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Synaesthesia - union of the senses

By adrianhon in Science
Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 06:26:23 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

"When I see equations, I see the letters in colours -- I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde's book, with light-tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students."

This account by Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman would be thought of by most as nothing more than an interesting choice of metaphor [1]. To a few, however, it is an indication that Feynman may have possessed a rare trait called synaesthesia. Synaesthesia literally means `union of the senses' and is defined as the stimulation of one sensory modality by another (e.g., sound by vision). Feynman appears to have exhibited grapheme-colour association, the most common type of synaesthesia, in which synaesthetes see black and white letters or characters (graphemes) as coloured. Other more exotic types of synaesthesia exist where smells are associated with shapes [2], or tastes with colours [3].

Subjective reports and experimental evidence show that there is no imagination involved in the experiences of synaesthetes; they literally see letters or whole words as colours, or hear a symphony when someone familiar walks into the room. Moreover, the synaesthetic associations between the different sensory modalities involved are persistent, not random. As a result, any given stimulus will reliably induce the same effect in the `dependent' sense in an individual. This characteristic has formed the basis of a `gold standard' test for synaesthetes, discussed later.

Synaesthesia is unique in that it is perhaps the only psychological trait that `routinely inspires envy in those who study it experimentally' [4]; the majority of synaesthetes interviewed have said that they would not want to lose their rare form of experience. Whether or not synaesthesia confers more traditional advantages over non-synaesthetes, such as memory or intelligence, has provoked much interest - for example, could synaesthesia have been responsible for some part of Feynman's flair with physics? Small studies have demonstrated that some grapheme-colour synaesthetes can recall a number array with significantly more accuracy than non-synaesthetes, but this performance advantage was not shown in all synaesthetes tested. While anecdotal reports of synaesthetes possessing exceptional memory in facts or dates abound [5], there have been no large scale trials comparing the memory or intelligence of synaesthetes to non-synaesthetes, so currently we have no answer to synaesthesia's possible cognitive benefits.

Synaesthesia has been studied in one way or another since the nineteenth century, although only recently has it reappeared in the limelight following a number of pioneering experiments demonstrating that it was a genuine phenomenon. Currently there are many different aspects of synaesthesia being examined, from its possible genetic basis to how it develops in the brain. Synaesthesia is also proving to be a useful tool in investigating other psychological phenomena. This essay will first discuss the epidemiology of synaesthesia and then move onto a historical account of its study by science. Current theories on the developmental basis of synaesthesia in terms of neurology will be summarised, as well as more recent research.


Estimates vary for the prevalence of synaesthesia, partly due to a difference in opinion on what exactly constitutes synaesthesia, and partly due to different diagnostic methods. Figures ranging from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 20 have been stated, while more recent studies suggest the prevalence is between 1 in 2000 to 1 in 200. Following a survey of synaesthetes conducted by placing advertisements in Cambridge Evening News and Varsity, a minimum prevalence of 1 in 2000 was estimated, over six times more females responded than males and a quarter of the respondents reported a first degree relative with synaesthesia [6]. Taken as a whole, this survey provided strong evidence for synaesthesia having a genetic basis.

A leading hypothesis based on this survey suggests that a single dominant gene linked to the X chromosome could be responsible for synaesthesia [7]. This would explain the sex bias observed in synaesthetes towards females, but would only account for a 3:1 ratio, not the 6:1 shown in data. However, if the `synaesthesia gene' was lethal in males, killing half of all male foetuses, the discrepancy between theory and data is handily removed. This theory consequently predicts that female synaesthetes should encounter significantly higher miscarriage rates than non-synaesthetes; as yet, this prediction has not yet been tested.

It was long believed that synaesthesia could not be due to a gene residing on the X-chromosome because Vladimir Nabokov, a noted synaesthete, had a son who was also synaesthetic. Hence, if Nabokov had managed to pass the trait to his son, it could not possibly reside on the X-chromosome as sons only inherit the Y-chromosome (of the sex chromosomes) from their fathers. It was later discovered that Nabokov's wife possessed coloured hearing and so was a synaesthete, solving the apparent mystery.

A real problem in determining the prevalence of synaesthesia is that many people either do not realise that they are synaesthetes, thinking that everyone experiences the world in the same way that they do, or they do not report their experiences at all. It has been suggested that there are more female synaesthetes reported simply because they are more willing to respond to surveys; while this factor may have affected the survey described above, the sex bias for synaesthesia is so dramatic that it could not account for it completely. Even so, further epidemiological studies of synaesthesia would be of great use.

The history of synaesthesia

Research into synaesthesia began in the 19th century with a classic report by Sir Francis Galton, in which he outlined the experiences of several synaesthetes he had studied with colour associations [8]. Galton remarked that while the colour associations of individual synaesthetes were very stable over time, they were not shared between individuals, leading to rather heated arguments when more than one synaesthete was in the same room. That synaesthetic associations are highly idiosyncratic was an important finding that has continued to this day, and other major findings of that age included that certain forms of synaesthesia are more common than others. Most research conducted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was based on single case studies and often the subjects were also being seen by psychologists for other issues such as migraines. Combined with the fact that practically all research was based on simple subjective reports with no proper testing, only a few broad facts were discovered about synaesthesia.

In the 1920s and 1930s, synaesthesia fell out of favour with psychologists as a consequence of the demise of cognitivism and rise of behaviourism. Behaviourism originated from a push by psychologists to establish the field as a rigorous, empirical science that could be studied by inferential statistics. To them, this dictated that only the observable, objective behaviour of a subject should be studied; subjective reports of conscious experiences were not to be trusted. The loss of interest in synaesthesia is readily made apparent by looking at the number of papers published on the subject; papers declined precipitously from the 1920s and only forty years ago did they begin to increase.

After fifty years of relative obscurity, cognitivism re-emerged in the 1960s. Exactly when behaviour's influence began to diminish cannot be pinpointed, but a significant event was Noam Chomsky's critical review of leading behaviourist B. F. Skinner's book on language acquisition, in which he revealed major problems in the behaviourist approach. Following the rise of cognitivism, psychologists and neuroscientists were free to discuss the inner workings of the mind without fear. Even so, synaesthesia had been forgotten by many psychologists.

Tests for `genuineness'

The turning point in the revival in synaesthesia research at the end of the 20th century can arguably be attributed to a number of experiments carried out by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen, in which he determined that synaesthesia was a genuine phenomenon, primarily through a test for the persistency of synaesthetic grapheme-colour associations.

Today, there are several tests used to detect synaesthesia in subjects. Since there are in theory as many different types of synaesthesia as there are combinations between the five senses, a battery of tests must be used to cover all possibilities. In practice, two forms of synaesthesia predominate over the others - grapheme-colour association, and hearing-colour association. The former has been the subject of the most attention due to the ease of devising and controlling experiments.

For some time it was believed that synaesthesia was not a `real' psychological condition and that subjects were merely confabulating - making up - the entire experience, or that they were speaking metaphorically (e.g. 'She has a very sharp voice.'). Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen's `gold standard' test changed this markedly. Baron-Cohen's test was simple: he recorded subjects' grapheme-colour associations, and then tested them using the same lists several months or years later [9]. Synaesthetes performed significantly better than control subjects, showing that they could not be confabulating.

A later test by Ramachandran further established the legitimacy of synaesthesia [10]. While Baron-Cohen's test illustrated the stability of grapheme-colour associations, it did not show that they were necessarily perceptual. In other words, Baron-Cohen's synaesthetes could have had a photographic memory and simply memorised the associations between the graphemes and colours without actually experiencing them perceptually. Ramachandran's test employed `pop out', a phenomenon well known to psychologists. This phenomenon can be easily demonstrated by looking at a field of identical characters and asking subjects to pick out the characters that are anomalous, for example, by dint of having a different colour or shape to the rest. The anomalous characters appear to `pop out' to the subject, allowing for near instantaneous identification.

Figure 1: Displays used in Ramachandran's test. The box on the left shows a matrix of 5s and 2s. The similarity of the shapes of the numbers made it difficult for control subjects to find the embedded shape. The box on the right is a simulation of a synaesthete's experience, who will see the numbers as coloured. The embedded triangle, composed of 2s, pops out immediately.

Subjects taking Ramachandran's test were asked to state which shape they saw in the box on the left in figure 1. Normal subjects failed to see any shape, which was reflected in the test results. Synaesthetes, whose grapheme-colour associations had already been recorded and used to tailor the test, immediately saw the shape formed by the coloured photisms of the characters and successfully reported it significantly faster than normal subjects. Thus, this experiment showed that synaesthesia was in fact a perceptual phenomenon and synaesthetes really did see letters as coloured.


Such tests have vastly improved the ability of researchers to identify synaesthetes and characterise the trait. However, the causes and mechanisms of synaesthesia are far from understood. In the past twenty years, there have been several distinct theories advanced, the most significant of which are discussed below.

The first theory states that synaesthesia is nothing more than a set of associations learned early in life. This would suggest that grapheme-colour synaesthesia is caused by the synaesthete having played with coloured alphabet blocks as an infant, or perhaps having read books with coloured letters or words. While this appears to make sense intuitively, learned association cannot reconcile a number of findings, most notably that most synaesthetes cannot recall having learned their associations from coloured objects as infants, and that even if they are mistaken, their synaesthetic associations are not the same as those in any books or toys they had as infants. Another problem for this theory is that books and toys for infants with coloured alphabets tend to make letters coloured significantly differently from adjacent letters to aid discrimination; however, nearly all grapheme-colour synaesthetes report that their letters are not coloured in such a way. Instead, they are closer together in hue and less bright.

Furthermore, learned association cannot account for the sex bias observed in synaesthetes or the results of experiments conducted on its perceptual features. For these reasons, learned association is not seen as a useful explanation among synaesthesia researchers, although it may apply to the use of metaphor in language.

Dr. Richard Cytowic, a researcher who was at the forefront of the revival of synaesthesia in the 1980s, has proposed that synaesthesia is caused by different parts of the brain becoming disconnected from each other, allowing the `normal processes of the limbic system [a set of networks in the brain involved in instinct and mood] to be released, bared to consciousness, and experienced as synaesthesia.' [11] Cytowic's theory is not particularly appealing because it is inconsistent with current models of brain cognition, and its evidence relies on a type of brain scan (SPECT xenon-133 measuring regional blood flow) that cannot probe deep enough into the brain to actually show limbic system activity; hence, this theory too has not been pursued by the majority of synaesthesia researchers.

A more conventional theory recently put forward by Ramachandran and Hubbard states that anomalous cross-activation of different brain areas is responsible for synaesthesia, with the cross-activation being a product of a single gene mutation [12]. During the development of the brain, many connections between neurones are made initially, and then subsequently these connections are pruned so that only some remain. Ramachandran and Hubbard's mutation would act early in the development of the brain by creating an excess of cross-connections or insufficient pruning of connections between brain areas; indirect evidence for this theory comes from imaging studies of prenatal monkeys [13]. In the foetal macaque, there are significantly more connections between higher areas and visual areas than in adult macaques; thus, it is suggested, a mutation causing defective pruning could preserve those connections and cause synaesthesia. This fits in with the observation that children appear to experience synaesthesia at a higher prevalence than adults.

