Saturday, November 26, 2011

A case of colour-emotion synaesthesia?

Anger he smiles, towering in shiny metallic purple armour. Queen Jealousy, envy waits behind him, her fiery green gown sneers at the grassy ground. Blue are the life giving waters taken for granted, they quietly understand. Once happy turquoise armies lay opposite ready, but wonder why the fight is on.

My red is so confident he flashes trophies of war and ribbons of euphoria. Orange is young, full of daring, but very unsteady for the first go round. My yellow in this case is not so mellow, in fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me. And all of these emotions of mine keep holding me from givin’ my life to a rainbow like you.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgHendrix fans amongst you will recognise the above as lyrics from Bold as Love, the title track of Jimi's second album. According to the sleevenotes (from a long-lost cassette, so you'll have to trust my memory on this), the concept for the song was the idea of using emotions to describe colours to a blind person. The more obvious interpretation is that Hendrix was using colours as a metaphorical device to describe his own conflicting emotions.

Earlier this week, I was reminded of Bold as Love when I came across an intriguing study reported in the journal, Neurocase [1]. The authors, VS Ramachandran and colleagues, described the case of TK, a young man with Asperger syndrome who was encouraged to use colours to help him understand emotions:
"Around the age of 10 his mother suggested that he attempt to label the feeling of each emotion (presumably based on context, social situation, and facial expressions) with a specific color, in an attempt to relay the appropriate emotions to his father and her. For example, while experiencing what he considered happiness he would tell his parents that he was feeling ‘green’." 
"Further, by comparing the color elicited by another person with the emotion that would be associated with the same color in his own mind, TK was able to ‘read’ the other individuals’ emotions more accurately."
"At about the same time that he began associating colors with emotions, he also began seeing colored halos around individuals. The color of these halos corresponds to TK’s emotional stance toward that particular person, and when a new individual is encountered a blue halo emerges de-nouveau and the color evolves progressively with repeated exposure."
Purple haze

To objectively measure the halo perception, Ramachandran et al asked TK to identify letters that were projected onto a white screen. An unfamiliar person, identified as having a blue halo, stood in front of the screen.

If the letters were blue and projected close to the person (i.e., within the halo) then TK was unable to identify the letters above chance levels - presumably because the letters and background appeared to be in the same colour. When the colour was changed or the letters moved to outside the halo, TK's performance was flawless.

It's a shame that the authors weren't able to test TK with a second person standing in front of the screen, whom he perceived as having a different coloured halo. Nonetheless, these results appear to provide some objective confirmation of TK's unusual subjective reports [2].

Love or confusion

In a second experiment, Ramachandran et al tested TK and 15 control subjects on a Stroop interference test.

Participants were given words printed in colour and had to say the colour of each word, ignoring what the word itself said. In the classic version of the test, the words are all themselves colour names.

In the congruent condition, the word matches the colour in which it's printed:


In the incongruent condition, the word and its colour are mismatched


People are generally faster to name the ink colours when the word matches the colour. Even though they're supposed to be ignoring what the word says, they can't help but read it, and this affects their response to the actual colour. As you can see from the graph below, TK was no exception. Like the control group, his reaction times were longer for the incongruent condition than for the congruent condition.

TK showed a similar effect when the words were emotions, being quicker to name the colour if the emotion word matched the colour he associated with that emotion (e.g., PRIDE and AGGRESSION) than when they were incongruent. When the control participants were given the same stimuli, they showed no such effect [3].

Ramachandran et al. interpret these findings as evidence of "emotion-colour synaesthesia" - the implication being that TK actually perceives emotions as colours. This is certainly one possibility, but it's worth noting that similar effects are commonly observed in typical adults using non-emotion words that have associations with colours. For example, it's easier and quicker to name the colours in FIRE GRASS LEMON SKY than it is in FIRE GRASS LEMON SKY.

