Imagine the letter ‘a’. Think hard about it. If ‘a’ was a colour, what would it be? Now think about the letter ‘y’. If ‘y’ was a colour what would it be? Now click here:
Get it right? If you did, likelihood is that it’s not down to chance.
Synaesthesia is an involuntary but fascinating hereditary condition which affects up to 1 in 20 people where the barriers which keep our sensory modalities apart are somehow absent, so enabling a weird type of cross-talk between sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Synaesthetes experience the results in a variety of ways – some associate certain letters and numbers with certain colours. Some can ‘see’ music (wow), others ‘taste’ shapes, ‘smell’ words or ‘feel’ letters. No two synaesthetes seem to be the same but some experiences, like seeing letters as colours, are more prevalent. And there are enough similarities between the people that have this particular manifestation to be able to put together a ‘Synaesthetic alphabet’. The really intriguing thing about this is that when non-synaesthetes are asked to colour the alphabet, more people reproduce this colour scheme than if you left it to chance.
Recently, the traditional thinking about Synaesthesia – that it is a purely sensory phenomenon – has been turned on its head. Many scientists now believe that this kind of cross-talk of the senses is triggered not just by sensory input but by meaning and concepts – particularly linguistic ones. In this way, some synaesthetes attribute human personality traits to certain letters, or concepts like days of the week take on particular colours. Other synaesthetes see an ambiguously drawn letter or number (say ‘S’ or ‘5’) as a different colour depending on its context (e.g. if it appeared in ‘mu5ic’ it would be seen as green, their colour for ‘S’, but if it appeared in 1234S6 it would be pink, their colour for 5). If this is true, it provides a fascinating potential window on how the brain handles concepts and connects them to the real world.
The kind of similarities and patterns in manifestation that enable the coloured alphabet can potentially be used to better understand some of the cognitive mechanisms and concepts the brain uses to make language work. Experiments with Synaesthetes for example, show that with compound words such as ‘Blackbird’, the commonality of their usage effects how the brain deals with them. Less common compound words (like ‘ferryman’) are initially stored in the brain as two concepts (ie. synaesthetes get two reactions) but this is assimilated into one concept (eliciting one reaction) by common, heavy usage.
And, get this. The scientists doing this kind of work believe that the cross-talk between linguistic concepts and sensory experiences is not restricted to people with the condition. In fact, perhaps it’s not a condition at all. Some have even suggested that we are all born synaesthetes and that as babies it helps us to develop our understanding of the world before sensory barriers are put up. Perhaps we are all synaesthetes to some extent – we just don’t know it.