Synesthete.org's incredible grapheme-color synesthesia test

August 2, 2013 |

For as long as I can remember, I have associated specific colors with every number and letter. I first encountered a description of this condition in Richard Feynman's "What Do You Care What Other People Think?":

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.

A few years after that, when I was a junior in high school, I found an article in Discover that described an effort by several NIH researchers to study the condition, known as "synesthesia." (The mode that Feynman descibes is known as grapheme–color synesthesia.)

When [Dr. Carol] Crane's computer screen finally clicks on, it presents her with a two-and-a-half-inch-tall numeral 3 and a color wheel, the kind graphic artists use to select precisely the shade they want for their creations. Crane painstakingly maneuvers the mouse to place the cursor over the specific spot that matches her internal 3. She clicks. Her 3—the color of American hot-dog mustard—has a hue angle of 57, a 90 percent color saturation, and a 95 percent brightness value.

I was so excited by the idea that synthesia could be documented and studied that I reached out to the researchers featured in the article. The closest I came to getting to use the machine was a 40-minute phone interview with an NIH researcher a few months later.

Since that time, the neuroscientist David Eagleman has created a site, Synesthete.org, to provide a variety of synethesia tests. Like the rickety computer described in Discover, serves you each letter and number three times in what appears to be a random order. Each time, you identify that character's hue or shade on a color wheel.

To mix you up—presumably to foil synesthete imposters—the default color on the color wheel changes each time.

After doing this 108 times, you answer a few questions and receive a score. A value of lower than 1 is considered a synethetic, while people trying to fake it typically score around 2.

I was terrified that I would get a score above 1. While I am personally certain that I'm a synesthete, I find it difficult to mentally extract the exact color on demand. I also clicked "submit" prematurely two or three times. Here are the results:

A A A
B B B
C C C
D D D
E E E
F F F
G G G
H H H
I I I
J J J
K K K
L L L
M M M
N N N
O O O
P P P
? ? ? Q
R R R
S S S
T T T
U U U
V V V
W W W
X X X
Y Y Y
Z Z Z
0 0 0
1 1 1
2 2 2
3 3 3
4 4 4
5 5 5
6 6 6
7 7 7
8 8 8
9 9 9

The website does not offer a clear explanation of what the bars mean, though they obviously indiciate deviation between the three entries. (And they really ought to allow you to link out to your results. I had to copy the markup from the site and clean it up by hand.)

Even with a few mistakes, I clocked in at 0.89.