Not just any colour

I have grapheme->colour synaesthesia, which means in everyday terms that I associate the individual letters of the alphabet, numbers up to around 12, days of the week, months of the year and other things with their own colours, and those colour associations are pretty much permanent, and have not changed since I was about five years old. You can find many descriptions of colour synaesthesia on the internet that glamourize the experience, making it sound like a psychedelic rainbow riot. The reality is a bit different. My colours do not impose themselves upon my consciousness – I do not automatically “see” colours when I see text, but if I look at the letter for a while and think about it I can “see” it’s colour in my mind’s eye. This is not mere imagination. Scientists know this because synaesthesia associations are extremely precise, reliable and stable over long periods, while trying to recall associations such as these between letters and colours using imagination combined with memory alone does not give anything like the same reliability and precision in recall.

Real grapheme->colour synaesthesia is a bit less exciting than you might imagine in another way. The colours involved often aren’t terribly inspiring, but they can be fairly interesting. A lot of the colours in my alphabet are quite dull, and I can’t find any decent, strong blue colour in the whole sequence. I do have a blue that is pale and dirty-looking, like the noon-time sky in a polluted city. Given the fact that scientists believe that grapheme->colour synaesthesia associations develop at around the age of five years, a scatological age for sure, I’m rather suspicious about why I have so many colours fixed in my mind that are the colours of bodily wastes.

Another disappointing feature of my synaesthesia is that numerals and letters that have a similar shape often have the same or very similar colours. This is a bit of a bummer because these are the instances in which it would be most useful to have the numbers or letters in very different colours, to help differentiate them, but my synaesthesia doesn’t work that way. It would be nice to look down at the shifter stick on an automatic car and see the letters “R” and “P” and “N” and “D” in very different and vibrant, saturated, inspiring colours, but no. Obviously the shapes of graphemes are an important influence in the development of synaesthesia. This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, as apparently the ability to tell the difference between mirror-image or rotated shapes develops rather late in children. Maybe there is similar late development in telling the difference between similar-looking graphemes. Maybe kids who have a genetic potential to develop grapheme-colour synaesthesia who are at the age at which they are developing their associations between colours and letters and numbers could also be at an age when they are still not clear about the difference between a “P” and a “D” or a “b” and a “d”.

So, my alphabet and number-line aren’t really rainbows of joy, and they contain some rather annoying and potentially misleading duplications, but I guess it has still got to be more fun than no colours at all. There are some lovely colours in my mind, and I enjoy the way the way these colours are so very specific and unique. The colours do not come from any stereotyped culturally given ideas of typical colours, but synaesthesia researchers have found that the more common letters of the alphabet tend to have colours that are primary colours and are more simple to describe. Some of the colours seem to come straight from heaven, or some random colour-generator. I was most astonished when I visited the lower floor of a fairly new library to find that it had a wall in the exact colour of Tuesday. It made my day – the exact colour! And such a cheerful, but not excessively saturated colour. The most inspiring colour in my alphabet is a colour that is hard to describe. It is a deep colour that is both warm and pink, which seems to be a contradiction. It does not seem to have a label in the English language. Today I was shopping at a Target store, and I noticed that the new season’s lady’s clothing had a few items in that exact lovely colour. Out of curiosity I checked the labels to see what colour name was used to describe these garments. The name of the colour is apparently “Luxor”. So there you have it – I have a luxor-coloured letter in my alphabet. How crazy does that sound?

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