A systematic, large-scale study of synaesthesia: Implications for the role of early experience in lexical-colour associations

A. N. Rich, J. L. Bradshaw, J. B. Mattingley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

253 Citations (Scopus)


For individuals with synaesthesia, stimuli in one sensory modality elicit anomalous experiences in another modality. For example, the sound of a particular piano note may be 'seen' as a unique colour, or the taste of a familiar food may be 'felt' as a distinct bodily sensation. We report a study of 192 adult synaesthetes, in which we administered a structured questionnaire to determine the relative frequency and characteristics of different types of synaesthetic experience. Our data suggest the prevalence of synaesthesia in the adult population is approximately 1 in 1150 females and 1 in 7150 males. The incidence of left-handedness in our sample was within the normal range, contrary to previous claims. We did, however, find that synaesthetes are more likely to be involved in artistic pursuits, consistent with anecdotal reports. We also examined responses from a subset of 150 synaesthetes for whom letters, digits and words induce colour experiences ('lexical-colour' synaesthesia). There was a striking consistency in the colours induced by certain letters and digits in these individuals. For example, 'R' elicited red for 36% of the sample, 'Y' elicited yellow for 45%, and 'D' elicited brown for 47%. Similar trends were apparent for a group of non-synaesthetic controls who were asked to associate colours with letters and digits. Based on these findings, we suggest that the development of lexical-colour synaesthesia in many cases incorporates early learning experiences common to all individuals. Moreover, many of our synaesthetes experienced colours only for days of the week, letters or digits, suggesting that inducers that are part of a conventional sequence (e.g. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...; A, B, C...; 1, 2, 3...) may be particularly important in the development of synaesthetic inducer-colour pairs. We speculate that the learning of such sequences during an early critical period determines the particular pattern of lexical-colour links, and that this pattern then generalises to other words.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-84
Number of pages32
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2005
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'A systematic, large-scale study of synaesthesia: Implications for the role of early experience in lexical-colour associations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this