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We experience colours and everything else in our own unique ways

Imagine a world in which every sound you hear is accompanied by a colour. For one woman named only as VA in a new study, this is her everyday reality. She has a rare condition called phoneme-colour synaesthesia, which means that she experiences a synesthetic connection between the sounds of speech and colours. For instance, when she hears the hard “a” sound, she sees cyan, and when she hears the “k” sound, she sees red.

VA’s synaesthesia goes beyond simply associating sounds with colours; she also experiences the reverse, interpreting colours as sounds. This unique way of perceiving the world has both advantages and challenges.

On the one hand, VA’s synaesthesia can enhance her creativity and artistic expression. She finds that colours can evoke emotions and associations that words alone cannot capture. This has led her to explore different art forms, including painting and writing, where she can fully immerse herself in the synesthetic world she experiences.

On the other hand, VA’s synaesthesia can also make it difficult for her to understand and process language. When she hears a word, she has to translate the synesthetic colours associated with each phoneme into the corresponding meaning of the word. This can be exhausting, and it can make it challenging for her to keep up in conversations or follow instructions.

Despite these challenges, VA has learned to adapt to her synaesthesia and embrace its unique perspective on the world. She is an active advocate for greater understanding and acceptance of synaesthesia, believing that it is a valuable part of human diversity. Her story highlights the importance of recognizing and appreciating the different ways in which people experience the world around them.


Seeing with new eyes

Our inability to truly understand how other people (and animals) experience the world is the subject of this long form essay in Aeon. It shows that some of the difference in the ways in which we see are down to environmental conditions such as ambient light. But there is a subjective element too.

One piece of evidence for this assertion is that story about the colour in an image of a dress that went viral in 2015. This made its way as far as that year’s conference of the   Vision Sciences Society where it became apparent – surprisingly – that the members had learned from the story for the first time how much people’s perceptions of colour can differ.

This raises broader issues about our ability to understand how others see themselves and the world. Even if we are able to agree on what constitutes the colour blue, we may not understand exactly what it is that the other person is seeing.

This is possibly a nuanced and subtler aspect of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation in his book Philosophical Investigations that ‘if a lion could speak, we could not understand him’. He explains this inevitable breakdown in communication by pointing out that lions do not have ‘any conceivable share in our world’.

Wittgenstein went on to discuss Goethe’s famous theory of colours in a later work, essentially arguing that although useful, there is no real way of knowing about colours and how we perceive them. Goethe’s theory was a treatise on the nature and function of colour in relation to mood and so an early exploration of colour psychology. Based on his own observations, he summarised his ideas in the now familiar mechanism of a colour wheel.

So, it turns out that we may all be subject to milder forms of synaesthesia than VA, as we reported before. Our senses are more connected than we might assume, and bound up with our culture, experiences, emotional states and so on. Not only might we perceive colours differently, they might set off different senses and feelings in us than they do others.

It’s also possible, as Wittgenstein speculated in his critique of colour theory that there are some transitional colours that only some people can see. So while Pantone may be able to declare once a year on its Colour of the Year, we should keep our minds open to the idea that not everybody will see it and respond to it in the same way.

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