This cross-activation theory is not based solely on physical cross-wiring of neurones between different areas; it is acknowledged that various forms of disinhibition of existing feedback connections could also cause the same effect. This would account for the existence of `acquired' synaesthesia [14], which is believed to operate in the same way as `phantom limbs', in that existing connections between areas that do not otherwise directly exchange information are disinhibited when their associated input areas are disrupted (e.g. visual deprivation causing tactile input to activate visual areas).

Another somewhat related theory is based on the observation that there are vast numbers of reciprocal connections between neurones in different areas of the brain. Most neuroscience textbooks show a unidirectional flow of information from sensory processing areas (e.g. the visual cortex) to higher processing and multimodal areas (e.g. areas of sensory integration) without exploring the purpose of backward connections to sensory areas; this is unsurprising since they are almost always inhibited. Peter Grossenbacher has suggested that when the backward connections are disinhibited - when they convey information back to the sensory areas - synaesthesia will occur [15]. This is not as similar as it appears to Ramachandran's theory, as Grossenbacher requires feedback connections all the way from higher areas to sensory areas, while in Ramachandran's theory cross-activation is only required at a more local level.

Grossenbacher believes that his theory can account for the observation that LSD elicits synaesthesia more satisfyingly than Ramachandran's theory (that presumes preserved neonatal pathways), claiming that on consumption of LSD, people `obviously aren't growing new connections in their brains. They're using connections we all have, but in a novel way.' This assumes that LSD induced synaesthesia is identical to traditional synaesthesia when in fact it is not; among the many differences, there are no persistent cross-modal associations and LSD users only experience hearing-colour synaesthesia.

Current research

Unsurprisingly, there has been insufficient evidence for any single theory to persuade all neuroscience and psychology researchers, although most tend towards some variation of the latter two theories discussed. Current research into synaesthesia is continuing to seek a resolution to this uncertainty by way of further imaging studies and psychophysical experiments. However, a growing minority of researchers are beginning to use synaesthesia as a tool to better understand other psychological phenomena. This last section of the essay will discuss the techniques being used in synaesthesia research today in addition to selected research topics.

Imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have already been used in synaesthesia studies, mainly to see which areas of the brain are activated during synaesthetic experiences. These techniques measure the regional blood flow within the brain, which is thought to indicate the activity of brain areas. As the spatial and temporal resolution of these techniques improves, particularly in fMRI, they will prove increasingly useful in refining theories of synaesthesia.

In recent years, a new technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has allowed researchers to safely and non-invasively stimulate specific brain areas using what is essentially a sophisticated electromagnet. Previously, stimulation of the brain was only possible during brain surgery, which drastically limited its use. At least one group in the US is planning to use TMS to stimulate areas postulated to be responsible for synaesthesia to examine whether their synaesthesia is temporary altered or removed.

Psychophysical experiments into synaesthesia track the differences in performance of synaesthetes in specific cognitive and perceptual tasks to non-synaesthetes; the perceptual pop-out test displayed earlier is a prime example. By using existing experiments on synaesthetes to examine perceptual phenomena that are already reasonably well documented, for example, the various forms of visual masking (when a `signal' object - perhaps a grapheme or colour - is masked by a `distracter' object and the subject asked to identify the signal), it is possible to pinpoint exactly where synaesthetes' perception diverges from normal perception.

One study has shown that the colours experienced by grapheme-colour synaesthetes prevents a particular type of visual masking called object substitution, where a grapheme is displayed for a split-second and then replaced (`substituted') by another object in the same location [16]. Control subjects are not able to identify the grapheme, but synaesthetes are, because the grapheme elicits an associated colour that they can identify. This study provides a good example of how research in synaesthesia is shedding light on other psychological questions; the mechanism underlying why object substitution prevents normal subjects from identifying the masked object (in this case, the grapheme) is not yet known, but the discovery that synaesthetes do not respond in the same way raises several interesting possibilities.

Despite the reports of Galton and numerous others stating that synaesthetes do not agree on their cross-modal associations, there have been a number of studies searching for trends among synaesthetes, particularly for word or grapheme-colour associations. Proof of even a weak trend has so far remained elusive, and some researchers believe that new theories of synaesthesia must be taken into account in order to properly look for trends. Once such theory suggests that there are higher and lower synaesthetes [12]. Lower synaesthetes would possess sensory associations with graphemes or discrete experiences, whereas higher synaesthetes would have associations with concepts. For example, while a higher synaesthete might associate the colour red with all instances of the number 1 (e.g. the Arabic numeral `1', the roman numeral `I', a single dot on a die, etc.), a lower synaesthete would only associate red with one instance of the number (e.g. the Arabic numeral only). Under this theory, a lower synaesthete might have cross-activation between colour and grapheme areas, while a higher synaesthete would have a hypothetical `sequence' or `cardinality' area (possibly the angular gyrus) cross-activated with the colour area. The existence of a cardinality region has yet to be proven, although research is ongoing.

If there really are higher and lower synaesthetes, then attempts to find trends within a mixed group may be futile. Consequently, to produce valid results the groups must be examined separately. Other factors confound `trend studies' such as the fact that for some, word-colour associations are actually `first letter of the word'-colour associations. Some of the latest research in this area addresses whether there are any semantically related trends across synaesthetes [17].

An interesting psychological experiment carried out at the University of California, San Diego, used synaesthesia as a technique in itself to explore how we recognise graphemes. The idea for the experiment was inspired by a synaesthete who commented that the same grapheme would elicit different shades of the same colour when it was set in different typefaces. By displaying and iteratively modifying a number of typefaces, it was possible to find the typeface for which the synaesthete experienced the most vivid colour; this, it was thought, corresponded to the `prototypical' representation of the grapheme recognised by the synaesthete's brain. This simple experiment provided useful insight not only into how we recognise graphemes, but also objects and scenes.

In general, the more bizarre manifestations of synaesthesia have not been explored by researchers, partly because they are more difficult to verify and draw conclusions from. However, for the purposes of this essay one intriguing example is provided by a synaesthete (`EP') at San Diego. EP reported seeing a visual calendar every time she thought about dates. The calendar took the form of a linear coiled coil, where one horizontal rotation of the coil represented a year, and one vertical rotation represented a week. EP appeared to have an exceptional memory for the day on which events occurred, but not for the exact year and month. As yet, no research has been conducted on EP although, needless to say, exactly how her synaesthesia operates is baffling.


Synaesthesia somehow seems to short-circuit the normal perceptual and cognitive processes that occur in human brains to cause the strange experiences that have fascinated so many. In doing so, it gives us unprecedented access to the nature of those processes that underpin our thoughts and consciousness. As we increase our knowledge of the genetic, neural and cognitive aspects of synaesthesia, we will find that we are beginning to understand the brain more completely. Researchers may wish that they possessed synaesthesia, but being able to explore a new and strange trait that may hold the answers to many fundamental questions is reward enough.


1 Feynman, R. (1988), `What do you care what other people think?' pp. 59. New York, Norton.

2 Downey, J.E. (1911), `A case of colored gustation'. American Journal of Psychology, 22, pp. 528-539.

3 Harrison, J. (2001), `Synaesthesia: the strangest thing', pp. 169-74. New York, Oxford University Press.

4 Farber, I. (2001), `...but what does `blue' smell like?', Nature, 410, pp. 744-5.

5 Luria, A. (1968), `The mind of a mnemonist.' New York, Basic Books.

6 Baron-Cohen, S., Burt, L., Smith-Laittan, F., Harrison, J., Bolton, P. (1996), `Synaesthesia: Prevalence and familiarity', Perception, 25 (9), pp. 1073-80.

7 Bailey, M. E. S., Johnson, K. S. (1997), `Synaesthesia: is a genetic analysis feasible?', in Synaesthesia: classic and contemporary readings (ed. S. Baron-Cohen & J. E. Harrison). Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

8 Galton, F. (1883), `Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development.' London, Dent.

9 Baron-Cohen, S., Wyke, M., Binnie, C. (1987), `Hearing words and seeing colours: an experimental investigation of synaesthesia', Perception, 16 (6), pp. 761-7.

10 Ramachandran, V. S., Hubbard, E. M. (2001), `Psychophysical investigations into the neural basis of synaesthesia', Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 268, pp. 979-83.

11 Cytowic, R. E. (1993), `The man who tasted shapes', pp. 163. London, Abacus Books.

12 Ramachandran, V. S., Hubbard, E. M. (2001), `Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language'. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 (12), pp. 3-34.

13 Kennedy, H., Batardiere, A., Dehay, C., Barone, P. (1997), `Synaesthesia: Implications for developmental neurobiology', in Synaesthesia: classic and contemporary readings (ed. S. Baron-Cohen & J. E. Harrison). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

14 Armel, K. C., Ramachandran, V. S. (1999), `Acquired synaesthesia in retinitis pigmentosa', Neurocase, 5 (4), pp. 293-6.

15 Grossenbacher, P. G. (1997), `Perception and sensory information in synaesthetic experience', in Synaesthesia: classic and contemporary readings (ed. S. Baron-Cohen & J. E. Harrison). Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

16 Wagar, B.M., Dixon, M.J., Smilek, D. & Cudahy, C. (2002), `Coloured photisms prevent object-substitution masking in digit colour synaesthesia.' Proceedings of the 12th annual meeting of Theoretical and Experimental Neuropsychology (TENNET 12), Brain and Cognition, 48, 606-611.

17 Ward, J., Simner, J. (2002), `Phoneme-taste synaesthesia: Linguistic and Conceptual Factors', (submitted).

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Synaesthesia - union of the senses | 160 comments (142 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
Synaesthestic (4.25 / 4) (#5)
by Merk00 on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 03:29:06 PM EST

For a few years now I've been of the opinion that I was synaesthestic. Now, I've never been diagnosed by a doctor of any type so it's mostly a guess. In any case, it would be considered very mild.

The main trait that I have is that I associate numbers with colors. It's not all numbers but certain numbers have distinct colors. I first found out about it when my mom, after hearing a report about it on NPR, asked if I associated numbers with colors. I said yes, assuming everyone else did too. There are also some words that have associations with colors.

It's really had no other affect on me. Either by symptoms or negative consequences.

"At FIRST we see a world where science and technology are celebrated, where kids think science is cool and dream of becoming science and technology heroes."
- FIRST Mission

Not an association (none / 0) (#14)
by StephenThompson on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 04:54:10 PM EST

Synaesthesia is not an association of a number with a color, it is the experience of a number as a color.  

You might associate numbers with colors because of the way you learned to count; for example, many children use little colored blocks of different lengths to learn addition.

[ Parent ]

Musicians (4.00 / 2) (#25)
by miah on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 06:52:44 PM EST

Many musicians will tell you that enough experience playing an instrument/listening to music will give you an experience similar to what is described in the article. I have known a few people with the mythical ability of perfect pitch. All of them describe musical tones as having "color" or "hue" to them.

All humans have the ability to tell what tones are relative to each other. You can tell a tone that is higher or lower on a scale with relative ease. This is just like knowing the difference between colors (which, like sound, are just sine waves). It makes sense to me that seeing mathematical characters in different colors would be a logical way of organizing them.

Humans are very, very visual creatures. When you smell apple pie, you will "see" apple pie. When you see apple pie, you will "smell" apple pie. All of your senses are linked, synaesthesia is not that rare of a phenomenon as some psychologists make it out to be. They just haven't experienced it.

Religion is not the opiate of the masses. It is the biker grade crystal meth of the masses.
[ Parent ]

Yep. We're freaky. (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by Christopher on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:50:13 PM EST

Musicians are an odd lot. (I spent a decade as a 'serious' music student, so I ought to know.)

