Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

Colored letters, numbers, symbols, etc.

Grapheme-color synesthesia is a form of synesthesia in which an individual’s perception of numbers and letters is associated with the experience of colors

When I look at a symbol, its color is automatically projected onto the page (or screen, or wherever I am reading it). I have no control over what colors each symbol is, just like normal folks don’t have any control over what smells come from what foods.

The letter “a” is simply that particular shade of yellow; I cannot think of that letter or read it without seeing it in color. If I am thinking of a letter, the color is in my mind’s eye, but if I am actually reading the letter, the color is literally projected onto the page.

If I’m reading black text, I realize the text is actually black but my colors are automatically superimposed into my vision. The colors don’t “block’ my view of the letters, I just see an additional layer. It’s very hard to describe. (To approximate what I see, check out this thing I made)

I suppose it would be like picturing an alligator in your easy chair: You know it’s not actually there but you can still see it. The difference is with me, I don’t consciously conjure up these projections; they just happen.

These colors have remained constant since I first learned to identify various symbols; As I learned new symbols, they somehow suddenly had a color.

My Alphabet

Note: my letter “i” and number “1” are white, which means when I make a list of my letters or numbers on a white background – like above – you can’t see them. Inexplicably, I don’t have any problem reading the letter “i” when it’s written on white backgrounds; it’s just a problem for showing you my alphabet and numbers.

My Numbers

My Symbols

Beautiful letters

In general, this is very pleasant. I enjoy reading and looking at letters not just for what they mean, but because they are pretty. Reading a book in black and white is entertaining not just because of the story or information I learn from it: I also enjoy watching the colors change as I read through the text.

In fact, sometimes I get so distracted by the colors I completely miss the meaning of the letters and words.

Of course this might sound very difficult to read, but I assure you it helps tremendously in my language ability. When I learned how to spell, I didn’t just learn that the letters b, a, and t spell “bat”; I learned that those letters and those colors spell “bat.” A sort of built-in colorized mnemonic device.

When I remember words, the colors are inseparable from the letters themselves

I get a special sort of satisfaction or pleasure out of words like bat that match the color of the thing they describe (bats can be brown). They just go together. It makes such great sense to my brain.

Another word like that is dog; It’s black and a tiny bit purple, which works really well for what our Boston Terrier, walter is.
walter is a dog

Another example is tree; The colors of that word look kind of like a tree standing next to a small pond, silhoutted against a bright blue sky. Additionally, there is a bit of green that doesn’t come from any of the letters themselves; It comes from the meaning of the word to me (trees have green leaves). When I see that word there is a special kind of consonance in my brain.

In elementary school, I was an above-average speller (I always made it to the end of the spelling bees!) perhaps because of my colored letters. In learning how to spell words, they are invaluable as an automatic memory aid!

I simply remember what the colors look like.

Showing these letters in color, however, does not fully illustrate how they work. Words aren’t just strings of colors put together in such a way I can easily make out each individual letter when I think of a word; The color of the whole word is heavily affected by the colors of the first few letters, with the last few letters getting overshadowed by the first few.

Unless it’s a short word, I only consider the rest of the letters if I really think about it. However, I often find myself correcting typos because “that word needs more light blue in it” (the letter e) or “there is too much yellow in this word, I must have typed it wrong.”

Later in school when I learned Spanish, the colors were helpful to remembering vocabulary.

For instance, when I learned a word like ‘hablar’ (to speak) I noticed the word in Spanish took on a tinge of the color of the word in English… Kind of like this:

That was incredibly helpful to remember words that were not similar in both languages. When I wanted to remember how to say “speak” in Spanish, I just thought of “to speak” and I saw hablar.

As I became fluent, the effect sometimes went both ways; “speak” in English sometimes took on a green hue due to the influence of hablar.

Downsides

The colors can make things very confusing. For instance, consider the word mnemonic I mentioned earlier; I can never remember the correct spelling because the colors are all so similar.

When I try to remember how to spell that word, what I think of is basically a blob of blue (m, n, and e are all shades of blue, while c is yellow):

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there were two different spellings for the name “Aaron.” Previously, I had assumed everybody I met who said their name was /air-in/ spelled it “e r i n.”

So of course I remembered all of my /air-in/ friends’ names’ as very blue names:

When I suddenly learned half of those people had a bunch of “a”s in their names, it really blew my mind! I had to re-learn what colored names went with which friends.

They went from very blue to very yellowish.

