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Why do some people perceive words and numbers as colours?

Tuesdays 12 & 19 November 2002, 9.00-9.30pm

As many as one in 2000 people has an extraordinary condition in which the five senses intermingle. This major two part series reveals how synaesthesia is changing our understanding of the world of neuroscience.

Georgina Ferry
Presenter Georgina Ferry

Georgina Ferry comments:

"I became aware of synaesthesia when my mother suddenly announced, a few years ago, that as a coloured hearing synaesthete she was a subject in one of the studies organised by Simon Baron-Cohen in Cambridge. She asked if I and my three siblings would also participate by giving a mouth swab for genetic analysis. Although I've never had anything that I could identify as a synaesthetic experience, I agreed; I understand my DNA is currently sitting in a fridge in Oxford waiting for someone to get round to analysing it! It transpired that my sister was also a synaesthete but had never considered there was anything remarkable about it.

"With this family history, I was only too pleased to learn more about the subject through interviewing synaesthetes and psychologists for this programme. I was left in no doubt that many people have powerfully augmented sensory experiences that also have an impact on cognitive skills such as memory and reasoning. I'm still not sure I know why; is it just a freak accident of miswiring in the baby brain, or some more subtle genetic variation in sensitivity to colours, shapes and sounds? Many new lines of research are now being followed up; it all adds to a picture of the brain that never ceases to amaze me with the exquisite complexity of its myriad connections."

A Synaesthete's Experience:

Coloured Words

'When I was 7, I once sketched out the alphabet in the colors each letter "ought" to be. The letter A, for example, looked right to me if it was fire-engine red, but if it was not, I felt it was someone else's letter A.'
Martin Goss, USA

Tactile Sounds

'Deeper sounds appear as if they're resonating within me, in different places of the body; higher pitches like birds outside - slight itch, like tiny needles plucking on my arms; rain - like soft peas dropping on my chest and back and arms.'
Jona Markgraft, German

Synaesthetic Perception

If you think you may have 'grapheme-colour' synaesthesia - seeing specific colours in response to specific letters and numbers - take a look at this 'pop-out' test (courtesy of Ed Hubbard). It's not an acid test for synaesthesia, but grapheme-colour synaesthetes should quickly be able to distinguish a shape among the numbers.

How quickly do you see the '2's among the '5's?
Ed Hubbard's 'pop-out' test
Now view the pop-out test as a synaesthete might see it at the bottom of the page.

More Information:

International Synaesthesia Association
American Synesthesia Association
Doctor Hugo - links to many synaesthesia organisations and articles
James Wannerton

To Volunteer for Synaesthesia Research

E-mail: Richard Skelton dept of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol
Jamie Ward E-mail:
Sue Chopping E-mail:
Tel: 0207 848 0705

Richard Cytowic E-mail:
Ed Hubbard E-mail:
Sean Day E-mail:
Tel: USA (513) 529 - 7106

To be added to the Synaesthesia discussion list
contact Sean Day.

To find out more about Jane's paintings or Joseph's
music visit:
Jane Mackay or Joseph Long


Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing by John Harrison
Oxford University Press - ISBN: 0192632450

The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E Cytowic
The MIT Press (A Bradford Book) - ISBN: 0262531526

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their words by Patricia Lynne Duffy
W.H. Freeman & Company - ISBN: 0716740885

Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge by Kevin T Dann
Yale University Press - ISBN: 0300066198

This is how a synaesthete might see the pop-out test shown above:
Ed Hubbard's 'pop-out' test
These figures are used by kind permission of
The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

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