Theory class brought out the seriously strange associations. Some chords were "crunchy", while others were "smooth" or "warm" or "spicy", or "fascist". For some reason, I always think of icecubes when I hear a perfect 4th, and falling leaves for a minor 6th. Where did that come from? No clue. A P4 just sounds like ice cubes, and a m6 just sounds like falling leaves.

Wasn't there some thought during the Classical period about each key (G minor, F major, etc.) having its own emotional texture? Can a real music geek fill in the gap here?

more and more to do, less and less to prove
[ Parent ]

Spinal Tap (none / 0) (#33)
by miah on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:02:17 PM EST

You did know that Db is the saddest of all keys right? ;)

Religion is not the opiate of the masses. It is the biker grade crystal meth of the masses.
[ Parent ]
Key `characters' were from temperaments (4.83 / 6) (#40)
by gidds on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 09:10:54 PM EST

Wasn't there some thought during the Classical period about each key (G minor, F major, etc.) having its own emotional texture?

Yes, but this was mainly due to the temperaments (tunings) used, not the characters of individual pitches.

A quick bit of musical mathematics for those who don't know it already... These days we use `equal temperament' almost exclusively; this means that, for example, every piano key sounds at a fixed frequency ratio from the ones on each side. The advantage of this is that every key sounds the same; if you transpose music up a few semitones, all that changes is the pitch: all the harmonies stay exactly the same.

The disadvantage is that no harmonies are exactly `pure'. A pure perfect fifth is when two sounds have frequencies in the ratio 2:3, or 1.5. But an equal-tempered perfect fifth is about 1.4983... Other intervals are much further from their pure harmonies. Most of us these days are used to these deviations, but musicians of a few hundred years ago would have disliked them. (Mozart, for example, is reputed to have threatened to kill anyone who played his music in equal temperament!) Also, equal temperament is very difficult to tune exactly.

So they invented other tuning systems (temperaments) that were easier to tune, and that made some harmonies purer. Unfortunately, due to the way the scale works, that means that other harmonies were less pure! So music in simple keys like C, D, F, and G might sound quite pure and pleasing, but unrelated keys like C# or Ab would sound unpleasantly out of tune. Different temperaments attempted to balance these in different ways.

In fact, it was the development of so-called `well' temperaments such as Silberman's and Werkmeister III, which disguised the impure harmonies well enough to let you use a fair range of keys, that Bach wrote `The Well-Tempered Clavier' for. In a non-equal temperament, each key sounds slightly different, and this book was designed to show off the special features of each key. (So playing it on a modern, equal-tempered instrument completely loses the point!)

Okay, that's probably far more music theory than any of you wanted :) I could go on all night... But anyway, that's why in those days people would say that different keys had different characters - it's because there was a real difference in the harmonies.

[ Parent ]

Keys do have specific sound (4.00 / 1) (#48)
by talnkyo on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 11:39:04 PM EST

Yes, although all notes are equidistant (I'm talking about all half-pitches being equally spaced and all whole-pitches being equally spaced, not E to F and F to G for instance) in modern music, they still do have their own unique sounds, otherwise there would be no point in using multiple keys except for singing. I've seen a table listing what all of the keys sound like, and I can only remember that A minor is "noble". I can always guess E minor correctly because it's "yellowish" and "exotic" (those would be two entirely different stimuli, mildly synesthetic, and aesthetics, respectively)
----- This sig does not exist.
[ Parent ]
Diabolus in Musica (none / 0) (#65)
by jazzido on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 10:10:33 AM EST

The Roman Catholic Church banned the tritone in sacred music, because it invoked sinester connotations.

"Patriotism is the last resource of scoundrels" (Samuel Johnson)

[ Parent ]
Perfect Pitch (4.00 / 1) (#36)
by solstice on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:25:00 PM EST

I have perfect pitch, but only from notes played on a piano since I'm a pianist. I can also sing perfect pitches but can't tell the pitch if someone else is singing. Weird. :) I don't know if I'd describe piano notes to have any sort of "color" to them or anything, I just know what each note sounds like. Damn brain!

[ Parent ]
Same here for Clarinet and Tenor Saxophone (none / 0) (#122)
by Chakotay on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 06:33:58 AM EST

Especially for the Clarinet (since I've played that for 8 years, and Tenor Sax for a mere 4 years), despite the fact that I haven't touched a Clarinet in 5 years... I can tell exactly which note is played, because each tone has a different timbre.

For Saxophones it's harder though. It's a very artificial instrument, so there more timbre variation from brand to brand, type to type, mouthpiece to mouthpiece... The Clarinet is a more natural instrument and thus has clearer timbre differences between various tones. At least, that's my completely untested theory :)

I can also hear very well if something is on or off pitch. When I listen to live performances of pop singers, I literally cringe at every false pitch to come out of their money-lined throats, while other spectators look at me like "what the hell is YOUR problem?" Hey, I can't help it that my ears are too sensitive to handle offpitch singing? (Can I? And if I could, would I? :)

Linux like wigwam. No windows, no gates, Apache inside.

[ Parent ]

I have synaesthesia... (5.00 / 4) (#35)
by merkri on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:16:08 PM EST

And you're right, it's not an association, but I'd say it's not exactly the experience of a number as a color.

For me, it's more like a sensory "aftertaste". It's not a vague association, it's more than that. But I clearly know that there are differences between numbers and colors, and it's not like I become confused by them when I'm reading or anything.

For me, every digit--number or letter--has a corresponding color. I see this text in black, but when I read, at some level of consciousness, it's a color sequence as well. "c" is always a shade of yellow, "o" is always white, "r" is always blue, "b" is darker shade of blue, and so forth and so on.

I point this out, only because I think that saying "it's not an association, it's experiencing the numbers as colors" might be confusing. If I didn't have synaesthesia, I might interpret such a statement as meaning that a synaesthete can't tell the colors of the text apart from the synaesthetic experience--as if I were color blind or some such thing. And that's clearly not the case.

In any event, my experience in finding out about synaesthesia was similar to the original poster's. I always thought people had these color experiences, associations, whatever, until I read about it.

And about the association thing--I think I read a Nature paper suggesting that the synaesthetic experience is like an association in some respects, just a very strong one.

[ Parent ]

me too (none / 0) (#39)
by poltroon on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 09:02:41 PM EST

My associations of colors with letters is like you describe.  It's an association which is persistant, like the article mentions; if you ask me today and in a year I'll report the same colors.  But I don't actually *see* colors when I look at text.  It's more like when I imagine a letter "f" in my head it'll always be green.  Or when I process the letter...  If I don't recognize a shape as a letter, I don't think it'll have a color.  So, it seems like if real synesthetes actually percieve the color, then there'd need to be another term for people who imagine the color.  As far as I know most people don't even have the associations.

I didn't pass that test with the 2s and 5s.  They just disolve into a geometric pattern.  And besides, for me 2s and 5s are both red, but 5s are more magenta while 2s are more cadmium.

My sister has the associations too.  We both grew up at the same time (twins), but her associations are all different than mine.  She had her head examined for this by some researchers at a university recently.  They actually flew her in, which I thought was weird.  You'd think there'd be plenty of synesthetes in your own town.

I always assumed everybody had this too because my sister and I always knew we both had it.

[ Parent ]

Question. (5.00 / 3) (#51)
by bjlhct on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 01:51:55 AM EST

If you had text that was turned into blocks of color in a row by a program or something could you read it?

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]
Same here. Alphabet and hiragana. (5.00 / 3) (#64)
by texchanchan on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 09:50:57 AM EST

Merkri said: "For me, every digit--number or letter--has a corresponding color. I see this text in black, but ... it's a color sequence as well. "c" is always a shade of yellow, "o" is always white, "r" is always..." (here I begin to differ from Merkri) brown; I and 1 white, 2 and A red, 3 green, and so on.

A couple of years ago I began reading manga, learning to spell out the hiragana (furigana) text. When I started out, they had no colors. After a while, I noticed colors fading in on the page--weirdest thing I ever saw. And, the colors were the same as the ones for similar-sounding (not similar-appearing) alphabetic characters.

Anybody else know two or more writing systems and can report on this? I also learned Russian at one time, but don't remember anything about the colors. It's very close to the Roman alphabet anyway. I also started learning Arabic but probably didn't get fluent enough in reading for colors to come in.

My 2 brothers have synesthesia as well.

Sounds have appearances, and of course the calendar appears as a ladder-like arrangement. I thought that kind of thing was a universal way of visualizing time.

[ Parent ]

Hiragana and kanji. (5.00 / 1) (#110)
by Cerulean on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 04:57:42 PM EST

Yes, I'm like you in many respects -- I also associate colors with Hiragana.(Japanese and Chinese are the only alternate writing systems I know at the moment).

With me, discovery of the synasthetic characteristics happened in a flash, prompted by a Salon article about a year ago. I had believed, as many synesthetes do apparently, that the condition was entirely idiosyncratic -- shared by no one else (unbelievable naivety, huh??)

In a spare moment, as I was writing or translating in Japanese for my work, I crept into my subconscious and realized that I had been associating the sounds of the alphabet with hiragana. In other words, "A Ka Sa Ta Na," for me, would come out as "red black white brown blue" -- all corresponding to the beginning consonant of the syllables.

I also seem to associate colors with the beginning consonant of kanji: i.e., the kanji in "gakkou" would be "yellow black," corresponding to "g" and "k" in English . . . yet I haven't investigated this in depth yet.

As one poster put it, synesthetes (most of them, anyway) see colors only at a deeper level of consciousness -- so I'm aware of the colors sometimes, but not at other times. (Fatigue at the keyboard, for some reason, seems to promote awareness).

[ Parent ]

Alphabet and hiragana again (none / 0) (#147)
by texchanchan on Thu Feb 27, 2003 at 08:46:24 PM EST

"A Ka Sa Ta Na," for me, would come out as "red black white brown blue" -- all corresponding to the beginning consonant of the syllables.

With me, the vowel is the primary determiner, the consonant the secondary, of the color of the hiragana character. For instance, ma is red, te blackwhite (a color that does not exist except applied to letters), ku, su, etc., the golden color of the letter u.

[ Parent ]

The Twin (3.00 / 1) (#9)
by Random Number Generator Troll on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 04:13:57 PM EST

I read somewhere that the Aphex Twin was a synaesthete. That would explain the odd track names from Ambient Works II. Ive got that CD and none have titles anywhere on the sleeves or anything, but most discography listings have fairly consistent names for them, like 'stones out of focus' and stuff. The names sort of match the inner sleave photos but I think the link may be more synaethetic than aesthetic.

He's not a synaesthete (5.00 / 2) (#11)
by Psycho Les on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 04:38:49 PM EST

He's a compulsive liar.

[ Parent ]
Good point (none / 0) (#81)
by Random Number Generator Troll on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 03:12:51 PM EST

That is very true. I have been 'sonned'. Thankyou.

[ Parent ]
The Stars, My Destination (4.33 / 3) (#17)
by mrnancy on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 05:33:48 PM EST

The first ever description I'd seen of this was towards the end of "The Stars, My Destination" by Alfred Bester. The main character temporarily develops synesthesia and everything is drawn out. Very interesting condition.

