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January 31, 2006

What colour is today?

In my perception of the world around me everything is associated with colours, even things like days of the week, months or numbers. For example, Wednesday is orange and Friday is yellow, March is a light shade of blue, June is green and August red, the numbers between 0 and 19 have individual colours whereas the twenty's are different shades of blue, thirty's are orange, forty's are yellow, and fifty's are green. It took me years (decades really) to find out that this is not the usual way to see the world. Very few people - one in 2,000 - make this connection between abstract terms and colours. They are called "synaesthetics" (from the Greek syn = together and aisthanesthai = to perceive) because an external stimulus will provoke - automatically and at the same time - the response of two different sensations.

Most common is apparently the above described "colour hearing". It was studied systematically and described by the British physician Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, as early as 1883. He found out that synaesthetic abilities are individual, meaning that no two people associate the same sounds with the same solours, and that they are hereditary.

Already in 1904 an article was published about this phenomenon in a German Scientific Journal (Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 29 (1904) 375). It described the associations of vowels with colours made by a female person:

A: red-brown, E: white, I: blue, O: yellow, U: dark green

Consequently combinations of vowels yielded the following combinations of colours:

Au: left field of vision red-brown, right dark green
Ei: left white, right blue
Ai: left red-brown, right blue to violet
Eu: left white, right dark green
Oi: left yellow, right blue and so forth.

Nowadays we know that synaesthetics do not suffer from hallucinations. Modern technology has revealed that on reading or hearing letters or words that stimulus is not only processed in the primary auditory but also the primary visual cortex. It's just the wiring in the brains of people with synaesthetic abilities that is a bit different after all. Otherwise we are perfectly normal.

Posted by Mausi at January 31, 2006 05:05 PM

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I saw a documentary a few years ago about a synaesthete who turned her colour hearing into artworks - I wonder what you would produce if you tried that! Do you think your perception of the world helped or hindered your scientific studies?

I only have one colour association with a sound - my mother's name. Perhaps different people have varying degrees of synaesthesia.

Posted by: The Postulant at February 4, 2006 06:02 PM

I don't think there's anything artistic about my colour hearings. There might be, though, if I were more of an artist.

I can't say if my perception of the world helped or hindered my scientific studies having always perceived the world in the same way. I find this difficult to explain to people not affected by colour hearing. If I hear the word "Twenty" and associate it with the colour "Blue" it doesn't interfere with my field of vision or anything else. I don't start seeing a blue number twenty everywhere. It it just a bit of information that is processed deep inside my brain but does not interfere with my actual perception of the 'outside world'. Associating words with colours doesn't help me remembering them more easily either.

I have a visual memory, however. I can memorise things more easily if I have actually seen them or even seen them written down.

Posted by: Mausi at February 4, 2006 09:38 PM