Seeing Colors: Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

Seeing Colors: Grapheme-Color Synesthesia


While we might all be familiar with the condition of color blindness, it's not the only condition related to color. Another, and maybe less familiar, or at least, more complicated, is a form of Synesthesia where your brain associates certain colors with letters and numbers called Grapheme-color Synesthesia.

One of our very own COLOUR lovers,  deedee914, has this very condition, and as an artist & designer the condition has given her a unique perspective on color and it's uses in her work. I got a chance to talk with deedee about her personal snyesthesia map, her struggle to stick with brand standards, and how this conditions impacts her and her work on a daily basis.

deedee914's map (click on image to see it full size)

About deedee914: I have a condition called Synesthesia that some define as a sort of autism or a condition where your brain experiences correspondences between sound, colour, letter or numbers. My particular case is one in which my brain maps certain colours to certain numbers and letters. Several famous artists both musical, visual arts, and even literary geniuses have documented cases or even written about their experiences. As a kid, I had an incredibly difficult time learning to use those magnetic plastic letters and numbers. The colour of the plastic never properly corresponded to the right letter or number so I gave up using them as early learning devices.


COLOURlovers: Besides difficulty with those magnetic plastic letters and numbers, are there other difficulties caused by this condition that affect aspects of your daily life?

deedee914: I'm a professional graphic designer, artist, and illustrator. Currently I work for Yahoo! and most recently have been working on some large projects with Flickr. But as you can imagine, being a graphic designer has always had its challenges when it comes to what I do. My day to day work is exhausting. It's like having to put up a mental barrier to NOT see letters and numbers as certain colours. Otherwise I'd completely go against what my clients want or what the company has already established as brand guidelines. As an example, many people know the Yahoo! logo as red... to me it's a rainbow. Flickr makes use of both pink and blue in their logo and none of these make sense in my brain so I have to tune out my own understanding and visuals of these things to be able to work with common elements in our designs. It's funny because I'm always the person on the design team citing that colour is subjective and not worth arguing over... a designer's nightmare.

CL: What are the letters of your favorite color palettes or the color schemes of your living space / wardrobe / belongings...?

d: Though I cite blue as my favourite colour, I have made a funny discovery that I am rarely ever able to use blue in any of my paintings. I try to avoid taking on commissioned work for clients who have blue palettes in their homes because for some reason the colour just doesn't work for me. My home is very mid-century modern and contains a lot of neutrals, browns, and oranges. I tend to stick to wearing singular colour palettes like an all charcoal gray outfit, black, or brown. I rarely mix colours as it complicates things for me.

Some of the most beautiful words to me based on how I see them and how they look as a colour grouping are: LOVE, TRUST, FAMILY, COKE, STORM.

I have a favourite palette I produced on CL called "New Neopolitan 2" and it maps almost very closely to the word NUDE I exclude the colour white because it acts like a blank tile. :) I try to work from the point of colour first as opposed to letters.

CL: Can you give a little information about synesthesia to help others better understand the condition (is condition the appropriate term?). Do you inexplicably think of, or 'see' in your mind, a color anytime you look at a letter? What about when you hear someone say a letter? Does each word then have its own personal color palette for you?

d: Synesthesia has a very complicated series of definitions based on the type of condition you have. Do you map colour to letters and numbers, do you see colour when you hear certain sounds etc.? The list is amazing. I've seen it referred to as a condition, a phenomenon, and even as a disorder but I don't think the scientific community has fully been able to come to a firm conclusion just what this means with respect to our particular cognitive and perceptual processes as compared to non-non-synesthetes. So therefore at this point the label "condition" seems more appropriate. The interesting thing about it is that our brains are wired a little differently from non-synesthetes. The colours I associate with a specific letter or number have always been the same for my entire life. And my list and organization of colours and letters is hardly ever the same as someone else's who also has the condition.

When I think of a word, I see blocks of color, and the blocks get translated into letters. I've heard of others who see the letters with something of a halo-effect. The letters give off almost a glow of a certain colour. Mine seem more rigidly tied to grids. It makes remembering names and places a lot easier. Memorizing phone numbers is easier too. I have a habit of wanting to remember something or say a person's name I met awhile back, so I close my eyes to better visualise the colour.

Links: Synesthesia, Grapheme-color Synesthesia, deedee914, deedee914's map on flickr


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23 Comments
Showing 1 - 23 of 23 Comments

MandaScribbles

One

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... there's more where that came from :P

R3V0LUTii0N4RY

Neato.
(:
Synesthesia, personally, is quite fascinating.
I have it too, though it's taste/touch and a sorta thought/touch/color sort of thing.
Ahah.
(:

lightningmccarl

awesome! i read a book about synysthesia :D

chai_the_red_panda

Synesthesia has always fascinated me as well. I wonder, do people with synesthesia see different colors in capital letters than they do in small letters?

deedee914

Hey chai, in my case no. the colours are the same for the letter in upper or lower case. Also, the font has no bearing on the letter either. I am curious though how synesthesia develops in young children because I also speak several languages but they all use the basic english phonetic alphabet with little or no special characters. Did my brain map the color to the letters and numbers before I learned them or after? Kind of like the chicken and the egg question huh? In my experience as described above I remember very early on that the letter D was not and never could be red before I knew what D was. Is our sense of language and spelling handed down in some way via our genetics? Or is it a case where as your brain develops the synapse for learning and understanding, those patterns and links between colour and shape are formed as well? Hmmm something to ponder.

chai_the_red_panda

Wow, that is very strange. I often associate colors and images to letters and numbers, but I think that's only because I'm a visual thinker. I'd love to do tests and studies on this sort of thing if I ever get a career as a scientist. :)

wingedvictory

Amazing. Fabulous post! I find that so interesting. I agree that synesthesia seems to be more of a condition then disorder. :)

heykelley

I have grapheme->color synesthesia too!