Moving Mars. (none / 0) (#79)
by I am Jack's username on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 03:07:06 PM EST

I recently read Greg Bear's Moving Mars (1993) in which the main character has an enhancement implanted into her head to help understand some new complex physics, and "The symbols flared out in red, green, and purple, sorting themselves in the enhancement and being presented to conscious awareness. I did not savor the feeling yet - it was unsettling, having this powerful expert attached directly to both conscious and subconscious thinking.". I want one of those!

While writing this, zinf was playing Linvin' on the edge: Steven Tyler singing "we're seeing things in a different way".
Inoshiro for president!
"War does not determine who is right - only who is left." - Bertrand Russell
[ Parent ]

+1 section (4.83 / 6) (#19)
by circletimessquare on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 05:53:07 PM EST

i was going to vote +1 fp, but that option smelled like old leaves and felt like dry soap

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Note that (3.87 / 8) (#24)
by medham on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 06:47:12 PM EST

Rimbaud's poem "Voyelles" is considered to be a locus classicus of this phenom. in literary expression.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.

And don't forget... (none / 0) (#43)
by cr8dle2grave on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 10:22:49 PM EST

...Alchimie du Verbe from Une Saison Enfer.

If anyone is interested:

Voyelles (eng. trans.: Vowels)

Alchimie du Verbe (eng. trans.: Alchemy of the Word)

Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera

[ Parent ]
That's (3.33 / 3) (#47)
by medham on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 11:21:56 PM EST

"en Enfer"

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

Mildly synaesthetic, and partially... (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by la princesa on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 06:53:37 PM EST

frustrated because of it.  It's good to know others are better at describing it than I sometimes am.  I've generally written a lot of the phenomena described in this article off as living life under a mild psychedelic haze, but my associations are more persistent than those brought about by hallucinants.  I always thought my experiences were closer to those who used psychedelics, but it seems that I am closest in experience to synaesthetes.  Sometimes one gets a little lost trying to describe the world in what appear to be lavishly metaphoric terms.  If I can find that novel, I may give it a read.  

<qpt> Disprove people? <qpt> What happens when you disprove them? Do they disappear in a flash of logic?
It happens to everybody at some level (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by jjayson on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:25:36 PM EST

Everybody forms loose associations, the redness of the chile you eat makes you recall the spicyness when you see the color red again, the itchyness of the green grass makes you scratch at your arms when walking by a wall painted green. Personally, music has a strong effect on me. I have very strong recall of people I might be with, or an emotion I might have felt when previously hearing music, or sometimes it just comes without prior conditioning: some sounds draw emotions, the feeling of breezes, a grating spine-tingling  sensation, or smells. But these are all common occurents for everybody.
Smile =)
* bt krav magas kitten THE FUCK UP
<bt> Eat Kung Jew, bitch.

[ Parent ]
Right on (none / 0) (#42)
by Greyjack on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 10:01:44 PM EST

Personally, music has a strong effect on me. I have very strong recall of people I might be with, or an emotion I might have felt when previously hearing music, or sometimes it just comes without prior conditioning: some sounds draw emotions, the feeling of breezes, a grating spine-tingling  sensation, or smells.

Same thing here.  Music can pull far stronger reactions out of me than virtually anything else.  Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, f'rinstance, if I listen to a good quality recording at appropriate volume, can literally crush the wind out of me.

Mind you, the magnitude of the effect is dependent on how much attention I'm paying to what I'm listening to (ie, you're not going to meet with much success using music as a weapon against me.  Except maybe for the brown noise.

Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett

[ Parent ]
Emotional scarring and music (none / 0) (#62)
by phony on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:09:03 AM EST

There was an interesting documentary (Crazy by Heddy Honigmann) I once saw that interviewed various people that had experienced what I guess you could call 'emotional trauma.' Here is a link to an article about the documentary (pretty good article too :-)

They were asked to show the interviewer a song which they felt reflected their time spent in a certain place. It was pretty emotional stuff, a few sang, some cried, one sang along to a horrible 80's song. Here is a choice summary from the link above:
Soldiers, aid-workers and counselors who have spent military duty and/or peace-keeping time in places like Seoul, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Lebanon, Kosovo and Rwanda are interviewed about what songs they cherished from their time spent in those places, and what memories the songs bring back.

[ Parent ]
Synaesthesia IS NOT associations (5.00 / 1) (#129)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:55:18 AM EST

at least some forms of it.

For example some people see colors when reading words, in style "whole word = one color". You give them a list of 100 very rarely used words (including very abstract words etc), and they give you a color for each one. Then you repeat the same experiment after 1 year and some 98% responses are the same. This cannot be explained by associations.

Associations happen to everybody, some of them are stronger than usual, but synaesthesia is a different thing.

[ Parent ]

Very Interesting (4.66 / 3) (#27)
by Juppon Gatana on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:20:03 PM EST

I remember reading about some study that showed that people find it easier to remember text when it is coherently colored (e.g. main topics in blue, sub topics in red, body text in black). It seems like grapheme-color synesthesia would make reading a very interesting experience. Perhaps that helps explain why Nabokov was able to craft such beautiful sentences; maybe he was able to construct not only a linguistic but also an aesthetic appeal to his work that we non-synesthetics can vicariously recognize and appreciate. That also might help explain his monstrous trilingual vocabulary (if he remembered words both aurally and visually). Makes me wish I had the condition.

- Juppon Gatana
(Nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu.)
[OT] Sig (none / 0) (#142)
by poyoyo on Wed Feb 26, 2003 at 01:37:59 AM EST

Heh, your sig made me laugh. You do realize it says: "A hawk with a brain hides his claws"? The first kanji is wrong. Damn Japanese homonyms, eh :-) Or was that intentional?

[ Parent ]
Artificial Synaesthesia? (4.40 / 5) (#28)
by hershmire on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:24:25 PM EST

According to my research, this same sort of thing seems to happen with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Perhaps this is some sort of "artificial Synaesthesia"? Perhaps all of us can see what those with this condition experience. Or, instead, we can outlaw this condition, and give these people lengthy jail time.
FIXME: Insert quote about procrastination
proper punishment (none / 0) (#141)
by Rhodes on Tue Feb 25, 2003 at 05:30:40 PM EST

Would be a flogging, then burning at the stake.

[ Parent ]
Funny you should say that (none / 0) (#145)
by hershmire on Wed Feb 26, 2003 at 03:07:48 PM EST

Evidence points to the theory that the Salem Witch trials started with a mold in their bread that may have had the same effects of LSD, and could have caused the convulsions that made the villiagers think the "witches" were possessed.

Damn Puritans.
FIXME: Insert quote about procrastination
[ Parent ]
Common input to center of sentience (1.33 / 3) (#29)
by Fen on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:27:58 PM EST

Well this is because of the common input into the center of sentience. Everything gets filtered down into a quantized input that gets stored in the center of sentience in a nonquantized manner. But doesn't everyone know this?
Nah. (none / 0) (#50)
by bjlhct on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 12:19:10 AM EST

It gets crossed during processing and filters down to the center in a nonquantized way and is not stored there but somewhere else that's connected to the center by just one filter.

I think?

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]

Ah, and (none / 0) (#52)
by bjlhct on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:15:24 AM EST

Rephrasing something from the article is pointless if it does it better.

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]
did I rephrase? (none / 0) (#75)
by Fen on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:24:23 PM EST

The article says nothing about the quantized nature of input to center of sentience or the nonquantized nature of the storage at the center.
[ Parent ]
no no (none / 0) (#84)
by Fen on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 04:35:27 PM EST

The univers outside the center of sentience is all quantized. No filters can be nonquantized.
[ Parent ]
Fluids vs Particles. (none / 0) (#85)
by bjlhct on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 05:14:39 PM EST

fluids are just a bunch of particles. But simulating the particles is impossible, so we simulate a fluid, which is close enough.

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]
but it remains quantized (none / 0) (#86)
by Fen on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:22:20 PM EST

The important thing to keep in mind is that outside centers of sentience, everything is quantized and determined.
[ Parent ]
That (none / 0) (#89)
by bjlhct on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:42:39 PM EST

is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Your invented phrases and blindly guessed theories impress noone.

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]
perhaps (none / 0) (#99)
by sinexoverx on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 09:08:43 PM EST

they are commenting on people discussing a subject that it is impossible for them to comprehend. The article itself talks about how the "experts" who are not able to experience the phenomenon seem to argue about what it is and even if it is real. Like the 3 blind men describing an elephant. Just a guess, I might be wrong.

[ Parent ]
invented phrase? (none / 0) (#101)
by Fen on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 01:02:49 AM EST

Do you mean center of sentience? That's just the entity that I/O's quantized information, storing it in a nonquantized way. Oh, and it has no beginning or end. You didn't think you were going to die, did you?
[ Parent ]
Well, yes, actually. (none / 0) (#102)
by bjlhct on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 01:53:36 AM EST

If you're in my house and I died for some reason, throw me in the garbage. I'll be dead. I won't care.

[kur0(or)5hin http://www.kuro5hin.org/intelligence] - drowning your sorrows in intellectualism
[ Parent ]
A good question (5.00 / 3) (#30)
by John Milton on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:32:54 PM EST

Has anyone ever checked the ratio of poets to non-poets who have this syndrome.

"When we consider that woman are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should Treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." -Elizabeth Cady Stanton

7 to 1 (none / 0) (#100)
by primaryuser on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 11:34:26 PM EST

I don't know how accurate the figure is, but I've read that poets and artists are 7 times more likely than non artists to have the syndrome.

[ Parent ]
Not to post a me-too comment, but (4.00 / 2) (#32)
by lucius on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 07:59:41 PM EST

I see the 3 basis vectors of R3, i, j and k as being red green and blue. But if they're expressed as e1, e2 and e3 they're all the same orange-brown colour.

Also, quantum mechanical operators, to me, have a "yet to be used" feeling about them, like they don't really fully exist until they act on something. It's not an intellectual thing, it's more of a gut feeling, and I suspect that it's the only way I can understand maths.

wrong (4.00 / 1) (#57)
by martingale on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 04:46:22 AM EST

i is red, but k is definitely black and j is unknown. Here are some of my associations: A is black, M is brown, X is green and Y is red, f is greyish metallic blue, g is yellowish orange. Most other letters, especially minuscules, are uncolored. It's like they can't have color, even the black when they're printed feels just artificial and wrong. Oh yeah, Greek delta (minuscule) is light blue, but capital delta is a silvery grey. When used as subscripts, all letters seem to lose their color. Gothic script is definitely all black, always.

The funny thing is that I use some kind of doublethink whith letter colours. I can obviously see the black letters on the white pages as black, but it's like it doesn't matter one bit, the "true" colour shines through in an abstract sense. And as I said, for some letters no colour fits at all, it leaks out somehow.

[ Parent ]

Hmm.. (4.00 / 1) (#66)
by lucius on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 10:33:18 AM EST

Read the story again, and I probably have to retract my claim to synaesthesia.

The thing is, I actually "doublesee" the letters, but only in the context of their being basis vectors. The only j that has colour is the basis vector j and so on.

I maintain that's it's something abnormal, but I guess that it's not really what the article is talking about, but then I guess the Feynman quote is invalid as well if he only sees the Bessel J as beinbg coloured, rather than all italic capital Js.

