Some thoughts on synaesthesia

I’ve been planning to post about synaesthesia for some time, not because I have a lot to say, but to share the little I do have. This is part of a plan to write shorter posts about smaller topics, but hopefully more of them.

I’ll assume the reader has some idea of what synaesthesia is. One important aspect is the distinction between projective vs associative synaesthesia, which I first read about here. Usually when people think of synaesthesia, they think of the projective type, in which a literal experience of one sense is triggered by information detected by a different sense. In the associative type — which has less of a ‘wow’ factor and gets less press time — what is triggered is an abstraction rather than a literal sensory experience. It’s the difference between seeing the colour blue and thinking of the colour blue.

I am no synaesthete, as such. But people sometimes make the case that there is a continuum from the average person and a clear-cut synaesthete, and for the associative type I am inclined to believe this. I can certainly point to experiences of my own which might be dubbed ‘sub-synaesthetic’, in which I detect a certain rightness in complementing one sensory experience with the thought of another, even if I can’t say that one triggers the other. My impression is that most people can do the same, to differing degrees.

If you have either true synaesthetic or sub-synaesthetic experiences, please share them in the comments. Below are some of mine.

  • I have long felt that if written Dutch were a colour, it would be hot pink. There is just something inescapably hot pink–ish about written Dutch.
  • I’ve been known to connect music with certain tastes. For example this piece harmonises with the thought of soft toffee from an old-fashioned sweet shop, and this one (Ebb Tide by John Coleman) evokes a glass of chardonnay. Given how French the latter sounds it probably doesn’t surprise much, but there you have it. Other music evokes more complex associations, but that’s outside the scope of this post.
  • Certain vowel sounds seem best complemented by certain colours, if I think about it at all. I’ve long felt the only colour that properly belongs with the eeee vowel (that’s [i] to linguists) is yellow — possibly because yyyyellow — tending through orange to red as more open front vowels are considered. Sometime last year I asked myself whether I could similarly associate colours with the back vowels, and while this required a deliberate effort I found I was able to consider a candidate and say, “Yes, that’s the one”. Here is my sub-synaesthetic (and interpolated) vowel diagram:
    synthvowels
  • That’s all I can think of, but I have a nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something. If so I can always add it later.

Your turn now.

P.S. I used this colour interpolating tool to make the above chart. Note that it has a bug that means it won’t work if the Red value is set to BB, but apart from that it’s a very nice tool.

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6 Responses to “Some thoughts on synaesthesia”

  1. April ElshaHawk Schoffstall Says:

    I agree with the thought that there is a spectrum from ‘normal’ sensory perceptions to a senaesthete. I find myself associating things, too. It has to do with awareness, also. I’m not a senaesthete, but if I pay attention to what color or setting or ‘feel’ I get from a song (for example), then I am more aware of doing it and may do it more often.
    I think that’s what happens when we dream. The more you practice remembering dreams, the longer dreams you can remember.
    These crossovers tend to be personal, I find your color chart of vowel sounds at first confusing, then just amusing as I process it. It doesn’t make as much sense to me as it does to you.
    I also tie sensations and colors to emotions sometimes. This may also come out in dreams. It certainly comes out in movies. Perhaps it is the cinema that has shaped some of our color associations, much like it has shaped our stereotypes.

  2. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. With the first piece of music I shared, I’ve had it on CD for years and one day the thought just struck me, “This would be perfect as background music in a confectionery advertisement”. Inversely, no doubt if it was used in an advertisement it would influence people’s associations. I can’t say I relate to your comments on cinema in particular, though.

    I probably could have somehow annotated the vowel diagram to make it more accessible, but I’m not sure about the best way to do that.

  3. Max Says:

    For some reason I associate the vowel [u] with the deep blue sea. Maybe it’s because I think it’s the sound a giant whale would make. It’s interesting how you made that part of your vowel diagram blue-ish. And I do think of [i] as a bright, happy (and also feminine and juvenile) sound. You chose the bright, happy color yellow for that vowel.

  4. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Thanks — interesting.

    Another explanation for your association between [u] and the sea might be that water is better at conducting low-pitched sounds, and [u] has low formant frequencies. The two explanations are related: whales use low-pitched sounds for communication because these sounds travel further.

  5. Alex Fink Says:

    A few years ago I took part in an online experiment which was collecting exactly this sort of subsynaesthetic association between vowels and colours, http://www.vowelcolours.org/ (collection concluded now). My answers were in broad strokes like yours except that there’s scarcely any red. The front is a continuum, [i] is RGB-primary green, [e] yellow, [ɛ] the pale buff of manila card, [a] white; the continuum gets interrupted around [ɑ] which is difficult to put to a colour, but maroon is possible; then [ɔ] is azure and on smoothly up to [u] which is deep navy blue. Central vowels are grays.

    But who wants to hear about my answers when they could be hearing about Tolkien’s? http://www.sindanoorie.net/art/ssymb.html, section 5.

  6. Adrian Morgan Says:

    Very interesting, thanks. It’s a pity that the vowelcolours site is just an announcement of the project and doesn’t include any information about the results. I’ve looked at the Tolkien article (which is intriguing) and have marked it to read in more detail later. I see his scheme is not dissimilar to mine (red for the open vowels, dark for the closed back vowels, etc).

    Your colours strike me as quite different from mine, although we both think of vowels near [u] as generally cooler. Your discontinuity at [ɑ] is intriguing; pale purple/magenta would be the most continuity-preserving choice. For me, I think green goes with [y] if it’s a light green tending to lime, or [ɯ] for a darker green.

    Your name looked familiar, and after a bit of searching I realised that you posted a comment here back in 2008. Nice to see you again.


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