Number Problems

I have always had problems with math, those problems almost certainly made worse by the colors. Some synesthetes seem to have improved math skills because of their colors; I, for whatever reason, am not one of those people.

In elementary school I learned math the same way I learned language: by the colors. When I memorized math problems the colors played a huge role.

Even though 2 and 2 should be a yellow number, somehow the result is 4! After learning this, I simply remembered that yellow+yellow=blue.

I could swallow that bitter pill, but because I have a few similar colors between numbers, I’ve always found it difficult when 3 and 4 or 6 and 9 are involved:

For instance, I know that 6 + 8 is some blue number, but I always forget which one it is. 13 and 14 are almost identical in color.

A set of numbers with many 6s and 9s or 3s and 4s (or even 2s and 5s) is extremely difficult for me to remember. Trying to remember a number like this would prove almost impossible for me:

As would this one:

Suffice it to say, whenever I have the opportunity to choose a set of numbers (like my phone number or PIN number) I choose a set of numbers that either look pretty together or are easy to remember. I would never choose a number like 4369 or 2522 as my PIN number for reasons I believe are obvious.

Some people use their wedding anniversary; I could never do that because there is too much black in it:

Math class got even more confusing when algebra and variables came along! Of course most of the variables that were used were a, b, c, x, and y. Unlucky for me, many of those look alike.

Certain algebra problems appear almost incomprehensible, like this one:

It’s hard to say how much of a role my synesthesia had in the development of my math skills. It’s entirely possible my failings in math come from a bad public school education, or simply my lack of interest in numbers (they are nowhere near as pretty as letters). Perhaps I could have approached math the way I approached spelling, but for whatever reason my math skills never developed the way my spelling and writing skills did.

A few peculiarities

The whole thing is peculiar- I realize that- but there are some things even I find strange.

One of those is how easy it is to turn a red letter into a blue letter just by adding a line. Whenever I draw an uppercase “R,” until I draw the final line (the “P” leg) it’s red! As soon as I draw that “P” leg, it turns blue. Instantly.

Every so often I get obsessed with learning more about synesthesia: I’m sure it’s no shock that this website is a result of my current wave of synesthesia obsession. I read all the books and articles I can find, usually learning something new about the way I perceive the world and perhaps most enlightening, how other people do.

In reading Richard Cytowic’s books on synesthesia, I come across plenty of interesting diagrams that illustrate this or that.

One that effectively blew my mind was a “5” made up of “2”s- kind of like this. (I changed the numbers because 2s and 5s are very similar colors for me)

For me, 4s are blue and 5s are yellow. Depending on which number I’m focused on, the colors being projected by my brain will change. I can’t tell you how much that messes with my head!

In an effort to show instead of tell, here is a little gif I made that gets close.

I experience a similar “visual dissonance” when reading words in various colors that don’t match my own colors. I don’t think that’s so difficult to understand; It’s not unlike reading a color’s name displayed in a different color.

Things like this make my brain hurt! Here’s an example of a word printed in a single color:

.. and here it is in the “correct” colors, pretty different.

If I have to read something displayed in a color other than black (or worse yet, displayed in a variety of colors like every website in the 90’s!) it can really slow down my reading as my brain works out that dissonance.

Conclusions

I read, write, type, code, remember, and think in color. Sometimes it’s very helpful, other times it’s confusing.

One important detail to mention is that as wild and colorful as all of these examples appear (even to me), my day-to-day experience of projected-colored-graphemes is absolutely normal to me.

I don’t think anything of it; The experience of seeing the letter “g” is absolutely inseparable from the accompanied experience of seeing is as a little purple blob.

If I were to suddenly lose my colored letters, I’m not sure I’d be able to read. At the very least, it would take time for me to adjust.

18 responses

  1. Although there’s been more research in the last 10 years than in quite a while, much about synesthesia is still unknown and poorly understood… including how many people have it. Part of the problem is we synesthetes don’t necessarily even realize we have it because it’s so natural to our experience of the world. For instance, I didn’t realize that I smell in color until late in college!
    I’ve seen estimates that range from 2% to 20%, I’d guess it’s closer to 5%. Those numbers include all kinds of synesthesia – tasting sounds, hearing colors, etc – all permutations of the 5 senses and all the other stranger things (grapheme genders, etc).

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  2. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a very big range of synesthetic experiences: I have a lot of them, but my dad for instance only has one or two (3D time forms). My sister has colored graphemes (not projected) and possibly some others, but not colored hearing. Oh yeah, it’s also highly genetic!

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