[ Parent ]

right (none / 0) (#92)
by martingale on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:13:34 PM EST

I don't think I'm synaesthetic either (certainly I fail the triangle test). The i,j,k colours are probably just associations due to past exposure in forgotten classrooms. It's fairly common for teachers to give basis vectors different colours as a teaching aid (whether it actually aids is beyond me ;-). It also crops up in undergraduate maths textbooks. Where I'm baffled is why X is green, Y is red and Z is brown. I can't come up with a good explanation, because it is strongest with capitals. Minuscule x, y, z are very weakly coloured for me. As for Feynman, he was a weirdo (in a really cool way ;-).

[ Parent ]
Triangle test (none / 0) (#116)
by cep on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 07:20:08 PM EST

The "triangle test" would only work if you had the same kind of synaesthesia as the person tested, i.e., "2" having a very different color from "5".

On the other hand, that you don't know why X,Y, and Z have their specific colors, shows that there is probably more in it than association. If a teacher used the same colors so persistently that you "learned" them, wouldn't you know that now?

[ Parent ]

true (none / 0) (#120)
by martingale on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 04:06:50 AM EST

Your comment about the test makes sense. I don't have any preferences as to numbers (other than that they should stay as far away from me as possible ;-), I'm really much more comfortable with variables, so I guess you're right. I can however confirm that there is no instance of a teacher persistently associating these colours with those letters.

[ Parent ]
Does anyone else taste words? (5.00 / 4) (#34)
by joegee on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:09:51 PM EST

I've always had very strong flavor associations with words ...

Go figure.

-Joe G.

<sig>I always learn something on K5, sometimes in spite of myself.</sig>
word flavors (none / 0) (#128)
by kalculy on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:50:50 AM EST

I also taste words but only when I'm looking for a word or writing not when reading (or it's not as strong a sensation) Are you able to identify the flavors?
cogito, ergo sum
[ Parent ]
Oh yes, some words taste delicious ... (none / 0) (#132)
by joegee on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 01:29:43 PM EST

The word "yellow" is slightly sweet, rich. The word "purple" is fruity. The color word associations seem to have the strongest effect. This may actually be due to early flavor associations made when I was learning language. On the other hand, rather than recalling the memory when I say these words I also experience their effect directly as a sensation.

I'd never really thought about this much. Certain phonemes, "b", "g", "k", "j", "ch", "sh", "m" have good texture, not really a flavor, they're satisfying to say. "L" is oily. "w" and "y", pseudovowels, are smooth. Vowels are empty.

Perhaps we're all synaesthetes to some degree, and those who exhibit dramatically pronounced synaesthesia simply have a greater ability to form sensory associations?

<sig>I always learn something on K5, sometimes in spite of myself.</sig>
[ Parent ]
"Feeling" sound (none / 0) (#150)
by bluefusion on Thu Mar 13, 2003 at 09:28:52 AM EST

It's also similar to "feeling" the texture of music. On a good stereo system, I feel as though I can reach out and "touch" a very definite surface to the sound. In a similar way, colors certainly appear when listening to some music.

Again, we may all be synaestheatic (?)

"Real? What is real? If you are talking simply about what you can see, taste, touch, hear, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
[ Parent ]

LSD reference (4.50 / 4) (#38)
by YelM3 on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 08:35:24 PM EST

...among the many differences, there are no persistent cross-modal associations and LSD users only experience hearing-colour synaesthesia.

I'd like to see a reference for this statement. I believe I have read several accounts of different forms of Synaesthesia while on LSD, and I am pretty sure I've experienced some as well. For several months after taking LSD I could "feel" low bass notes in music at any volume as if it were coming from a subwoofer at my feet.

Any1 can feel low bass notes (none / 0) (#41)
by auraslip on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 09:33:12 PM EST

it's just how they work.
[ Parent ]
he said: (4.00 / 1) (#67)
by drgonzo on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 11:07:53 AM EST

"... I could "feel" low bass notes in music at any volume ..." ...

got my point?

[ Parent ]

ecstacy (none / 0) (#59)
by the77x42 on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 05:29:04 AM EST

i'd done a E about a dozen times... i haven't for a year now, but whenever i spin my own records by myself, i actually get high (my pupils fully dilate) and i grind my teeth while everything around me melts and lights pulsate -- just like on the drug. it's when this happens i actually feel the music as if i were making it straight from my mind. this is the time when i do my best sets :)

if you haven't done e before, this will sound crazy, but hey, it fucks up your mind, man.

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

[ Parent ]
keep working (none / 0) (#109)
by majik on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 04:41:18 PM EST

"Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen..." - Alan Watts
Funky fried chickens - they're what's for dinner
[ Parent ]
kindling (none / 0) (#117)
by jjayson on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 07:23:27 PM EST

It is called the kindling effect. It is the same thing that causes flashback with acid (basically, once your mind has gone down that path, you can be brought back to it more easily, because of the associations created). I started spinning about 3 years ago. When I play at clubs, I can get a very ecstacy-like feeling without even trying. True synaesthesia happens without kindling or previous association.
Smile =)
* bt krav magas kitten THE FUCK UP
<bt> Eat Kung Jew, bitch.

[ Parent ]
same (none / 0) (#149)
by YelM3 on Wed Mar 05, 2003 at 09:54:21 PM EST

Music and E have the same effect on me. Something about the music is so powerful on the drug, that even later when you're sober the music alone can bring back a convincing E high.

[ Parent ]
Instant Synaestesia (3.33 / 3) (#44)
by jjayson on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 10:42:56 PM EST

Yeah, certain songs pull if out of me more and in certain ways. For example, [this http://w1.736.telia.com/~u73602493/flashback.html (Flash with music)] gets me smelling oranges for some reason when the voice sample comes it. It might be conditioned from a previous event, but I don't remember any reason I would smell oranges from it. There is a high refrain that keeps coming into this track and when it does I get a ligh-headed feeling, like as if I am floating and 50 feet above everything. It is a more or less consistent feeling, not a random occurence.

The track is called DMT (quite appropraite, I guess) from Shpongle and the whole album really have a very peculiar effect on me. One time with a friend, we both had very strong flashbacks from just listening to it with the lights turned down very low.

The mind is a very peculariar thing. I really wish I understood it more.
Smile =)
* bt krav magas kitten THE FUCK UP
<bt> Eat Kung Jew, bitch.

oops. parent post was to be reply (none / 0) (#45)
by jjayson on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 10:43:59 PM EST

to this comment, sorry for cluttering up the top-level:

Smile =)
* bt krav magas kitten THE FUCK UP
<bt> Eat Kung Jew, bitch.

[ Parent ]
Wow, I really enjoyed that! (none / 0) (#138)
by Klondike on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 04:27:12 PM EST

Wow, I checked that out, that is nothing short of amazing, I saved the flash file to my computer. Thank you for posting that link.

(And check out my post on Rez below!)

[ Parent ]
I wrote a poem about Synaesthesia awhile back... (5.00 / 2) (#46)
by skermit on Fri Feb 21, 2003 at 10:54:47 PM EST

My poem about synaesthesia

It's interesting to note that after asking a couple friends, most picked similar shades if not the exact same colors for the same numbers. It's just something which I've experienced since I can remember...

-Super Kermit


Been there, done that. (4.50 / 2) (#53)
by fict on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:19:05 AM EST

While I'm don't experience synesthasia on a day-to-day basis, I have experienced it temporarily through the use of psychedelic drugs. I find, strangely, that tryptamines tend to relate more towards visualizing music as shapes, whereas phenethylamines are more color-oriented. Among the more interesting experiences was one in which certain words were colored consistently throughout several pages of text, revealing elaborate patterns of writing that are otherwise hidden to the naked eye. Individual letters can take on specific colors as well, which is equally fascinating when looking at text... This was experienced on a rather exotic psychedelic phenethylamine. Neat article.

Has there been any research? (none / 0) (#61)
by FuriousXGeorge on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:58:36 AM EST

To see if chemical levels in the brain that are affected by psychadelic drugs are also present in a sober syntheican'tspellthis.
[ Parent ]
mmm...yummy... (none / 0) (#80)
by dtothek on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 03:07:21 PM EST

ahh...to be young again. i take it you have read PIHKAL?
[ Parent ]
Oh yes. =) (none / 0) (#118)
by fict on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 10:12:16 PM EST

PiHKAL is my to-do list. Yeah, there's a well-worn copy of it on my bookshelf =)

[ Parent ]
Been there, done that. (none / 0) (#148)
by charterflyer on Tue Mar 04, 2003 at 06:54:57 PM EST

  This all seems to be much ado about nothing.  How can we be sure that we are all seeing the same "color" when we all agree that the color is red.  No doubt it is developed by the person's culture as well as his environment, don't you think.  As far as numbers, I have never been able to visualize them in my mind's eye, much less see them in color.  I have an earned M.Ed. from a well-known state university.  I had to overcome a lot as far as normal math skills were concerned. My handwriting is awful and my printing is on the 2nd grade level.  In general, anything to do with numbers makes me want to throw up.  On the other hand, I am able to type about 50 or 60 WPM.  What a paradox.  When in the 1st grade, I was reading on a third-grade level and I love reading to this day.  I have been identified as having a chemical imbalance in the brain and my medical condition is called manic-depression/bi-polar disorder.  I receive medication and even before being diagnosed, I had had only one or two manic episodes.  Many people consider that I am learning disabled, but I know that my reasoning and thinking ability is far above the ordinary.  The bottom line for my comment is that I do not see numbers or words in color.  I can not visualize numbers in my mind's eye at all, however I can see words.  I might be called a speed-reader and that's not a play on words.  I only take prescribed (mood-altering) medication, thank you.

[ Parent ]
Relevant further reading: (5.00 / 1) (#54)
by BlueOregon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:48:38 AM EST

Those interested in synaesthesia from another perspective might appreciate the following.

Hinderk Emrich (Hannover, Germany) has conducted extensive research into the topic. His results about synaesthesia are connected to other research into the nature of aisthesis (by which we mean 1) sense perception, but more specifically 2) 'sensate cognition'). In short, two standard models of aisthesis persist: a) there is an object, our senses act as a 'camera' (sense input), and our brain processes this 'data' -- the "bottom-up" model [essentually Locke's tabula rasa]; and b) we have an internal conceptual model which constructs our interpretation of whatever sense-input we have -- the "top-down" model [essentially Kant's categories]. A modification to these two is a 3-part model:

  1. Sensuality (bottom-up)
  2. Constructivity (top-down)
  3. Censorship ("ratiomorphous apparatus")

The existence of the 3rd component has already been accepted elsewhere -- the brain ignores much, if not *most* of the possible sense-input we have; were it not to do so, we would be bombarded with all sorts of visual, auditory, olfactory, and haptic stimuli.

In some people (cause not isolated, though the genetic markers mentioned in the story are possible if not likely triggers) this censorship component is weakened. It is weakened in different ways in different pathologies, one of which is schizophrenia. Another seems to be, as indicated by research, forms of synaesthesia. The censorship function not only helps to block certain inputs, but also acts as a filter ... that is, ensuring that visual stimuli are experienced in a visual manner, etc. When this component is weakened in synaesthetics, stimuli can be perceived as 1) a sense different than the stimuli and/or 2) by multiple senses. The neurobiological nature of this censorship function also makes it something that can be altered by drugs, etc.

