Perception and Action

138 Synesthesia

Learning Objectives

Be able to describe what synesthesia is.
Be able to describe color/grapheme synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a condition in which individuals experience atypical responses to certain types of stimuli, in addition to the typical responses elicited by those stimuli. For example, a synesthete may perceive tastes when seeing certain shapes or might perceive colors when seeing achromatic letters. Synesthesia comes in many forms, covering a wide range of sensory interactions both cross-modally (e.g., being able to smell visual stimuli) and within a single modality (e.g., experiencing changes in visual perception of visual stimuli, seeing colors when viewing letters/digits). (Mylopoulos and Ro, 2013).

It will be useful to highlight some characteristics of synesthesia that serve to distinguish it from other perceptual phenomena, such as visual imagery and certain forms of imagistic memory. There are three such characteristic features: (1) automaticity, (2) reliability, and (3) consistency. First, there is ample evidence that synesthetic associations are automatic in nature. They are typically produced outside the intentional control of the individual and cannot be directly inhibited. Second, it is typically the case that synesthetes reliably experience synesthetic responses when presented with triggering stimuli. Finally, although there is variability across synesthetes, synesthetic associations within an individual appear to remain relatively consistent over time in that the same types of stimuli (e.g., specific auditory tones) tend to elicit the same types of synesthetic responses (e.g., specific colors). (Mylopoulos and Ro, 2013).

Grapheme-color synesthesia is a condition characterized by enduring and consistent associations between letter/digits and colors. For people with grapheme-color synesthesia, letters or digits have fixed, enduring, conscious color associations. For example, the letter A might be red, B might be blue, C might be yellow, and so on. In the terminology of the literature, letters and digits are the “inducers” of grapheme-color synesthesia, and the color itself (i.e., the synesthetic experience) is the “concurrent.” (Simner and Bain, 2013). Grapheme-color synesthesia has been linked to structural neuroanatomical differences. Grapheme-color synesthetes have been shown to have increased cortical volume, cortical thickness and cortical surface areas when compared to non-synesthetes; these differences were most prominent in brain regions shown to be involved in color, letter and word processing (Jäncke et al., 2009).

the letters a through d, with each letter in a different color
Figure 12.1.1. Synesthetes may link the letter ‘A’ to the color red, the letter ‘B’ to the color blue, and so on. (Credit: Jason Brennan, Fact #20, CC-BY 2.0, This photo was modified; the letters “g,” “c,” and “d” were moved to make the photo shorter and wider.)
Synesthesia: a colorful word with a touching sound?
Authored by: Myrto I. Mylopoulos and Tony Ro
Provided by: Frontiers in Psychology
License: CC BY 4.0 

A longitudinal study of grapheme-color synesthesia in childhood: 6/7 years to 10/11 years
Authored by: Julia Simner and Angela E. Bain
Provided by: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
License: CC BY 4.0

Adapted by: Brain Seip


Jäncke, L., Beeli, G., Euligh, C., & Hänggi, J. (2009) The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia. European Journal of Neuroscience, 29(6), 1287-1293.

Mylopoulos, M. I., & Ro, T. (2013). Synesthesia: A colorful word with a touching sound? Frontiers in Psychology, 4(1), Article 763.

Simner, J., & Bain, A. E. (2013) A longitudinal study of grapheme-color synesthesia in childhood: 6/7 years to 10/11 years. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(1), Article 603.


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Introduction to Sensation and Perception Copyright © 2022 by Students of PSY 3031 and Edited by Dr. Cheryl Olman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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