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Letter-Color Synaesthesia

Cassidy Curtis


For as long as I can remember, I've had this implicit sense of a relationship between letters and colors. To me, every letter seems to have a color of its own. When I think of a word, I am aware of its color and the color of its component letters. The phenomenon is consistent enough that I can rely on it to help me remember things like phone numbers and proper names. I call it my letter-color synaesthesia.

Webster's Dictionary defines synaesthesia as "the production of a mental sense-impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense." In my case, the sense-impression (color) comes from a purely mental event (thinking of a word), not from any external sensory stimulation.

The effect is completely involuntary. It's a bit like what happens when you think of a word like "banana": maybe you see the spelling in front of your mind's eye, or maybe you hear the way it sounds in your mind's ear. But it's pretty likely that you are also at least faintly aware of the color yellow. That's pretty much what it's like: a faint awareness that can be brought to my full attention under certain circumstances.

Here's an approximation of the basic mapping of the letters and numerals, taken individually, to colors:

Here they are again, over a dark background:

This may seem odd, but it gets stranger. What you see above are the colors of the letters taken in isolation. But when placed in the context of a word, a letter's color can change quite dramatically.

First of all, vowels almost always fade into the background in the presence of consonants. They also tend to pick up some of the color of letters nearby. For example, the "A" in my name is overwhelmed by the strong green of the letters around it:

In longer words, the repetition of a single letter can even influence the other consonants, as in this case:

However, this is less often the case in a word that begins with a vowel. The letter "I" can give an entire word a luminescent quality, and the consonants often lose some of their power in its presence:

The color effect has very little to do with the pronunciation of a word. It has everything to do with the spelling. The first letter in particular has enormous influence:

The meaning of a word also has an undeniable influence on its color. For example, the word "banana" is as yellow for me as I imagine it is for anyone else, despite the fact that its letters are predominantly red. This fact was brought to my attention most recently when I encountered a new word:

Later, when I learned what the word meant, its color changed accordingly. Phthalocyanine turns out to be the name of a vivid blue-green pigment used in paint. Now the word looks something like this:

As I mentioned, I sometimes use my synaesthesia to help me remember difficult proper names. Here's a Thai chef who wrote a terrific vegetarian cookbook:

Unfortunately, this method can backfire too, because I confuse similarly-colored names easily:

This is especially problematic at parties.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How and when did you get this synaesthesia?

A: I can't remember ever not having it, but then I also can't remember ever not being able to read. I suspect that both of these things happened at the same time. Judging by the strong primary colors of the first five letters, I'm inclined to think that maybe refrigerator magnets are to blame. (Although the refrigerator magnets I currently own are all wrong!)

Q: Do other people have it too? If so, are their colors the same as yours?

A: Apparently this type of synaesthesia (chromatographemic) is one of the most common forms, affecting about 1 in 2,000 people. At the time when I wrote this page, I had never met another synaesthete-- or so I believed! Now that the page has been up for a while, a few of my friends have "come out" as synaesthetes, and I've met several others via email lists. We're everywhere!

There are some other folks who have put up similar pages on the web, and their colors are in fact completely different from mine (and from each other's!) For example: Robert Cailliau, Andreas Liesche, Carol Steen and Karen Chenausky.

Q: Why are the first seven numbers the same colors as the first seven letters?

A: I have no idea. Maybe it's those darn magnets.

Q: What do Hebrew, Arabic, and Chinese look like to you?

A: Writing systems I can't read look like little black shapes on a white background. They have no color effect whatsoever. However, when I learn to read a foreign alphabet like Hebrew, each letter acquires the color of its English transliteration. So, for example, mem becomes dark blue like 'm', and chet becomes green-and-pink like 'ch'. When I'm struggling to read a line of Hebrew text, the letters start out black-and-white, but then they leap into full color as I begin to understand them. The effect is really quite dramatic!

Q: How about diacritical marks? Accents, punctuation, etc.?

A: They add little flecks of spice to the word, but don't change its color appreciably. Grave, acute, and circumflex accents are all flecks of dirty brown-black, and the little circle over the letter is milky white like the letter O.

Q: Any resources on the web about this stuff?

A: It turns out there's a terrific website by a group of scientists studying exactly this phenomenon! Check out The International Synaesthesia Association. Also, MIT has a good site.

Q: I think I might have synaesthesia too. How can I be sure?

A: Head on over to the Synesthesia Battery website. They have a series of fairly rigorous but not terribly time-consuming tests you can take. Good luck!

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Interactive Synesthesia Demo

Added in 2006

One of the factors that makes synesthesia so interesting is how it interacts with memory and attention. If I glance at a word once in passing and try to remember it later, chances are I'll remember only some basic information about it: the length of the word, and the dominant color (which is usually, but not always, determined by the first letter.) Remembering the whole word will mean trying to remember the specific colors of all the letters, which then, sometimes, allows me to remember the letters themselves.

Recently, I built a little Flash applet to try to illustrate how this works. Click the image above to try it. And there's more info about it here on my blog.

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