How to Make a Synaesthete Crazy

The colorful illustration above drives me mad. It’s just plain wrong in so many ways, and I cringe each time I see it. I wish I could banish it to the nether reaches of the internet, or to some sort of graphic design Hell, never to be seen again. 

It’s all over the web from Pinterest to Psychology Today, where it’s used to depict the neurological trait of blended senses. The mental health website Better Help hosts an article titled “What Is Synesthesia Disorder And How To Cope With It” which is accompanied by the graphic, a horribly titled article with an equally awful illustration. It also appears on the neuroscience education website Knowing Neurons, and makes frequent appearances on Facebook and Instagram. I’ve even seen it used beside web content generated by neuroscientists who should know better.

What’s so bad about this graphic design? 

1) The word SYNESTHESIA is colored in accordance with the visible light spectrum. Maybe the graphic designer thought it would be visually pleasing to see SYNESTHESIA in ROY G BIV hues. Perhaps they read this article that points to the Fischer Price School Days Play Set of magnetic letters as a source of inspiration for a tiny subset of synaesthetes. Whatever the reason for this aesthetic choice, it is a poor representation of synaesthesia, one that likely has people believing that colored graphemes follow a predictable rainbow-hued continuum. If I arrange my own chromatic alphabet into ROY G BIV colors all I get is the nonsense word RLPGCSJ.

2)  Coordinating shades may be an appealing choice for an illustrator who wishes to create a harmonious melange of color, but the brains of synaesthetes show a much more random and idiosyncratic selection of synaesthetic hues. For example, my own chromatic alphabet includes a dense true primary blue (S), but also a paler cerulean blue (C), and a light and slightly dusty yet highly luminous aquamarine blue (A). In the graphic above, the word SYNESTHESIA includes hues that are all part of the same color family, with matching luminosity and saturation. I can almost picture the color wheel the designer used as they chose corresponding tints to spell SYNESTHESIA.

3) The person who created this graphic is clearly not a grapheme->color synaesthete, nor did they do even the tiniest bit of research on the topic. One of the hallmarks of all synaesthesias is their constancy. Synaesthetes who have grapheme->color and experience the letter S as salmon pink can typically note early childhood instances where they perceived the letter S in that hue. They (typically) do not see a letter in various shades, although most synaesthetes note a few idosyncracies in their graphemes and lexemes. For example, I perceive the letter L and words that begin with the letter L as pale orange, like the color of cantaloupe flesh. But the word love has a pinkish hue added to that melon color; for me, love is the color of a sunset.

In the graphic I detest, the letter S in the word SYNESTHESIA appears in three different colors: dark salmon pink, mustard yellow, and cerulean blue. And, in the alphabet below the word, S appears in a fourth color, a plum purple. This isn’t how synaesthesia works. In fact, the gold standard test for grapheme->color synaesthesia, the Synesthesia Battery, relies on a basic fact about the neurocognitive trait; people with colored graphemes, when allowed to use a color picker to select the hue that matches their graphemes, will choose the same shade each time, even when the color picker is shifted and they are forced to hunt for that exact shade. It’s kind of shocking for me to see my own Synaesthesia Battery results, and how accurately I chose the same shade of seafoam green for my letter K each time I was given the chance to select a color to match my perceptions. But my K is always seafoam green, and my S is always primary blue. 

For me, the word SYNESTHESIA looks like this: 


Sorry that you can’t see my white letter I. For what it’s worth, I am like many of my synaesthete kin in that my vowels are largely colorless.

I love how awkward my SYNESTHESIA looks in comparison to the designer version in the graphic. My colors don’t look so perfectly coordinated. They have different opacities, saturation, and luminosity. The letters aren’t a great fit for each other; I find them aesthetically unpleasant arranged together, yet I can see the mid-century American decor pallete in these colors, the shades of my childhood. To me, they look authentically synaesthetic; a little weird, not so harmonious, and highly personal. 

Maybe that’s what bothers me so much about the illustration above. It’s not authentic…..there’s no sense of a synaesthete behind those colored letters. The graphic was generated for visual appeal without any effort to represent the neurocognitive trait that is synaesthesia. This seems like a disservice to me, even though I’m certain the designer had no direct intention to misrepresent synesthesia.

One of my missions in this world is to dispel myths about neurocognitive differences. I recognize that there are bigger fish to fry, and that the graphic in question is mostly harmless. But, it perpetuates misconceptions about synaesthesia, including the idea that synaesthesia is consistently aesthetically pleasing, that there is a sort of innate harmony in synaesthetic colors. I’m all about the authentic experience of synaesthesia, even when the colors aren’t so uniform and alluring, even when there’s no ROY G BIV rainbow, even when my lexeme->color synaesthesia makes the word appear entirely in a boring primary blue.