Seeing colours: I am a synesthete

Synesthesia is a neurological condition wherein one associates abstract, intangible things such as numbers, letters, words, musical notes or chords with sensory information usually associated with something physical, like colours, tastes or physical sensations. The most common form of synesthesia is grapheme-colour synesthesia. In this condition, one associates numbers, letters or words with colours. I have this condition. I've always had it. I assumed it was normal. I thought everyone saw colours when they thought of numbers, letters and words.

Wikipedia's page on synesthesia is fairly in-depth. There's also a website called the Synesthesia Battery which has an online test you can take to determine if you're synesthetic or not. (I took the test, and its results weren't as conclusive as I'd hoped for my own experiences. I feel that the test relies more on the user being able to repeatedly recognise fairly similar colours with very little margin for error than actually acknowledging when two quite similar colours are selected. I'm sorry, my brain doesn't function in HSV values.)

This is my alphabet. I own it. Hands off.
This is my alphabet. I own it. Hands off.

Whack the link below to keep reading, if you're into numbers and colours, and the unnatural marriage thereof.

Brady Haran's Numberphile, one of my favourite YouTube channels, recently posted a follow-up to their previous video on the subject of synesthesia. I've embedded both episodes below for your perusal:

And the follow-up:

I notice that these videos tend to avoid the subject of grapheme-colour synesthesia for letters and words, but I suspect there's a conscious decision at play considering the YouTube channel hosting them is dedicated largely to numbers.

I've included my own synesthesia alphabet above, for fun. It seems to me that my perception of grapheme-colour tends to be related largely to the geometric shape of the characters, with the following specifics:

  • sharp angles seem to tend towards green and olive
  • right angles lean towards brown, with "F" and "T" being very specifically brown. "L" strikes me as green, though
  • Rounded shapes tend to take on a yellow hue
  • "A", as recounted by many synesthetes, is almost always represented as red
  • The three middle vowels are very neutral

My perception of numbers is more interesting:

Numbers ahoy!
Numbers ahoy!

There's less consistency, here. But, surprisingly, there's actually some logic, and much like Alex in the Numberphile videos, it seems to be largely factorial.

  • One and zero are neutral, much like the vowels in the alphabet
  • I have a suspicion that four is red largely because of its resemblance in form to the letter "A". If this is the case, my own mental association made this connection many years before Leetspeak was ever a thing
  • A similar thing no doubt applies to five and its resemblance to "S"

The factorial nonsense comes into play when you organise the numbers:

Two, four and eight are warm coloured numbers.

Three, six and nine are cool.

I've found limited practical applications for my "abilities". One of the few is that in data entry work, I find that I can error-check data fairly efficiently by relying on the colours associated with figures. If a figure is supposed to be the same in two different locations, it's plainly obvious to me if it's not the right "colour".

Larger numbers are generally a gestalt of the colours represented by the figures that comprise them, with the hues blending across the figure. Some specific really big numbers have weird habits: One million (1,000,000) appears blue, presumably due to the connection with the letter "M", and one billion (1,000,000,000) appears green, again because of the letter "B".

Musical notes and chords also have coloured connections for me, again largely governed by the letters that associate with them.

When notes become flat or sharp, they change their appearance slightly. Flat notes (or chords) become darker. E flat actually becomes darker than its default state, black, but I can't represent this in a picture because there's nothing darker than black! Sharp notes and chords take on a desaturated look, with an ethereal kind of rusted vomit colour that I've been unable to represent graphically. (Come to think of it, I'm appalled by my description of it, too. Rusted vomit? Nice.)

Minor chords reflect a paler, ice-cream texture. Other chord types, 7ths, augmented chords, diminished chords, etc, have their own peculiar qualities.

I find it exciting to think about the possibility that synesthesia may be the only quantifiable example of qualia at work. Qualia is a collective term for all the little things that happen inside your mind, that you can't directly share with another person. For example:

  • The age-old psychological litmus test: Do you see colours the same way I do? Is my red your blue? Does it matter?
  • What does a strawberry taste like to you?
  • What does a noise sound like to you?