Seeing the word SKY makes us think of the colour blue, which then affects our ability to name colours; but there's no suggestion that we actually perceive the colour blue every time we read SKY. By the same token, TK associates PRIDE with blue and this affects his colour naming, but the data from the Stroop task don't show that he experiences pride as the colour blue.

Crossbrain traffic

It's undoubtedly a fascinating case study. Ramachandran et al.'s data indicate that TK perceives a blue halo around certain people and it's safe to say that he has strong cognitive associations between colours and emotions. However, we are still relying on TK's subjective reports that the halos vary from person to person and that emotions are actually experienced as colours. This is not to cast doubt on TK's reports, merely to note that the objective evidence is not perhaps as strong as the authors claim.

Ramachandran et al. speculate that TK's experiences derive from increased connectivity between brain regions involve in vision (V4), face processing (FFA), and emotion (insula and amygdala). It would certainly be interesting to know whether this is supported by brain imaging.

I'd also like to know more about TK's Asperger's diagnosis and the extent to which his social and communication difficulties could be attributed to problems more specifically with face processing.

Finally, I'd be interested to know how common TK's reported experiences are, and whether other people on the autism spectrum have been able to use colours to help them understand or convey emotions.


[1] Thanks to Michelle Dawson for the heads-up. Follow her on Twitter at @autismcrisis

[2] Ramachandran et al. begin the discussion by noting that the magician James Randi has offered a million dollar prize for anyone who can objectively demonstrate the existence of energy fields emanating from people. They then claim to have provided "the first evidence of the existence of this effect". You don't need me to tell you that Randi's million is safe. At best, the study demonstrates that a person genuinely perceives a halo. It doesn't show that the halo is actually there!

[3] Separate from the congruency effect, TK's responses were much slower for emotion words than for colour words. Control subjects didn't show this effect. Ramachandran et al don't discuss this finding and I'm not really sure what to make of it.

Slight return:


ResearchBlogging.orgRamachandran VS, Miller L, Livingstone MS, & Brang D (2011). Colored halos around faces and emotion-evoked colors: A new form of synesthesia. Neurocase PMID: 22115465

Update [9/12/11]: 

Some really great comments below. Thanks to everyone for their insights.

This from Rohan, who's a member of the indie rock band Rudely Interrupted:
"our lead vocalist has Aspergers and was born without eyes. He's obsessed with colour. We wrote a song about it (Green Lights) Rory also has perfect and absolute pitch.
All being well, you should be able to listen to the song by clicking the Play button below:

RGreen Lights Green Lights


  1. Good post. Loving the Hendrix.

    My impression from this paper was that it shows that this guy does have emotion-color
    synesthesia, which is fine, but we don't know anything about the neural underpinnings, or whether it has anything to do with his Asperger's.

    The fact that he seems to have aquired the synesthesia after a kind of training is very interesting but again we need more details. Also it suggests that it might not be caused by a "hard-wired" neural abnormality.

    Looking at the color-emotion chart they provide, many of the associations fit with Western concepts of emotional colors e.g. sadness is blue, love is pink and anger is red.

    But those are not universal associations...

  2. Thanks NS. I hadn't really thought about it until today but virtually every Hendrix song has some kind of colour-based metaphor in it. I came across a few websites suggesting that he was himself a synaesthete, although there didn't seem to be any hard evidence - and, of course, it may have all been drug induced anyway!

    As you say, it's not clear how important the 'training' was. I mean, most people don't develop synaesthesia just by learning to associate across modalities. So if he genuinely is a synaesthete then we have to ask what is different about his brain that allowed him to become one. Even if Ramachandran managed to get some DTI data for example, we wouldn't know whether any atypical connectivity was a cause or effect (but it would still be kinda interesting to know).

  3. I've read one person's account of her synaesthesia, which began as colour-grapheme but now seems to encompass emotion-colour and other modalities.

    I do wonder how many modalities syaesthesia can encompass - are we at risk of expanding it so far it becomes meaningless?

