Synesthesia and Creativity

Duke University

Synesthesia and Creativity

Aaron Paskin

Math of the Universe – 89S

Hubert Bray

27 September 2016


What if each number had its own unique color? The number eight would always be, say, a light green, the number three a dark red. Would math be easier to understand? How about music notes? What if a D note was always yellow, a C note blue with pink polka dots? Maybe playing instruments would be easier. Or, what if each month of the year had a very specific position in space? Perhaps July would always be to your right, October above your head. Would keeping track of dates and historical events be easier? There are some people who unintentionally and automatically make these associations between numbers and colors, or sequences and positions in space, for example. These people have a fascinating mental condition called synesthesia.

Figure 1: from Is Synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a mental condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers the stimulation of another sense. Taking many different forms, synesthesia may cause a person to automatically associate each number with a different color, each musical note with a different taste, or even each letter with a different personality. The strength of these associations can range from simply being reminded of a second sensation upon experiencing the first to being distracted and overwhelmed by the synesthetic reaction. For example, one synesthete with a weak form of the condition may only see a color in his/her mind’s eye when encountering a number while another person with more severe synesthesia may not be able to listen to music without experiencing an inundation of seemingly real tastes and/or other sensations.

Indeed, synesthesia can be both a benefit and a disadvantage. Take the example of a synesthete who associates each number with a different color. This person may find it easier to solve mathematical equations and sort dates and times than someone without the condition. However, people with this type of synesthesia have reported emotional and even physical discomfort upon seeing a number depicted with a color that does not match the color evoked by their synesthesia.

Synesthetic reactions are always consistent and not learned. That is, using the previous example, a synesthete who associates numbers with colors always associates the same color with each number. If the number four evokes a bright green, it will always evoke that bright green for the given synesthete. The number eight might be red, the number nine yellow, etc. Furthermore, these associations would not arise at some point in the middle of a synesthete’s life or go away at another point. Synesthetic reactions are present and consistent for the entirety of a person’s life.

Types of Synesthesia

Synesthesia can take on a multitude of different forms, perhaps more than might be guessed. The condition can pair far more senses than just the main five (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell), resulting in documented cases of synesthesia involving sensations of pain, movement, and temperature, to name a few. Based on the number of combinations alone, the types of synesthesia vary by the dozen. To explore the potential of enhanced creativity in synesthetes, we need only to examine a few of the most common types.

Grapheme-color synesthetes associate digits, letters, or other figures with specific colors. As in the earlier example, each unique grapheme evokes the sensation of seeing a distinct color, whether it be seeing the color abstractly or seeing the given grapheme written in the color. People with this type of synesthesia may find it easier to sort, distinguish, and manipulate numbers and letters, possibly leading to greater creativity. Grapheme-color synesthesia is one of the most common types of synesthesia.

Some synesthetes associate sequences such as months, days of the week, and years with positions and/or shapes in space. A person with this type of synesthesia, known as spatial sequence synesthesia, might see the months of the year projected in the space around him/her, with August two feet ahead and October a foot above the person’s head. The positions of sequence components, much like the colors of figures for grapheme-color synesthetes, are constant throughout a spatial sequence synesthete’s life, so August and October would always take their same positions for the person in the previous example. This consistency might make it easier for a person with this type of synesthesia to organize dates and/or keep track of time.

Chromesthesia is a type of synesthesia that results in the association of sounds and music notes with specific colors. A person with chromesthesia may simply see single colors in reaction to single pitches, or they may see many different colors or colored shapes at once in reaction to music. This association of colors with sounds can unleash immense creativity in music, as evidenced by the large amount of musicians who exhibit chromesthesia.

In analyzing the different types of synesthesia, it is easy to set forth propositions about how the condition might enhance a person’s creativity. Fortunately, there are studies and many examples of especially creative figures with synesthesia that can be used to potentially confirm these propositions.

Figure 2: from and Creativity: Research

There is no easy way to measure a person’s creativity. While IQ’s and test scores are commonly used in an attempt to quantitatively measure a person’s intelligence, creativity is almost always gauged using anecdotal evidence. For example, people who engage in activities such as music, drawing, and writing are generally seen to be more creative. Studies have shown that synesthetes are more inclined to participate in such activities, offering strong evidence for enhanced creativity in those with synesthesia.

Rich, Bradshaw, and Mattingley (2005) surveyed 192 self-identifying synesthetes and 50 controls in Australia and found that while only one of the 50 controls held an artistic occupation, 46 of the 192 self-identifying synesthetes were musicians, writers, or other artists. That’s 24% of the surveyed synesthetes, compared with the less than 2% of Australia’s population with artistic occupations. Trends in the hobbies of synesthetes versus controls were weaker but still conclusive: controls were just as likely to have hobbies in crafts or music, but significantly more synesthetes had hobbies in art (painting, drawing, etc.) than did controls. It must be noted that the synesthetes who were surveyed in this study were aware of their condition andvolunteered to answer the study’s questionnaire, so it is unclear whether or not those synesthetes who are unaware of their condition participate in the same amount of creative activity as do the self-identifying synesthetes. Despite potential bias, the high frequency of artistic occupations and hobbies among the synesthetes in Rich, Bradshaw, and Mattingley’s study cannot be ignored.

