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Colour me creative: synaesthetes see more

7s are red, Ws are blue Keystone

People who have synaesthesia, a neurological condition where people associate colours with letters and numbers, may be more creative than others.

They may also have better memories, according to studies by psychologists at Bern University.

Imagine having a psychedelic experience whenever someone introduced himself or gave you his phone number.

That’s business-as-usual for people who have synaesthesia. A synaesthete might also find that certain flavours or music will trigger a strong impression of a scent or a form.

“Synaesthesia is when normal input creates extraordinary experiences,” Nicolas Rothen of Bern University’s Institute for Psychology told

“Let’s say that when someone sees an ‘A’, he has a colour experience of red,” explained Rothen. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is the name of that particular form of the condition.

Rothen and his colleague Beat Meier decided to investigate the theory that there is a higher incidence of synaesthesia among artists. They evaluated 99 Zurich art students using a computerised grapheme-colour synaesthesia test.

Highly creative

Each participant was presented with all 26 letters and ten numerals, shown one at a time. They had a palette of 13 colours to choose from, and were asked to assign one to each grapheme.

Afterwards, participants had to take a surprise follow-up test featuring all the letters and numbers in a different order. Rothen and Meier then examined the results plus the comments of the students to determine how consistent their answers were.

For a control group, the psychologists recruited a group of visitors who had turned up at a Bern University open house. They took the same tests as the Zurich students.

Seven of the art students turned out to be synaesthetes, compared with just two of the people in the control sample.

“It is possible that the higher prevalence of grapheme-colour synaesthetes in art
students is due to the richer world of experiences provided by the synaesthetic asso-
ciations, and hence their skill and choice of interest in art as a hobby or career,” wrote Rothen and Meier in a recent article they published in a journal called Perception.

According to Rothen, “It could be that creative people develop synaesthesia, but it could also be that synaesthesia leads people to be creative. It’s not clear what is the cause and what is the effect.”

Good memories

In addition to being more creative, synaesthetes tend to have better memories. In another study, Rothen and Meier looked into this phenomenon.

“Synaesthesia can help you to remember things, like telephone numbers,” said Rothen. According to the Bern psychologist, grapheme-colour synaesthetes use colour codes and patterns to keep track of numbers, names and dates.

However, he and Meier did not find that synaesthetes had an extraordinary memory advantage. Rather, it seems that synaesthesia merely provides a richer array of retrieval clues that help with certain memory tasks.

Rothen said that people tend to discover their skills at a young age:

“Normally people think that everybody experiences the world like they do, but then they discuss it with other people and then they discover that they are somehow special.”

Successfully training yourself to become a synaesthete seems unlikely. Rothen said that while people can practise associating colours with numbers and letters, it is probably not possible to learn to have the sensory experiences.

He added that he intends to continue his research in the field.

The word synaesthesia is derived from the ancient Greek words for together (syn) and senation (aesthesis).

It is estimated that anywhere from 1 to 5% of the population has synaesthesia, and it is believed to run in families.

Some famous synaesthetes include:
British artist David Hockney
French composer Oliver Messiaen
Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR