I’ve mentioned before that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. That means that I intuitively associate each letter or number with a colour. The colours have stayed the same throughout my life, as far as I remember, and they are not all the same colours that other grapheme-colour synaesthetes (such as my father and brother) associate with the same letters. I still see text written in whichever colour it’s written in, but in my mind it has other colours too. If I have to remember the number of a bus line, there’s a chance I’ll remember the number that goes with the colour it was written in rather than the correct letter, or I’ll remember the correct letter and look in vain for a bus with a number written in that colour.
Well, I’ve been wondering whether it could work the other way.
- Could grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word?
- Could this be used to send code messages that only a single synaesthete can easily read?
- Could colours be used to help grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to read a new alphabet, either one constructed for the purposes of secret communication, or a real script they will be able to use for something?
- What would be the difference in learning time for a grapheme-colour synaesthete using their own colours for the replacement graphemes, a grapheme-colour synaesthete using random colours, and a non-synaesthete?
I know that for me, there are quite a few letters with similar colours, and a few that are black or white, so reading a novel code wouldn’t be infallible, but I suspect I would be able to learn a new alphabet a little more easily or read it more naturally if it were presented in the ‘right’ colours. I wonder whether the reason the Japanese symbol for ‘ka’ seemed so natural and right to me was that it seemed to be the same colour as the letter k.
It occurred to me that, as a programmer and a grapheme-colour synaesthete, I could test these ideas, or at least come up with some tools that scientists working in this area could use to test them. So I wrote a little Mac program called Synaesthetist. You can download it from here. In it, you choose the colours that you associate with different letters (or just make up some if you don’t have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and you want to know what it’s like) and save them to a file.
Then you can type in some text, and you’ll see the text with the letters in the right colours, like so:
But even though this sample is using the ‘right’ colours for the letters, it still looks all wrong to me. When I think of a word, usually the colour of the word is dominated by the first letter. So I added another view with a slider, where you can choose how much the first letter of a word influences the colours of the rest of the letters in the word.
This shows reasonably well what words are like for me, but sometimes the mix of colours doesn’t really resemble either original colour. It occurred to me that an even better representation would be to have the letters in their own colours, but outlined in the colour of the first letter. So I added that:
Okay, so that gives you some idea of what the words look like in my head. And maybe feeding text through this could help me to memorise it. Here’s an rtf file of the lyrics to Mike Phirman‘s song ‘Chicken Monkey Duck‘ in ‘my’ colours, with initial letter outline. I’ll study these and let you know it it helps me to memorise them. To be scientific about it, I really should recruit another synaesthete (who would have different colours from my own, and so might be hindered by my colours) and a non-synaesthete to try it as well, and define exactly how much it should be studied and how to measure success. But I’m writing a blog, not running a study, so if you want to try it, download the file. (I’d love it if somebody did run a study to answer some of my questions, though. I’d add whatever features were necessary to the app.)
But these functions don’t go too far in answering the questions I asked earlier. How about reading a code? Well, I figured I’d be more likely to intuit letters from coloured things if they looked a little bit like letters: squiggles rather than blobs. So first I added a view that simply distorts the letters randomly by an amount that you can control with the slider. I did this fairly quickly, so there are no spaces or word-wrapping yet.
I can’t read it when it gets too distorted, but perhaps it’s easier to read at low-distortion than it would be if the letters were all black. Maybe I’d be able to learn to ‘read’ the distorted squiggles based on colour alone, but I doubt it. This randomly distorts the letters every time you change the distortion amount of change the text, and it doesn’t keep the same form for each occurrence of the same letter. Maybe if it did, I’d be able to learn and read the new graphemes more easily than a non-synaesthete would. Okay, how about just switching to a font that uses a fictional alphabet? Here’s some text in a Klingon font I found:
I know that Klingon is its own language, and you can’t just write English words in Klingon symbols and call it Klingon. But the Futurama alien language fonts I found didn’t work, and Interlac is too hollow to show much colour.
Anyhow, maybe with practice I’ll be able to read that ‘Klingon’ easily. I certainly can’t read it fluently, but even having never looked at a table showing the correspondence between letters and symbols, I can figure out some words if I think about it, even when I copy some random text without looking. I intend to add a button to fetch random text from the web, and hide the plain text version, to allow testing of reading things that the synaesthete has never seen before, but I didn’t have time for that.
Another thing I’ll probably do is add a display of the Japanese kana syllabaries using the consonant colour as the outline and the vowel colour as the fill.
Here’s a screenshot of the whole app:
As I mentioned, you can download it and try it for yourself. It works on Mac OS X 10.7, and maybe earlier versions too. To use it, either open my own colour file (which is included with the download) or create a new document and add some characters and colours in the top left. Then enter some text on the bottom left, and it will appear in all the boxes on the right side. If you change the font in the bottom left, say to a Klingon font, it will change in all the other displays except the distorted one.
This is something I’ve coded fairly hastily on the occasional train trip or weekend, usually forgetting what I was doing between stints, so there are many improvements that could be made, and several features already halfway developed. It could do with an icon and some in-app help, too. I’m still working on this, so if you have any ideas for it, I’m all ears.