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What is Grapheme-Color Synesthesia?

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Grapheme-color synesthesia is a condition in which people associate specific colors with particular letters and numbers. In this lesson, we will discuss the definition, reported experiences, and causes of this phenomenon.

Defining Grapheme-color synesthesia

Grade school classrooms often display posters of brightly-colored letters and numbers along the walls. All of the figures are perfectly formed, and are filled with brilliant, bold ink. A child visiting the classroom might become firmly convinced that the number 1 and the letter A are both supposed to be red, unaware that the colors were merely added to make the letter or number more attractive or interesting.

Grade school letter blocks
Color Alphabet

Some people, however, do have a definite color connected to particular letters and numbers in their minds. The association seems obvious to that person, who will speak about that color association as if it were normal. They might comment about the colors in which letters appear to them ('I don't like the color that a 7 is'). This sort of person can easily pick out similarly-shaped letters or numbers in a pattern, because they see a 3, an E, and an 8, for example, in different colors.

This condition, in which the brain automatically associates letters and numbers with specific colors, is called grapheme-color synesthesia. (Grapheme combines 'graph', which means symbol, with the suffix '-eme,' which refers to a structural language unit. Synesthesia combines 'syn,' which refers to a connection, with 'aesthesis,' which refers to the senses). Combining the words, grapheme-color synesthesia refers to the perception of language symbols being associated to a sensation/experience of colors.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that causes activation of one sense (for example, seeing a picture of a tree) to automatically trigger another, unrelated sense (such as smelling oranges or hearing music). Both sensory inputs seem to happen at the same time. Grapheme-color synesthesia is a specific form of synesthesia. When it occurs, the mind automatically connects specific colors to particular numbers, letters, and words. The experience is quite memorable, forming a consistent association in the person's mind.

Experiencing Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

Although the colors that different synesthetes associate with letters, numbers, or groups of written symbols differ between people, they tend to be consistent for a given individual. If you associate the color blue with the number 3, then you tend to always make the same symbol-color association, which makes it easy for you to find 3's, unless they are surrounded by other symbols (perhaps the letter F or the word 'freedom') that your mind also associates with a similar shade of blue. Note that people affected by grapheme-color synesthesia will not necessarily associate a 3 and the word 'three' with the same color, which can certainly be cause for confusion when discussing the condition. Ask them what color 3 is, and you will get a different answer than if you ask them what color 'three' is. It is important to understand that although some people ('projector-synesthetes') will actually see the color on the printed page when it is not there, many people ('association-synesthetes') merely see the color in their mind. Black letters and numbers look black to them in the physical environment, but will nevertheless carry the color connection in their minds when they see or think about those specific letters or numbers.

Grapheme-color synesthesia causes the mind to connect certain colors to letters and numbers
Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

Grapheme-color synesthesia can be very useful. For example, if you are doing one of those puzzles that provides a dense array of similar-looking numbers and letters, the correct answers will stand out for you, because they will be a different color.

Word-search puzzles may be simple for you, because each word has its own specific color. Finding your neighbor's name in a directory could be equally easy, because the name will stand out in the list because of its unique color. Alternatively, you may experience a problem, when your associated colors match. For example, you may have difficulty telling the difference between the various words, numbers, and names that have roughly the same color connection in your mind. People who experience grapheme-color synesthesia generally do not find that their condition is a problem for them, and often their unique perceptions are valuable for purposes of memorization and finding particular words, numbers, and phrases.

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