Emrich's research has hinted that this censorship function/component of the sense-perception apparatus of the nervous system is tied to aspects of creativity (particularly the ability to make so-called intuitive and/or creative 'leaps'), tying into the Feynman anecdote above, though it is too early to draw conclusive results from the research of Emrich et. al. At the other extreme, where the censorship function is not merely loosened, but nearly absent, the subject can be unable to adapt to and function in "everyday" life.

For more information, I would recommend the recent volume:
Aesthetics and Aisthesis: New Perspectives and (Re)Discoveries Edited by Hans Adler. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

What? (5.00 / 1) (#55)
by Talez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:53:09 AM EST

No talk of Rez.

My god, if there was any modern form of synaesthesia this game would be it.

Si in Googlis non est, ergo non est

My fault (none / 0) (#60)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:31:34 AM EST

I have actually played Rez, which is a great game. I know that it's supposed to be inspired by synaesthesia, and we had a good play around in the lab in the name of 'research', but I don't know, I'm not sure exactly how useful it is in telling people what it's like to experience synaesthesia.

[ Parent ]
Hehehe (none / 0) (#97)
by Talez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:51:46 PM EST

Stick them in a dark room with a wide screen TV, surround sound system and a PS2 controller in hand.

Then let them go nuts.

Si in Googlis non est, ergo non est
[ Parent ]

Grapheme-color really synaesthesia? (4.00 / 1) (#56)
by nardo on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 04:35:19 AM EST

If synaesthesia is the stimulation of one sense by another, why is grapheme-color classified as synaesthesia? Isn't there only one sense involved in grapheme-color association?

Kind of ... (4.00 / 1) (#58)
by Simon Kinahan on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 05:13:02 AM EST

... but the different aspects of vision are quite separate. In "normal" people, shape recognition and color recognition don't have much to do with one another.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
[ Parent ]
Exactly (4.00 / 1) (#63)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:19:56 AM EST

By a strict sensory definition of synaesthesia, grapheme-colour associations don't qualify. But as the above poster mentioned, GC synaesthesia involves completely different systems and also appear to operate in the same way as other forms of synaesthesia.

[ Parent ]
my question on this topic (5.00 / 3) (#68)
by drgonzo on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 11:18:01 AM EST

i would like to know if such a person percepts a word/letter/whatever in a certain color and view it on a background of the same color: on what level do they prozess the input?

maby someone can use this for a study on cognetive functions; whatever ...

Interesting question (none / 0) (#70)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 11:53:53 AM EST

It's an interesting question and I believe people are doing research on it. Other related tests include the Perky and Stroop effects. These sorts of tests tell us a lot about how perceptual processing is done - in what order we process different attributes, that sort of thing.

[ Parent ]
Radio show on the subject (4.00 / 1) (#69)
by dmt on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 11:27:52 AM EST

A pretty good run-down:


Synthesia is old hat (3.00 / 3) (#71)
by X3nocide on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 01:14:12 PM EST

Just use a decent version of emacs maybe vim if you want to see your equations in colour. Syntax highlighting is so early 1990's!

Rez and Kandinsky (4.75 / 4) (#72)
by Klondike on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 01:20:31 PM EST

Kandinsky was an artist in the late 1800's and early 1900's who had synaesthesia, and he tried to channel this into his art, which is very abstract and very colorful.

When the game Rez for the Dreamcast and PS2 was made, it was called K-Project, K for Kandinsky, its slogan is "go to synaesthesia", and it tries to unify sound and visuals in the most amazing ways.

The review which I read, originally at the GIA, which caused me to buy the game without ever seeing it or playing it is here, I archived the GIA before it went down and put it on my webspace.

Rez has received several awards for its concept and will be receiving a special arts award at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art sometime soon. I can't recommend this game enough, it is an experience to be had.

An interesting subject (5.00 / 1) (#73)
by jd on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 01:41:01 PM EST

I remember first hearing about Synaesthesia on a QED (or was it Horizon?) documentary "Sherbert Kisses". The title was taken from a description one interviewee gave of the flavour she perceived from her boyfriend's kisses.

It described numerous models of the brain, and how synaesthesia could work. The intriguing thing is that the studies often contradicted each other, even as far as the raw data was concerned.

This makes me think two things:

  • First, that there are actually multiple phenomina going on, here, each with synaesthesia as a byproduct. This is not that unusual - there are something like 32 different classes of bipolar disorder, for example. Each has the central symptom in common, but not a whole lot else.
  • Second, psychologists who produce models first and gather selective evidence to back it up are being stupid. (If the evidence wasn't selective, it wouldn't be conflicting so much.) Statistical studies, as opposed to neuro-mechanical studies, only work if the data is random, there's a good control group, and both data sets are LARGE. The larger the better. Statistical studies on a "few dozen" people don't make the grade. You need thousands, and your uncertainty should be below the 1% level.

Agree, but (none / 0) (#124)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:11:02 AM EST

if there really are 1 in 20000 persons with synaesthesia, with varying kinds of it (for example some "see sounds" others "see coloured letters" others do something else), it is pretty difficult to find a LARGE sample.

I have also heard that synaesthetic people usually think about themselves as crazy (because of having "abnormal" experiences) and they prefer not talking about the topic, denying their experience - however this could be possibly solved by discussing the topic in media.

[ Parent ]

Slightly off-topic (4.00 / 1) (#74)
by jd on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 01:47:35 PM EST

Ok, massively off-topic. This reminded me of another interesting phenomina - tetrachromatic vision. (A phenomina where certain women will see in four primary colours, not three, due to extra colour receptors in the eye. This is not a brain-related thing, it's a mechanical phenomina.)

To bring this slightly back on-topic, I'm curious how someone with a combination of synaesthesia and tetrachomatic vision would perceive things.

The brain handles the extra input just fine, nornally, but we're not talking about a normal situation here. When someone has "bonus" sensory input, is it just the same, but with the extra input, or is there a further collapse between the sensory boundaries, from the overload?

excellent! (none / 0) (#77)
by dtothek on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:56:06 PM EST

that is so cool! that almost makes me wish i were a female. i would appreciate any references (i.e. publications) on this subject. offhand, what do they call the fourth primary color? dtothek27@icqmail.com
[ Parent ]
Female? (none / 0) (#103)
by A Trickster Imp on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 07:15:14 AM EST

> that almost makes me wish i were a female.

I was going to make a funny comment, but I realized there's no "post anonymously" button here.

Anyhoo, they may see more deeply, but I doubt they experience any colors we don't because their cone is within the range of colors we normally see, unlike some other species (goldfish was one example a web site gave) that see UV with their fourth cone.  The question for those kinds of animals is do they see a fourth primary color, or do the current rainbow get stretched out mentally?

(Note also that physics makes no attempt to explain the subjective perceptual experience, of which color experience is the most common example used in philosophy.)

ough you'd earn less, but you'd have boobs and kootch and live longer and have no difficulty finding sex partners and get to wear pretty things and...

[ Parent ]

a fourth cone means... (4.00 / 1) (#111)
by Sleepy In Seattle on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 05:58:18 PM EST

Colors that appear identical to a trichromat (a "normal" person with three cone types) would potentially appear distinct to you, even if the cone is responsive to approximately the same set of wavelengths as the others.

Consider how people with only two cone types (a common form of color-blindness, particularly in males) differ from those with three. It's not that they see a reduced range of colors, just that they are not able to discriminate some combinations. Remember that the vast majority of phenomena we observe are not monochromatic but produce or reflect light in a combination of many wavelengths. To someone with only two cone types, a combination of light at 600 and 700 nm (I'm making up these frequencies) might excite the cones in ratios identical to a combination of light at, say, 650 and 750 nm. But for someone with three cone types, the third cone type would likely respond differently to the 600+700 combination than the 650+750 combination, making it appear to be a different color.

This is, unfortunately, much easier to illustrate with the aid of response-curve and color-gamut diagrams, which are not really suitable to ASCII presentation...

[ Parent ]

For example (5.00 / 1) (#127)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:46:36 AM EST

you would see that some colors on computer do not look like their should. You would wonder why the sun is always painted red-green, when it should be yellow. After little playing with graphical programs you would realize that it is not possible to display the real yellow color on monitor. So the color monitor would look like more advanced form of black and white monitor.

[ Parent ]
This requires far more care. (4.75 / 4) (#76)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 02:43:33 PM EST

There is a kind of loose talk applied to this whole business of syneasthesia that worries me. Especially things like what I highlight below:

Subjective reports and experimental evidence show that there is no imagination involved in the experiences of synaesthetes; they literally see letters or whole words as colours

These statements about "literally seeing" have to be treated much more carefully. This for two reasons: (a) colors are phenomenal properties, (b) colors are part of a structural system where the value of each unit lies in its relation to other ones.

The first point, though impossible to illustrate, is easy to evoke. The experience of seeing something as blue has a "private" aspect to it. You simply cannot see like other people. Imagine a person who sees everyithing just like the rest of us, except that blue and green are "switched": he sees the grass as a hue that we call "blue" if we were to see as he does, and the sky as a hue we call "green". (I do not guarantee this thought experiment as I've set it up is completely coherent, but I do think some such thought experiment can be devised that is, and this will suffice.)

This person, however, has since childhood been trained to call the color that he sees in the sky "blue", and that which he sees in leaves "green"; all other colors he sees just like we do. That is, his color system is structurally identical to ours when it comes to naming the colors of objects in interpersonal space, but experientially (or phenomenally) different.

We could never discover that a person is like this, because all of their outward behavior would be just like anybody else's; in fact, we can't know that our color systems are phenomenally identical to anybody else's, and the best we can do is structural identity.

Now as for the second thing, color as a structural system. This I already introduced implicitly above. The point is that while hue is a sort of universally shared and continuous perceptual quality space, color is not; it is rather a discrete system of distinctions in this space. The value of a term in such a system, say of "blue", is not intrinsic to itself, but rather to its relation to the rest of the system. This is best evidenced by the work of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin (e.g. here). The short story: color systems, while biologically constrained, are culturally variable, e.g. there are cultures which have smaller color vocabularies than us, and thus may have e.g. a basic color word that encompasses both blue, green and purple; let us call this category "macro-blue". The point now is that people from such societies can't really be said to see e.g. the sky as blue. They have a different color system whose categories are not straightfowardly comparable to ours. They see the same hues as us, and color systems across the world share the same focal colors and other constraints, so they are comparable; but the comparison is not straightforward.

So what's the lesson of all this for the case of people who e.g. claim to see colors in print? That we should be suspicious of straightforward attempts at comparison between their experience and ours. If color is phenomenal, we can only expect to compare their color experiences with ours as a system, and not as phenomenal qualities (since they could have the same system but with different phenomenal qualities). But if color is a structural system, then we should be wary of equating our own perceptual categories with those of synaesthetes. Not that it must be impossible to do so, but it may not be straightforward; since synaethesia can be seen as involving some sort of cross-sensory system which jointly structures two modalities. If this is the case, then their categories are just not the same as ours, and we may not be able to say that they "literally see" e.g. red when reading some word, because we may well be using "red" in different senses when applied to the synaesthete and the normal person.


Cold vs Warm (none / 0) (#78)
by sludge on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 03:04:07 PM EST

This person, however, has since childhood been trained to call the color that he sees in the sky "blue", and that which he sees in leaves "green"; all other colors he sees just like we do. That is, his color system is structurally identical to ours when it comes to naming the colors of objects in interpersonal space, but experientially (or phenomenally) different.