Rothen and Meier (2010) took a different approach by measuring the frequency of synesthesia in art students versus the frequency of synesthesia in controls. They took samples of 99 art students and 96 controls and tested each person for grapheme-color synesthesia. Rothen and Meier found that while only about 2% of their control sample exhibited grapheme-color synesthesia, 7% of their sample of art students exhibited the condition. This evidence of synesthesia’s greater presence among art students is further strengthened by the fact that the synesthetes found in the samples were not self-identifying, avoiding the bias that was potentially present in Rich, Bradshaw, and Mattingley’s study. While Rothen and Meier’s study does not directly measure creativity, it provides strong anecdotal evidence for the increased presence of synesthesia among creative people such as art students.

Perhaps the most significant and conclusive study on creativity in synesthetes was conducted by Chun and Hupe (2015), who were two of the few synesthesia researchers to directly measure creativity. After an intense period of systematic recruiting which resulted in a sample of 29 synesthetes and 36 controls, Chun and Hupe conducted several tests to quantitatively measure the creativity of each member of the sample. These tests included the Remote Associates Test, in which the participant is asked to identify the conceptual link that ties three words together; the Visual Associates Test, in which the participant is asked to identify the conceptual link that ties three images together; the Alternative Uses Test (Guilford, Christensen, Merrifield, & Wilson, 1978), in which the participant is asked to provide as many uses for specific everyday objects as possible; the Torrance Figural Test for Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1966), in which the participant is asked to draw original stories based on provided abstract shapes, lines, etc.; and two types of the Verbal Fluency Test, in which the participant is given a set period of time to name as many unique items in a given category as possible and another period of time to name as many unique words beginning with a given letter as possible. The synesthetes in this study were found to be stronger in convergent thinking than the controls, exhibiting greater success in the Remote and Visual Associates Tests. Furthermore, synesthetes were more original but not more quantitatively productive than controls in divergent thinking, indicating greater qualitative success in the Alternative Uses, Torrance Figural, and Verbal Fluency Tests. These successful results, paired with a significant reduction of bias from past studies, provide strong evidence towards enhanced creativity in synesthetes.

Synesthesia and Creativity: Examples

While the systematic studies conducted by researchers such as Chun and Hupe provide rather concrete (and at times even quantitative) evidence of enhanced creativity among synesthetes, there are also a multitude of examples of especially creative figures in the fields of music, visual art, math, and science who have synesthesia.

Synesthesia is possibly most famous for its presence among some of the most successful musicians. Musicians such as Mary J. Blige, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Eddie Van Halen, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder, and Kanye West all have chromesthesia, and many of them claim that the colors associated with the sounds they hear help them make their music. In an interview with Maureen Seaberg, singer-songwriter Billy Joel described, “I would say the softer, more intimate songs -- there's 'Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel), 'And So It Goes,' 'Vienna' and another called, 'Summer, Highland Falls' -- when I think of different types of melodies, which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens...When I [see] a particularly vivid color, it's usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of these songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges and golds.”

Figure 3: from famous and successful visual artists have also exhibit synesthesia. Vincent Van Gogh was documented as comparing painting styles to the “sound peculiar to a violin” (Seaberg). Animator Michel Gagne, who has chromesthesia, animated a scene in the Pixar movie Ratatouille that features the main character experiencing synesthetic color reactions to tasting different foods and flavor combinations.

Furthermore, Richard Feynman, one of the greatest and most creative minds ever in math and science, had grapheme-color synesthesia. In his autobiography What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Feynman wrote, "When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde's book, with light-tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students" (Feynman, 59).

With countless more examples, there is a clear and strong presence of synesthesia among the most creative figures in many varying fields. While it is not possible to directly attribute these figures’ creative successes to their synesthesia, there is evidence here for a positive correlation between synesthesia and creativity.


Many synesthetes claim that their condition does not hurt or help them. Even those with severe synesthesia say that at worst it can be distracting. Conversely, it is clear that synesthesia has the potential to yield benefits. As shown by the previously explored studies and by the anecdotal evidence, synesthetes can use their condition to creatively propel them in the arts and in math and science. While there is no way to concretely measure creativity, there is substantial evidence that people with synesthesia are especially creative.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Siri. "Cover Story: Everyday Fantasia: The World of Synesthesia."PsycEXTRA Dataset32.3 (2001): n. pag.American Psychological Association. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Chun, Charlotte A., and Jean-Michel Hupé. "Are Synesthetes Exceptional beyond Their Synesthetic Associations? A Systematic Comparison of Creativity, Personality, Cognition, and Mental Imagery in Synesthetes and Controls."British Journal of Psychology Br J Psychol107.3 (2015): 397-418.Wiley Online Library. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Feynman, Richard. 1988.What Do You Care What Other People Think?New York: Norton. P. 59.

Guilford, J. P.,Christensen, P. R.,Merrifield, P. R., &Wilson, R. C.(1978).Alternate uses: Manual of instructions and interpretation.Orange, CA: Sheridan Psychological Services.

Rich, A.N., J.L. Bradshaw, and J.B. Mattingley. "A Systematic, Large-scale Study of Synaesthesia: Implications for the Role of Early Experience in Lexical-colour Associations."Cognition98.1 (2005): 53-84.ScienceDirect. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Rothen, Nicolas, and Beat Meier. "Higher Prevalence of Synesthaesia in Art Students."Perception39 (2010): 718-20.Sage Journals. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Seaberg, Maureen. "Vincent Van Gogh Was Likely a Synesthete."Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Torrance, E. P.(1966).Torrance tests of creative thinking: Norms-technical manual(Research ed.).Lexington, MA: Personnel Press.

Ward, Jamie, Daisy Thompson-Lake, Roxanne Ely, and Flora Kaminski. "Synaesthesia, Creativity and Art: What Is the Link?"British Journal of Psychology99.1 (2008): 127-41.Wiley Online Library. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

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