Synesthesia as a real phenomenon is quite rare. It affects one in 23 people, or 4.4% of the population.It is defined as the ability of one type of sensory or cognitive input to cause experience in another as well. One of the most typical examples of real synesthesia is perceiving letters as if they have color.
In this essay I will not deal with real synesthesia, but with pseudo-synesthesia, that is, the associations we form between inputs from different sensory channels that do not cause the experience of synesthesia, but that are still very strong.
Now, let’s see some examples. Let’s start with colors and temperature. Most people associate blue with cold and red with hot. But it’s not just that, people can ascribe temperature meanings to the whole spectrum of colors like this:
What is most fascinating about this, is that the color experienced as the coldest, and the one experienced as the hottest, are very similar:
Now the interesting question would be – is it natural and universal for all humans to associate colors and temperature in such a way, or it’s just a culturally learned way of ascribing meaning to colors? If it is universal, where exactly does this come from? Is it about some aspect of our brain that causes us to associate color and temperature in such a way, or it is because most of the hot things that we are exposed to are yellow or red, such as the Sun and fire, while many of the things perceived as cold are blue, like the see, the night sky, etc? Or maybe it has to do with emotions, such as aggression associated with red and calm with blue, which then extends to temperatures as well?
The hottest and the coldest color being so similar, does it prove or disprove anything? Does it prove that such associations are arbitrary and meaningless and maybe just a socially learned thing? Or maybe, these colors aren’t that similar after all?
It’s interesting to note that when it comes to temperature of stars the direction of color and temperature association is exactly the opposite. In fact, reddish stars are coldest, while those that emit blue light are hottest.
This is not where our tendency to associate colors with meanings end. It’s interesting how many people love red color, when it comes to fashion, cars, food, yet it’s often associated with negative things. On the other hand green scores quite poorly as a favorite color for cars and clothes, and it’s quite unpopular even in interior design, yet we often associate it with positive indicators. Wherever you find a world map in which countries are colored according to some statistics countries with the most desirable indicators are usually painted dark green, and those with least desirable indicators dark red, in a spectrum like this:
It’s also worth noting that it’s almost the same spectrum like one used for representing elevation. But how they came to idea to associate mountains with red and brown color, since mountains often have more forests than lowlands, and are in a way “greener”, yet on the map, it’s the opposite. Now it would be interesting to see if two schools of cartography developed independently from each other, would they tend to adopt similar colors for describing elevations?
The main, and undecided question in this essay is whether all these associations are random, or they would always arise in a similar way even in very different cultures. And if it is the case, why.
I will end this essay with a short test. In the comments you can write how would you best associate the following colors and tastes: (for example 1a 2b, etc…). I will write my own associations as well, but not before I see some of yours in comments.