Redefining Color in Synesthesia



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Grapheme-color synesthesia is a condition in which letters and numbers automatically trigger the sensation of specific colors in a person’s mind. Previous research on synesthesia revealed that certain letters seem to be associated with certain colors at a rate greater than chance. The studies that report these trends analyze the synesthetes’ data by categorizing synesthetes’ reports of their colors into the 11 basic color terms. The purpose of this study was to determine whether this simplification of the data is an acceptable representation of the synesthetes’ experience, or if perhaps those analyses are discarding valuable information about the specificity, idiosyncracity, and diversity of synesthetes’ color sensations. In a task that directly tested how well synesthetes’ colors match standard color labels, non-synesthete participants attempted to classify data from over 1,000 synesthetes, as well as a set of prototypical standard colors. The synesthetes’ colors came from an online website which allows synesthetes to choose from over 16.7 million possible color selections for each of their letters. The results demonstrate that synesthetes’ colors are difficult to classify under the 11 basic color terms, suggesting that synesthesia may not be merely a magnification of “normal” or prototypical cross-modal associations. Additional analyses using powerful methods such as k-means clustering further supported the difficulty isolating meaningful group trends in synesthetes’ data. Implications for understanding how synesthesia may or may not relate to creative metaphor are discussed.



Synesthesia, Grapheme-color, Synesthesia Battery, Basic colors