This should be comparable, even if only in a subjective manner. There is a notion of colours being "warm" or "cold". This provides categories, which are usually agreed upon by everyone. If you always saw yellow next to green and blue in the spectrum due to colour blindness, would you call it a cold colour? I wouldn't.

Shouldn't it be possible to assume with some certainty that almost everyone perceives colours to be approximately the same based on the unanimous categorization of warm and cold colours?

Hiring in the Vancouver, British Columbia area
[ Parent ]
I don't think you get my point. (none / 0) (#93)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:19:05 PM EST

And I'm not sure I get yours either.

Shouldn't it be possible to assume with some certainty that almost everyone perceives colours to be approximately the same based on the unanimous categorization of warm and cold colours?

The way I set the thought experiment, unanimity has nothing to do with it. Because I assumed that people were unanimous with regard to which objects were called by which color; you can add unanimity as to which colors are warm and cold, which are complementary, etc., it doesn't change a thing.

Let's try to make the image more vivid. Imagine a photo of a grassy meadow in a clear summer day. Switch around all the blues and greens, so that e.g. the sky is green and the grass blue. This is what the person in question would see. However, his word for blue is "green", and his word for green is "blue", so you'll both agree to every single statement about colors.

I really suspect however that it is possible to attack the green/blue version of the experiment, so here's a variation, perhaps more coherent. Imagine a color film negative. Now imagine a person to whom the world looks just like such a negative. Here not only colors are inverted, but also intensities: what for us is pitch darkness, for this person is blinding light; what for us is blinding light, for them it's painfully dark, a darkness that hurts their eyes if looked upon steadily. Yet this person can have a color system such that we never discovered the discrepancy between the way we see and the way they do. She calls the cool colors "warm" and the warm ones "cool", and agrees to whatever statements about colors you care to ask of her.

My ultimate point is that our immediate, concrete experiences of things like "blue" and "green" are as familiar to each of us as they should be mysterious. Our agreement on using the same color terms for the same objects, or in classifying colors as warm or cool, simply can't reside in that familiar and immediate experience of seeing things in color.

[ Parent ]

Yes, but... (5.00 / 1) (#82)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 03:15:16 PM EST

I agree with your criticisms - it is indeed difficult to know exactly what synaesthetes experience, and this is a problem that has troubled experimental psychologists for some time (e.g. all the stuff about heterophenomenology). However, I don't think that this is a serious problem in this case. I admit I was a bit loose with my writing, but this is a general science piece after all. It is entirely possible that they aren't just 'seeing' letters as coloured - but certainly that's what all the evidence from a battery of perceptual tests carried out points to so far. In addition, care is taken (at least in the lab I've worked at) in ensuring that we properly identify the colours in their associations - not merely by name, but by picking out colours on a colour chart.

[ Parent ]
No perceptual test could do that. (none / 0) (#95)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:34:41 PM EST

It is entirely possible that they aren't just 'seeing' letters as coloured - but certainly that's what all the evidence from a battery of perceptual tests carried out points to so far.

But what I'm calling into question is that any perceptual test will assimilate their categories to those of "normal" people. The experimental results tell you that these people perceive differently, and give us a grasp on the external conditions under which they experience something they name by one color word or another, but that is all they do. They don't equate their experiences with those of non-synaesthetes (although such comparisons may still be meaningful). To say that a synaesthete "sees" a certain letter as blue is to use the word "see" in a different sense than it is used for non-synaesthetes, period.

[ Parent ]

Different things (5.00 / 1) (#98)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 08:05:26 PM EST

OK, I think we're talking about different things here. Yes, no perceptual test could show that a synaesthete 'sees' a letter as blue in the same way that a non-synaesthete sees blue (if we do in fact all see in the same way). But the tests do show us that when synaesthetes look at letters, they act as if they saw it coloured, just as if a non-synaesthete saw a 'real' coloured letter.

[ Parent ]
Do you believe in quales? (none / 0) (#87)
by thedward on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:36:20 PM EST

This person, however, has since childhood been trained to call the color that he sees in the sky "blue", and that which he sees in leaves "green"; all other colors he sees just like we do. That is, his color system is structurally identical to ours when it comes to naming the colors of objects in interpersonal space, but experientially (or phenomenally) different.
Blue is essentially an arbitrary range of the electromagnetic spectrum that our blue cones have evolved to distinguish from other colors. We have also evolved to have certain reactions to blue (and the other colors). If someone is responding to reflected light of the appropriate frequency as if it were blue, then how could they possibly not be seeing blue? If it looks like blue, feels like blue, how is it not blue?

[ Parent ]
You're dismissing cultural variation. (none / 0) (#90)
by Estanislao Martínez on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:53:29 PM EST

Blue is essentially an arbitrary range of the electromagnetic spectrum that our blue cones have evolved to distinguish from other colors.

No it's not. You're leaving the whole cultural aspect of it out of the picture. Blue is a cultural category imposed on a particular set of physiological and physical circumstances. Color systems are culturally variable.

If someone is responding to reflected light of the appropriate frequency as if it were blue, then how could they possibly not be seeing blue?

The trivial way in which this actually happens in our world is in the case of people who live in societies that don't have a basic color term that corresponds to our "blue". Take somebody with a color system with a macro-blue category; say their word for it is "bleagh". Ask them whether the sky is bleagh, they assent. Ask them whether leaves as bleagh, they assent. This person is thus not responding to the sky as if it were blue, because then they would have to deny that leaves are bleagh.

[ Parent ]

Cultural variability of color space (5.00 / 1) (#114)
by nusuth on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 06:42:51 PM EST

It is actually very low. How many and which colors are named are cultural phenomena but what constitutes as a representative "red" (or blue, or green) is not. Even when the subjects do not have words for those colors in their native culture, and even after training with non-representative reds, blues and greens, they tend to pick the most representative -say- English red as better exemplar of the color red. This has to do with the fact that everyone's color cones are tuned to same frequencies.

See http://amor.rz.hu-berlin.de/~h2816i3x/LexSemantik2.pdf for additional information. (google's html version at /LexSemantik2.pdf)

[ Parent ]

I know that. (none / 0) (#119)
by Estanislao Martínez on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 01:43:18 AM EST

And it still doesn't change my point. Macro-blue is not still not blue.

[ Parent ]

You still don't understand nusuth's point (5.00 / 1) (#121)
by synaesthesia on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 05:28:52 AM EST

If I ask you what colour my shirt is, and you say 'red' rather than 'crimson', 'burgundy', 'cardinal', 'cherry', 'blood red', etc., it doesn't mean to say that you can't tell the difference between those shades.

Sausages or cheese?
[ Parent ]
Actually my point was simply low variability (5.00 / 1) (#133)
by nusuth on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 02:24:10 PM EST

of subjective color experience among people. Primary colors seem to be one of the few perceptual basics that translates almost unmodified to cognitive domain. I thought EM was making the situation seem more culture specific than it actually is.

The phenomenon you are talking about has more to with natural categories than color perception. Eg, usually we call a screwdriver, "a screwdriver", not "a tool" nor "a Phillips screwdriver." When someone calls a chair "a piece of furniture" or "a Chesterfield chair" there usually is a specific reason to do so, just "chair" is the default in absence of a specific reason (and word economy is not it.) Ditto with "red" and "crimson", "cherry" etc.

[ Parent ]

Cultures vary, but not that much. (5.00 / 1) (#126)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:32:03 AM EST

I think that e.g. in Russian there is no word for blue. They have a word for dark-blue (siniy) and a light-blue (goluboi). On the other hand, Japanese aoi refers both to blue, (dark?) green and gray, or something like this.

But synaesthesia is something different. I never heard of a culture where a word for "blue" (or light-blue, or blue-or-green), would be also (non-metaforically) applied to some taste or quantity or sound.

< ;-) >The closest example I ever found is the "blues" song in English.</ ;-) >

[ Parent ]

"feels like blue" (5.00 / 1) (#91)
by fluffy grue on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:03:32 PM EST

Interesting word choice.
"Is a hyperlink" is a hyperlink.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

Cats: Nature's entropy generators

[ [ Parent ]

True (5.00 / 2) (#106)
by sjbrown on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 01:59:46 PM EST

I'm glad someone brought this issue up. I'm a mild synasthete (i guess), and it bugged me in Psychology class to hear that synasthetes "literally see the colours". My experience isn't like that, I can't speak for others, but what I "literally see" is different from my syasthetic experience. I see that the characters are actually black and white, but at the same time, a 7 is always green, even though it's black and white.

I guess it's hard to describe, but I definetly wouldn't describe it as "literally see"

[ Parent ]

The color of your imagination (none / 0) (#115)
by cep on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 07:03:29 PM EST

Your comment reminded me that I (a) associate colors with letters - alpha is red, beta is green, the color of i and j is grey of some intermediate brightness -, and (b) I "think in black and white", seeing geometrical constructions as black lines on a white background, and doing some kind of mathematics by actually moving symbols before my inner eye. It should be a contradiction.

[ Parent ]
Feynman (4.00 / 1) (#83)
by ajdecon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 04:34:35 PM EST

I seriously doubt that Feynman exhibited synaesthesia: he was simply speaking of how he remembered the equations. If I remember correctly, the textbook he refers to did indeed have the light-tan j's and dark-brown x's. If Feynman originally learned from that textbook, and used it extensively, his visualizations of those equations easily could have been in those colors. But he's talking about visualizations--not his mind coloring words on a page in a way that didn't exist.

The same might be noticed with those who often program using syntax-highlighting interfaces that, for example, color reserved words or different levels of nesting as red, blue, yellow, etc. Such a programmer might, when thinking of a particular problem, "see" the code in his head in those colors... but that's simply habit and memory.

(This is not to say I don't believe in synaesthesia, or any such notion; but you have to distinguish that experience, literally superimposing colors onto their sight, from memory and visualization.)

"Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself."
-Richard Feynman
True (5.00 / 1) (#94)
by adrianhon on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:30:15 PM EST

There is little evidence beyond the passage I quoted that Feynman was a synaesthete. To be honest, it is pretty unlikely, but the possibility is still there and many synaesthetes don't like to mention their experiences. In any case, it made a nice introduction :)

[ Parent ]
Stigma (3.50 / 2) (#88)
by sinexoverx on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 06:37:51 PM EST

It is interesting to me that this synaesthesia disorder seems to carry with it a coolness factor, while other disorders can be just too strange for normal people to understand or deal with. And so people with perceptual disorders can be looked at as being insane rather than just different. Even disorders that don't really affect the person's personality or abilities can be sources of ridicule if revealed. I would guess there are many more people out there with such oddities than most would think and they just have learned to never talk about them. But I wonder why this particular disorder is so appealing and facinating to some.

Re: Stigma (none / 0) (#96)
by truchisoft on Sat Feb 22, 2003 at 07:38:48 PM EST

Why is it so appealing to some? well, im a IT student and i can tell you it would be REALLY helpful if i had a method to distinguish the numbers in the ecuations, for examle!

Anyway, we humans are based on senses, everything we do is so we can get a better "sensation", so i belive that having a mix of senses, if possible all at once is simply a nirvana...

After reading thru this article i bookmarked it and started asking arround the house if anyone "sees numbers with colors", noone did, but a sister's friend told me she sees the days of the week in colors, sunday black, monday yellow, etc, not surprisingly, she has an exeptional dates memory.
--- Saludos de Argentina.
[ Parent ]

It's not as cool as it seems. (none / 0) (#130)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:58:54 AM EST

For example if you would "see sounds", imagine the difficulty of safely crossing the road in the noisy place.

