and that there's nothing wrong with that. It's much more productive than trying to make everyone fit into a one-model-fits-all.

sam: I really have no idea why I associate this colour with it. I wish I could explain it. But I like your explanation :)

lyndall: it's not just with good feelings though, sometimes the associations I make are downright random.

nancy: ha, that boy sounds like 'anonymous' on blogs - shutting down difference/discussion. How silly, not everyone 'sees' the same colour, and if people want 'proof', there are entire scientific projects devoted to such proof.

olga: I don't see it as a problem because it's never bothered me. Sometimes, it feels like sensory 'overload'. But most of the time, it's just natural. I can't imagine living without it, because it's all I've known. And it's definitely not a hindrance in any way.

tana: my pleasure!

pierre: thanks!

sarah: haha, I wish it was a superpower!

milkofthepoppy: it does sound very interesting.

yelena bryksenkova said...

wow, hila! i first learned about synesthesia from a YA novel i read last year called "a mango-shaped space." it seems like a beautiful experience *for the most part* but the main character also became extremely overwhelmed when listening to certain types of music or hearing cacophonous sound combinations. the colors came flying.

i also associate days of the week and school subjects with colors, but it's mere association, not such a vivid experience. that's so amazing!


Karenina said...

Yes, I have touch-colour synesthesia. So everytime someone, or something touches me, I see a colour. It's one of the more rare types. I also have spacial synesthesia; when thinking of certain days or months they not only have a colour, but also a "place" in relative space in my mind (as if on a compass). I really love my synesthesia and wouldn't trade it for the world. However, I am glad I don't have taste synesthesia (which apparently can be really awful!) I will have to check out that documentary. Great post. :-)

Anonymous said...

I read a book a couple years ago called A Mango-Shaped Space about synthesia, I thought it was fascinating. I appreciate your explination of it, I think it is a beautiful thing (please don't take that the wrong way).

hila said...

yelena: it can sometimes be 'sensory overload' and a bit overwhelming, but for the most part, you don't even notice it.

karenina: I love hearing about other people's experiences of it.

anonymous: I think I should pick up a copy of that book.