neon alphabet

What color are those letters? If you're a non-synesthete, you probably replied "blue." Even "neon blue" if you were feeling descriptive. For grapheme-color synesthetes, however, that question may have several very different answers.


By the end of this article, you will probably think you have synesthesia in some form. At the very least, you will probably hope you do.

Synesthesia is a phenomenon where experiencing one sense (or cognitive pathway) results in the experience of another one. So you might "see" the letter B (typically uppercase and lowercase) as red or hear a word that makes you taste a certain flavor [source: Ramachandran and Hubbard]. Music, too, might be perceived as colorful, where a C note is maroon and F sharp is yellow -- it might change by octaves, too. Or maybe you see dates spatially -- Tuesday is always a yard or two to your right, a fixed position in space.

So have you found yourself already racking your brain, trying to decide if 8 is purple or the letter Q tastes like bananas?

If you really strongly understand any of these sensations, you might just be a synesthete. (Or synesthesiac, a term that doesn't exist but I think should.) And although for a long time, researchers thought synesthesia was incredibly rare, it turns out that just asking someone if they experience these symptoms isn't entirely accurate. A 2006 study that gave objective tests to subjects found that synesthesia was 88 times more likely than previously thought, and it affected 2-4 percent of the general population [source: Simner et al.].

Not every synesthete experience is the same, either in people or between different synesthetic forms. For example, a small 2005 study found that while grapheme-color synesthetes (those who perceive letters, numbers or words as colors) almost always associate a word with a color, many lexical-gustatory synesthetes (those who link words with a certain taste) don't have a particular association with every word [source: Ward et al.].

Knowing that forms of synesthesia are not necessarily alike, let's take (or taste?) a look at the next page and get a primer on some more common forms of the condition.