Sensory information is fickle, and the idea that we all sense things the same way is largely untestable. The most frustrating (or perhaps relieving) thing about this problem is that it makes no difference in the end. If I see a stop sign as what I call "red", and you see it as what I call "blue" (but what you call "red"), it makes no difference, because we both call it "red" and stop at it.

Synesthetic responses could be the missing link for qualia. Many synesthetes report similar associations between colours and characters. Brady's second video (embedded above) includes a chart of reported synesthetic connections from his readers. It may be possible that this kind of information proves the existance, and uniqueness of qualia.

Oh, and Porcupine Tree have an awesome song from their 1992 album Up The Downstair entitled Synesthesia. You should go buy it from Burning Shed.

Finding true love --

-- with the by-line, "Give Up Now". Last night, I was thinking about the popular ideal (or once popular idea, it seems to have gone the way of the dodo of late) that each person has but one true love, and the amazing probability mechanics inherant thereto.

The most basic equasion is thus: The world has a population of 6.3 billion people. Therefore, you've got a: one in 6.3 billion

..chance of meeting your true love.

This figure assumes the most arrogant assumption possible: That your true love exists. Y'know, we could really screw with the arithmetic and include the possibility of life on other planets, or interspecies love. I hear some people go for that kind of thing.

Might as well give up now, eh? Nah, let's be optimistic. Let's throw a few probability curveballs:

Gender.

For the sake of argument, we'll assume you're looking for someone of the opposite gender. Heck, considering roughly half the population is of either gender, we can safely say that you can pursue people of your own gender and have the same odds. If you're bisexual, you can skip the rest of today's lesson and quit looking entirely.

Our odds are now: one in 3.15 billion

Obviously, this figure omits hermaphrodites and people born with ambiguous genitalia. Sting, for example. It also doesn't take into account the celibate, the sexually inert, the post-menopausal, etc.

Age.

We'll assume you're looking for someone within your own age group, or within an age group you see preferrable. In the roughest maths ever, lets divide the population by eight to come up with eight 10-year age blocks, thus:

Our odds are now: one in 394 million

This barbarically assumes everyone lives precisely 80 years, and drops off the twig on their 81st birthday. It also assumes no one dies prior to that. It also assumes you're not a pedophile, in which case you're probably not looking for your true love anyway, which makes the argument moot. And disgusting.

Location, and chances of meeting.

Say you meet 20 new people every day. I'll define "meet" as "make eye contact with, and be able to recognise at a later time". This could be walking down the street, in a supermarket, etc. Leaving aside the issue of forgetting who you've met, and forgetting about the existance or non-existance of love at first sight, we're left with the following mess of mathematics:

20 people per day, for

365 days, for

80 years, or

584,000 people.

Divided into our previous total, gives us a necessary:

674 LIFETIMES required to lay our eyes on all of the potential candidates.

Obviously, as touched on in the next paragraph, you're not likely to meet your true love if she lives in Siberia and you're in Sydney. Additionally, there's the NASA-equivalent math involved in calculating your chances of meeting if they too are looking for you at the same time, and the possibility that they're not looking at all. Maybe they're a hermit.

Which brings me to another issue: What are you doing right now? Go ahead, triple the figure we just came up with. Sitting at a computer will not find you love. Despite what the banner ads tell you.

Furthermore, this equasion doesn't take into account the fact you'd need to cross continents and literally visit every corner of the planet (all the while still accomplishing your 'glimpse 20 people every day' goal) in order to even stand a chance. This is mostly because all of this is statistical crap and I couldn't be buggered researching the populations for all of the continents and applying the required math. It's too late at night.

The whole thing gets even more complicated once you take into account that in order for the whole ordeal to be worthwhile, not only do you need to find your one true love, but they need to find theirs -- in you. At which point the odds go from infinitesimal to astronomically infinitesimal, and you should concede that you've got no hope and go home and wank or something.

Anyhow, happy loving.