  4. Ha. Thanks Qaoileann. I've added that link to the further reading.

  5. Interesting. My 6 year old who has Aspergers once got a cover page for a package of colored paper (so it had multi colored stripes on it) and started telling me what emotion each color meant (initiated by herself as we'd never discussed emotion-color) she has a lot of trouble with emotions and we've done a lot of emotion-training but never with color associations. I considered making a list of her color-emotion associations (which were not typical red=angry etc.) and using them to help her better communicate her feelings. So this story is fascinating to me in that context.

  6. I've had an interesting discussion on Twitter with Kevin Mitchell of Wiring The Brain fame, which I'll relay here:

    @WiringTheBrain: Nice post on a really interesting type of synesthesia - prob quite common - I know at least 3 people with it

    @drbrocktagon: Do tell me more. Were the synaesthetes autistic? Have you done any imaging with them?

    @WiringTheBrain: Those synaesthetes I spoke to who saw halos were not autistic. A couple were artistic! (High magical ideation)

    @WiringTheBrain: Some saw colours on people's faces - was told mine is blue with yellow ears! No imaging done yet.

  7. Interesting idea that some color=emotion are culturally based and some are personally based. Studies with Asperger's sufferers may shed some light this subject. I have seen in the past some of the research about color identification and language use and how taxing it is to focus on either the words or the colors.

  8. We all do this to some extent. For example, red dining rooms make you feel warm & you tend to eat faster. Doctor's offices are usually in pastels or neutrals because they are more calming than primary colors. I myself get very anxious around certain shades of blue that remind me of the inside of swimming pools or baptismal fonts & I feel like I'm drowning.

    I think this is just how brains work, a la Baars' global workspace -- we nonconsciously keep "translating" experiences & sensations until we find a "language" that we're fluent enough in to fully process the information -- and what we're really seeing is how limited verbal communication is to describe the act of understanding.

  9. Might mention I've always attributed personality traits to numbers. Number combinations can trigger emotional states. For example, 7x3=21 is full of danger and dread, but 8x3=24 is a relaxed safety. You see numbers/ symbols & traits working together in tarot cards. (For whatever that's worth.)

  10. Do you know about Dr Seuss's book My Many Colored Days?

    I read this to my ASD son when we were working on emotions when he was preschool age. Now at age 15 he sometimes responds to the question, "How are you feeling today?" with a colour rather than a more usual word for an emotion. He says that the colours are not consistent and don't mean anything, but I wonder if we had read the book more often if they would have become consistent.


    I used to be on the Autismohub with this woman and found these two posts to be interesting. I have informed her of your discussion here. I hope it is helpful to you.

  12. My youngest daughter who has autism does something very similar to TK. She identifies and labels most things by color rather than by some other defining characteristic. She does this for tangible objects, such as food, as well as intangible items, such as music. If the object has a color than that is the one she uses, but for intangibles such as music she picks a color that presumably means something to her and sticks to it.

    The entertaining part for us is trying to figure out what she color she assigns to each object. It took us forever to figure out what song "taupe" was.

    I don't know whether she "sees" the color or not and she doesn't have sufficient language for us to be able to ask her that question. But there is definitely some association between the color and the abstract concept.

    My older two daughters don't (seem to) use colors in this way, but I have noticed that they tend to use visual or physical cues to help them make associations between abstract concepts and abstract concepts.

    For example, one of them seems to use the hand movements of a sign to help her say a word. She might be trying to say that word "orange" and is having trouble, so she moves her hands in the sign for orange to help her remember the word.

    The interesting thing is that she doesn't do it anywhere she is looking - her hands will be at her side and she will be looking straight ahead and she will still make the sign out of sight. So it seems to be the movement itself is some sort of trigger.

  13. Hey this is a great post, our lead vocalist has Aspergers and was born without eyes. He's obsessed with colour. We wrote a song about it (Green Lights) Rory also has perfect and absolute pitch.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I have color-grapheme, sound-color, and smell-taste synesthesia. I'm not so sure about the color-emotion, but I do see the color orange when I'm in pain, and that's it. No colors for other emotions.

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