Shades of synesthesia are built into our brains.

We know "A is for Apple," but is A also for "red"? About 5 percent of the population has synesthesia, or "crossed" responses to stimuli. Those with color-grapheme synesthesia see certain letters in certain colors, even if they're presented in black type. But studies show that the rest of us also make color-letter associations when given a choice. And while the match between A and an apple's color may seem clear, research from McMaster University shows that some connections don't appear to be linked to literacy—they may tap automatic associations in our brains.


Nancy Ryerson, LMHCNancy Ryerson, LMHC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who provides therapy to children (6+), adolescents, adults, couples, families and groups. I have experience working with a wide range of diagnoses, including: Addiction, Personality Disorders, ADHD, Mood and Anxiety Disorders, Trauma, and Domestic Violence. I use Narrative therapy to assist clients in changing problem stories into preferred ways of living. During therapy we work to develop your unique knowledge of the problem, as well as your strengths, abilities, beliefs and values which will aide in achieving your goals. I believe in people’s innate resilience, capacity for personal insight and ability to make positive changes.

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If color-letter associations are wired into our brains, they should be there before we learn to read, researcher Ferrine Spector reasoned. In her studies, pre-literate nonsynesthetic toddlers associated X and Z with black, and O and I with white. Those are the same links synesthetic and non-synesthetic adults make—and they have nothing to do with our knowledge of written words.

The links may stem from the letters' shapes. Toddlers associated jagged shapes with black and curvy shapes with white, which could explain the consistent links behind Z, X, I, and O: They're extreme examples of pointy and smooth shapes. Toddlers may link spiky shapes with sharpness and danger, and match that feeling with darkness.

Scientists believe synesthesia is an inherited trait that may result from unusually strong connections between brain regions that process different modes of sensory input. Everyone's born with sensory cross-wiring—most just don't use it, and many cross-wires disappear from the developing brain. But a few links remain into adulthood, and one theory suggests that, for reasons we don't understand, synesthetes simply are folks who use these region-to-region nexuses more. "Infants need connections between senses, for example, to associate their mother's voice with her face," Spector says. "Similarly, a sight-taste link lets us know a yellow banana is ripe." —Nancy Ryerson

Hue Knew?

In general, each synesthete's color-mapping is unique. But there are a few common letter-color combos for synesthetes, and most of them stem from word associations. The six letter-color pairings at left are in fact consistent across the English-speaking population—the color synesthetes see is the same hue that springs to mind for non-synesthetes. L is an oddity: Synesthetes see gray while the rest of us think yellow.

Courtesy: PsychCentral

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