[ Parent ]
it's very unobtrusive (4.00 / 1) (#131)
by kd on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 11:52:13 AM EST

I myself do 'see sounds.' I always have. I even posted a diary entry here about a year ago on my synaesthesia.

I can say with certainty, through my own experiences and my research into synaesthesia, that rarely (if ever) is it potent enough that the colors or shapes interfere with processing the surrounding environment. It's a misconception, probably brought on by the term 'see', that people tend to believe the colors, shapes, motions, or whatever is experienced gets in the way of the person's perception of the world around him.

It's best looked at as something that compliments, or simply accompanies, the person's normal perception of the external world, but is rarely, if ever, distracting.

[ Parent ]

Like seeing colors in addition to b/w vision? [nt] (none / 0) (#155)
by paranoid on Sat Apr 26, 2003 at 01:35:08 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Because it's "extra" (none / 0) (#107)
by sjbrown on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 02:18:10 PM EST

It's the same kind of fascination as that story about the woman in england who has extra colour-sensing cones and can more accurately distinguish colours.

I'm personally fascinated by those who have more profound or 'weird' synasthetic experiences than me.

[ Parent ]

Baron-Cohen, S - would that be Ali G ? (3.00 / 1) (#104)
by Phillip Asheo on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 12:11:31 PM EST

I heard that the guy who plays Ali G (Sascha Baron-Cohen) is a psychologist of some kind.

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long

No, it's his brother (5.00 / 1) (#123)
by c4miles on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 07:26:27 AM EST

No, but it (probably) is his brother - according to a friend of mine who studied under him at cambridge, they bear a remarkable resemblance, and another of the professors hinted that this was the case.

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
[ Parent ]
Nethack - learned associations = synaesthia (4.66 / 3) (#105)
by SimonTzu on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 01:30:22 PM EST

The description you five about Feynman sounds simlar to an experience I had some years ago after a week long Nethack session.

Nethack is a computer roleplaying game where creatures are represented by letters.  a D= a Dragon, a V= a Vampire, etc.  

For about three days afterward I saw letters as monsters.  This is pretty common.  Search rec.games.rougelike.nethack for YKYBPTMNW (You Know You've Been Playing Too Much Nethack When)
Simon Tzu

i have this. (5.00 / 2) (#108)
by evilpckls on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 04:16:48 PM EST

ive known for awhile...my numbers are colored. my alphabet is colored. people are also colored, and textured as well. i mean i dont SEE people in weird colors, but when i think of them, talk to them, see them, that color is present in the back of my mind.

"...Defeat Superman and call yourself and idiot, and you'd be the Krypton Neon Xeon Neon Xenon Moron." --DesiredUsername

Simple answer. (5.00 / 2) (#112)
by Raindrop on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 06:11:15 PM EST

The simple answer as to why women have it more than men can be summed up in the word "lateralization". Male brains tend to localize functions in the left hemisphere, whereas female brains do not do so under normal circumstances (intersex conditions, etc.). This is also why females tend to respond more strongly to sensory stimuli - which in turn provokes a stronger emotional response. Dendrite density is also significantly higher in women - which would tend to support the idea that signals in one area of the brain are more likely to traverse to other areas by mere virtue of having more pathways for the signal... It is, perhaps, the single largest neurological difference between men and women.

To prove this theory, cross-reference the number of left-handed males with right-handed females in your sample size, as left-handed males tend to have larger corpus callosums (that thick chunk of tissue linking the two hemispheres of the brain), which suggests less lateralization. Left-handed males also have behavioral patterns more typical of those of the opposite sex -- although this claim has not been rigorously tested. Disclaimer: I am not a neuropsychologist.

~ Raindrop
Many questions are unanswerable.
Many answers are questionable.

Writing as tasting (4.40 / 5) (#113)
by kalculy on Sun Feb 23, 2003 at 06:41:11 PM EST

I experience the thinking and writing of words as if I were tasting them. I can't tell you what they taste like; I only know that I experience tasting when I am looking for a word or when I am writing them. However, I do not experience reading as tasting. I find this last fact somewhat puzzling and am not sure if I am experiencing synaesthesia or not.
cogito, ergo sum
Yes, you are (4.00 / 1) (#125)
by Viliam Bur on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 08:19:12 AM EST

as far as I understand the topic.

[ Parent ]
As a synaesthete... (3.00 / 2) (#134)
by artsygeek on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 02:43:08 PM EST

I can attest that certain odors will trigger certain sensations in my mouth....like the odor of some soaps, in particular. I also can "talk to myself" and hear my own voice without speaking.....And certain tones of speech can result in me "seeing" the words...it's like the speech part of my brain is jumpered to my auditory and visual parts. Like when I was a kid, I aced in spelling bees because I could SEE the words, and thus could spell them quite easily.

That is all normal (5.00 / 1) (#136)
by jjayson on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 03:17:41 PM EST

Smell is directly tied to taste. When I smell odors, I can taste them, too. With really strong odors, it is almost as satisfying as eating (i.e., I can almost satiate my appitite by just cooking).

It is very normal to talk to yourself in your head, too. I wish I could actually stop it sometimes ;)

Smile =)
* bt krav magas kitten THE FUCK UP
<bt> Eat Kung Jew, bitch.

[ Parent ]

Not exactly... (5.00 / 2) (#139)
by artsygeek on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 04:47:03 PM EST

I should have clarified that it actually FEELS in my mouth(particularly my teeth) like i'm biting into it (that's why I DESPISE scented soaps). Imagine FEELING as if you're biting into a bar of soap like you're biting an apple. Of course, It actually FEELS like I'm biting into certain foods when I smell them....which keeps it from being totally bad. What I accidentally didn't post (I was cutting and pasting and GRRRRR accidentally posted before I pasted) is that I 'see' a certain band of sounds (REALLY low frequency...and REALLY high frequency)....when I sit in rooms with fluorescent lights, or I have the halogen light in my house on, I see these multicolored pulsating flashes(I thought it was normal until about a year or two ago). Oh well, I said it now.

[ Parent ]
Some numbers have colours. (3.00 / 2) (#135)
by Phillip Asheo on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 02:59:01 PM EST

Like, two is white, three is yellow, four is pinkish red, nine is dark green.

And smells have tastes, especially cheese which tastes(smells) of vomit.

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long

Taste of sweet peppers (4.50 / 2) (#137)
by Gallowglass on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 04:08:54 PM EST

I'm curious. I have always associated the taste of sweet peppers - which taste coppery to me - with the taste of pain. (Specifically the taste that occurs with a sharp blow to the back of the skull on the occipital bone.)

When I tell people this, I am usually met with a blank stare. Does this fall under the heading of synaesthesia? A merger of taste with the feeling of pain? I'm not sure that those are different senses. Maybe they are? Taste vs feeling?

What does the community think?

Copper is fear (none / 0) (#146)
by epepke on Thu Feb 27, 2003 at 07:16:57 AM EST

That is, the taste of copper is often associated with intense fear or terror, but I've gotten it from a blow to the occiput, too.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
closed-eye sober visuals (3.50 / 2) (#140)
by treat on Mon Feb 24, 2003 at 09:11:05 PM EST

Not under the influence of psychedelics, close your eyes. Put things on this blank canvas - numbers, words, images, shapes. Can you SEE it, (anywhere near) as good as you can see in real life?

Pople have told me they can do this. I can understand what is being described but beyond that it makes no sense to me. I see only black.

Strange (4.00 / 2) (#143)
by epepke on Wed Feb 26, 2003 at 06:08:37 AM EST

I've always seen letters and numbers in color. I just assumed it was an artifact of educational aids, like those little kiddie xylophones/parent torture devices which list a letter, a number, and a color with each note.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

Doesn't everybody? (4.00 / 2) (#144)
by Lynoure on Wed Feb 26, 2003 at 08:32:49 AM EST

Certainly almost everybody 'sees' colours when experiencing pain, pleasure or emotions.

When I think of my childhood... (3.00 / 1) (#151)
by the77x42 on Wed Mar 19, 2003 at 03:47:47 AM EST

... the smell of sauted mushrooms comes into my head. And this only happens when I'm thinking of my childhood prior to moving when I was 9. I have found this sensation only occurs on sunny days when I am outside though. No joke.

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

This Article is Wrong (1.50 / 2) (#152)
by losang on Fri Mar 21, 2003 at 09:55:38 AM EST

There are five sense organs and to each one is exclusively associated an object which appears to that organ. 'Exclusive' meaning the particuar sense object can only appear to that particular sense organ. Colors can only be perceived by the eye. Sound can only be perceive by the ear. So on and so on.

Anything suggesting otherwise is a result of not drawing a clear picture of perception.

just not a clear picture of your perception (1.00 / 1) (#153)
by partykidd on Sun Apr 06, 2003 at 08:36:22 PM EST

that doesn't mean there aren't other modes of legit perceptions out there...to say otherwise is what's known as having a closed mind...perhaps you're the type who doesn't experience things in life, therefore they must not be true...what a pity!

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

[ Parent ]

This is not closed minded (4.00 / 1) (#154)
by losang on Sat Apr 12, 2003 at 09:09:14 PM EST

Establishing parameters of what exists and does not exist is not closed minded. Categorizing reality, understanding it and holding a view is what philosophy is.

[ Parent ]
And I would respond (none / 0) (#156)
by partykidd on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 02:00:39 AM EST

There is more than one reality.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

[ Parent ]

Evidence? (none / 1) (#157)
by losang on Sat Jul 26, 2003 at 06:03:55 AM EST

What is your reason for this?

[ Parent ]
Evidence of other realities? (1.00 / 2) (#159)
by partykidd on Sun Jul 27, 2003 at 08:12:39 PM EST

Reality is very subjective. To suggest that there is only one reality, your reality, is to discount the experience of others. I can't give you evidence but I can give a few examples.

Have you ever seen an ultrasound? There's a machine that bounces sound above the human range of hearing off of an object back to the machine which uses a computer to produce the result into a picture. A picture produced by bouncing sound waves off of an object. Is this not "seeing" sound?

We can also "see" with X rays, ultraviolet, and infrared. All of these are part of the light spectrum.

Yes, there are some people out there who see sounds and hear colors. Evidence? You could find out for yourself before you just vagrantly dismiss what other people already know and have experienced. Reality is subjective to each and every person. It's not going to be the same for everybody.

You said before that, "Establishing parameters of what exists and does not exist is not closed minded." I would suggest to you that you start to accept synaesthesia as existing. It would be closed minded to discount the reality and experiences of others (myself included). I hope this is enough. I had a better and lengthier response typed up, but my computer crashed right as I was hitting post.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

[ Parent ]

rmg and RobotSlave (none / 0) (#160)
by partykidd on Mon Aug 25, 2003 at 02:33:31 PM EST

Why did you give this post ones? This is an old thread and I noticed someone resonded to my comment from April. I answered three and a half months later and,...ho ho ho,...here comes K5 resident assholes rmg and RobotSlave to one my comment.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

[ Parent ]

Explanation (2.00 / 1) (#158)
by losang on Sat Jul 26, 2003 at 06:05:23 AM EST

You need to address the question in your reply. All you have done was give your opinion.

[ Parent ]
Synaesthesia - union of the senses | 160 comments (142 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
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