And my colors are SO completely different from hers. lol.

tenkerasu

the colours for some people will be different from others. there's a book coming out in march about this "disorder" called "wednesday is indigo blue" - it's supposed to be fascinating. i, myself have a very low form of it, but i know people who can hear in colour, taste in sounds, etc. it's really such a cool disorder; it's just unfortunate so few people know about it or think it actually exists. this is really interesting, and i hope people can understand it more, deedee, because think of what the world would be if people made things in the colours they saw fit! ^^ such a cool post, thanks guys!

heykelley

I wonder, do people with synesthesia see different colors in capital letters than they do in small letters?


For me, they are different. Not ALL letters, but certain ones specifically are different depending on whether they are capital or lowercase. They can also shift depending on where they are situated within a word, and what letters are near them.

SparrowLP

great post! I also read a book about a teenage girl with this condition called, "A Mango Shaped Space," it was cute, not to mention interesting...

joanacarda

Great post, Ive never heard of it! Incredible!
Thanks SparrowLP for the reading tip.

theyplaycreole

I have music>colour synesthesia and a very slight grapheme>colour one, while I only have specific colours for i,e,y some letter seem to be darker than others.

klip

Thanks for the interesting article. I cannot say I have synaesthesia, but I do have very strong associations between colour and sound. Especially if I am half asleep. Then I can often see sounds as abstract shapes. But it only happens if I am totally relaxed and not using my "awake" mind at all. The moment I focus and start thinking, it all goes away again.

My clearest memory of this was listening to traffic noise when I was a child, in bed, almost asleep. The rumble of traffic looked like dark brown and black squares overlapping, and the police and ambulance sirens were long thing bright blue streaks undulating above these.

I think this is probably quite common. I often wonder why deep notes seem dark, and higher notes "brighter". We even use that terminology in every day language. Why does darkness, heaviness, weight and low tonality seem to go together? And why do thin, sour, sharp, high tonality, lightness seem to go together?

codename_gimmick

I'm going to try to keep this succinct, but I have a lot to say on the matter.

I'm both grapheme-color synesthetic and pitch-color synesthetic... I suppose the only reason I have any interest in creative pursuits is so I can "color" the world in sounds and letters as I see fit. I have fixed, one-to-one associations between letters and colors, and musical notes and colors, and always have, but they play very differently and blend in strange ways when blended in, say, words, chords, or mathematical equations (and that includes geometric interpretations). The world is amazing when you see and hear rainbows everywhere you go-- creating art becomes tantamount to bending the rainbow.

Something I'd like to add to deedee914's remark regarding "special characters": I dare say these connections can be fluid (to the extent that they are still fixed enough to regard as 'synesthetic' connections), because the colors with which I associate marked characters (say, Icelandic Ö/ö or Polish Ć/ć) are rarely the same as those for their unmarked counterparts. I began studying either of these languages long after the formative years, but certainly the associations are there. My understanding is that the phenomenon of synesthesia is rooted more in the neural infrastructure than mere perceptual filter, so I wouldn't imagine it impossible for associations to develop later in life if the neural pathways are connected just right. That's as far as I'll go on that without much background on neurology, though. ;-)

Excellent article-- I've wondered how long it would be before this topic would surface on CL.

Catazyna

Excellent article! I have colour/music synesthesia and it is pretty cool. There is a site online where you can discover if you are at all synesthestic. http://www.synesthete.org/index.php

i_am_a_synesthete

deedee914

A friend of mine put together an interesting little website based on my particular brand of synesthesia. The site allows you t type in any amount of text and see it based on my grid as shown above at the same time. To see a live version of how my brain works, check out: http://mroth.info/code/dees-colors/

Temerarious

I have synthesia as well, though I'm not sure what type mine is.. My colour map is so different from hers, though!

daftks

Thank you for this article, I am about to embark on a dissertation with regards to colour synesthesia. Thank you, it was the most interesting read. :)

SallyHewson

Visit this site if you would like to take a test to determine if you are a synesthete:
http://www.synesthete.org/ The test was developed by Dr David Eagleman, one of the world's most prominent synesthesia researchers. His work is fascinating. http://neuro.bcm.edu/eagleman/

starrise57

deedee914 wrote:
H I am curious though how synesthesia develops in young children because I also speak several languages but they all use the basic english phonetic alphabet with little or no special characters. Did my brain map the color to the letters and numbers before I learned them or after? Kind of like the chicken and the egg question huh? In my experience as described above I remember very early on that the letter D was not and never could be red before I knew what D was. Is our sense of language and spelling handed down in some way via our genetics? Or is it a case where as your brain develops the synapse for learning and understanding, those patterns and links between colour and shape are formed as well? Hmmm something to ponder.

I've heard that everyone begins (as in, is born with) synesthesia, connecting senses together, but as we grow and out brains develop, those connections break down. For some people, though, they stay.
I went onto your site where it colors what you type in, and it was so wierd!! Everything was different and made my brain feel messed up :) For example, my name, Joia, was all primary-y colors when it's actually a maroon-sorbet-- sounds strange, but J provides the purple, I is pale and a little bit of A is yellow and O makes any word taste like sorbet. But I did love that Dee is all smooth and oceany (instead of gray and bumpy) and my friend Paige looks gorgeous and bright in your colors :D

Xalbec

chai_the_red_panda wrote:
Synesthesia has always fascinated me as well. I wonder, do people with synesthesia see different colors in capital letters than they do in small letters?

I do actually...my d is a lighter green but my D is a darker one. Same with my e and E...this is similar in all the letters that are not the same capped and little.

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