This strange colour graphic changed the way we think about the brain

A team of scientists studying thousands of people who see letters as colours (a rare condition known as synesthesia) have recently identified a remarkable pattern.

A large chunk of them see relatively similar colours for the same letters — Y usually shows up as yellow; A as red; and B as blue. This is incredible to visualise when you see the graph below, created by the researchers, which shows what colours each participant matched to each letter.

Each small sliver of a rectangle represents the colour one individual participant picked for a letter (shown in the row at the bottom), for each letter of the alphabet. It also shows the colours picked by the 6588 other participants, as well.

The colours in big rectangles on the bottom are the most commonly matched colours for each letter. You can see how well many of the synthesetes matched up:

Synesthesia alphabet study

As it turns out, a whole lot of the most popular letter-colour matches also match a pretty popular coloured alphabet toy sold around the same time that most of the adult synesthetes were children.

In other words, a pretty big chunk of people who see letters as colours may have learned it from a single toy.

Sounds absurd, right?

Perhaps not. As it turns out, the finding squares with decades of other research suggesting that some parts of synesthesia may be learned over long periods of time.

It also us gives us another clue into how the brain works, since most people — synesthetic or not — possess some synesthetic qualities, like linking high-pitched sounds with light colours and low-pitched sounds with dark colours. Could be, some researchers have suggested, that we all start out seeing letters as colours and gradually lose the strong cross-brain connections that cause these perceptions.

In other words, we might all just be a little synesthetic. You can actually take the same test the researchers used to see if you are, too.

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