Lots of Cases of Synesthesia Are Based on Alphabet Magnets

By Carl Engelking | March 4, 2015 12:56 pm

alphabet magnets

They are a ubiquitous childhood toy: alphabet fridge magnets. You may remember some from your own childhood, though they probably weren’t your most beloved of games.

But for some people, especially those growing up in the late 70s or 80s, one particular set left a deep impression — it forever changed the colors they associate with letters. That’s the conclusion of a new study on synesthesia, a condition where sensory stimuli overlap.

The study finds that more than 6 percent of American synesthetes have color associations that match a particular Fisher-Price fridge magnet set. And that finding will force scientists to rethink how synesthesia works.

Criss-Crossing Senses

Roughly 1 in 10,000 people have synesthesia, but these estimates are rough at best. In synesthetes the stimulation of one sense activates another — think of smelling color or tasting words. It’s thought that the most common form is grapheme-synesthesia, or linking letters with colors. (To test if you’re a synesthete, click here.)

Although the first description of synesthesia dates back to ancient Greece, researchers still don’t know what causes some people to perceive two senses at the same time. Previous studies have shown that, surprisingly, it may be a learned association: a certain Fisher-Price alphabet magnet set manufactured from 1971-1990 directly maps onto some adult synesthetes’ color associations. In the current study, researchers wanted to see just how widespread this similarity was.


The child with the hood on in this photo was born in 1988 and is an adult synesthete. His color-letter pairings matched 25 of the 26 letters in the Fischer-Price magnet set, which is in the foreground. Courtesy: Witthoft et al

The Colorful Alphabet

Researchers put 6,588 synesthetes from around the United States through a series of online tasks to test their color-letter perception. The test first required participants to consistently match letters with colors. The second test presented participants with letters in various colors, and they had to accurately say whether the colors matched their previous pairings.

True synesthetes passed these tests with flying colors, and researchers noticed something interesting: 400 of the participants, or over 6 percent, had letter-color pairings that matched the letters from the Fisher-Price magnet set. The proportion was even higher — 15 percent — for participants born during the toy’s peak popularity, from 1975 to 1980. In one case, a participant born in 1988 matched 25 of 26 of his letter-color pairings to the set. Researchers published their study Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Seeing is Sensing

In their study, researchers are careful to separate their findings from the underlying causes of synesthesia. Their results don’t indicate that playing with Fisher-Price letters leads to the development of synesthesia, or that synesthesia can be learned. Rather, people who already have the condition, or are predisposed to it, seem to incorporate cues from their environment to shape their individual letter-color pairings.

Further, other forms of synesthesia may not operate the same way. For example, people who can taste sound may construct their taste-sound pairings internally rather than from external cues.

Regardless, this study shows that there’s a lot more happening during playtime than meets the eye — and further deepens the interesting science of synesthesia.


Top photo credit: iofoto/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Leonardo Castro

    In my case, vowels are colorful but consonants are all the same color. And my numbers were colored after a domino set.

    • Anna Fuchs

      Interesting! At what age did you have that domino set?
      For me, the vowels have colours and the consonants are either black, grey, brown, yellow or orange. Not colours I would choose 😉

      • Anna Fuchs

        Oh, and I think my numbers are coloured after the vowels/combination of sounds

        • Leonardo Castro

          I can’t remember the age, maybe 6 years old or less. My numbers have different colors when written in Latin letters or in Indo-Arabic numerals.

  • Hayley

    This is my magnet set! Except I had numbers on the bottom row of mine. I was born in 1985. I thought I was the only one that got synesthesia this way! The letter O was yellow but the number 0 was purple, so to this day my zeros are yellow and my letter O’s are a bright yellow purpley mix. I must have switched them often enough to mess up my color/character mapping. :-)

    • Joanne Roll

      But, there was a report back in the 80s, I think about synthesia, that said most people saw 0 as white, as do I. The report was also in Discovery magazine an NIH did a telephone test with people and asked them to name the color the saw for each letter. Then, they told me if I were ever in Washington DC, i should come to NIH and take the test over because they wanted to see if I changed the associations with color and a specific letter. AS IF!! My son brought the article to my attention, he does not have synthesis, but my aunt did.

  • Eddie Bailey

    6% is not very convincing as a cause. It seems much more likely that whomever made the plastic letters had a common form of synesthesia that affects about 6% of synesthetes.

    • andy

      The only way for people to share the same colours is through an external influence such as the one described. And it’s still 400 people which is a large amount…

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        > The only way for people to share the same colours is through an external influence such as the one described.

        You find that 400 people all have blond hair. Is there some ‘external influence’ of yellow magnets acting on these 400 people and forcing them to be blonds? No. They all have their own independent causes (genes, hair dye, time in the sun) which nevertheless yield the same outcome.

    • gary

      And what evidence do you base your assumption on, do you know the guy who invented them or are you taking a an uninformed stab in the dark. to question a study with no evidence of your own.

      • Caroline

        Lol what? He is simply interpreting the same information the researchers already provided–not assuming something based on no evidence.

        And it is more than okay, necessary even, for people to question researchers’ interpretation of the information that they gather. Just because they gathered some statistics doesn’t mean they interpreted their implications accurately.

        He didn’t make any claim, either. He just pointed out that 6% ain’t much of a correlation, which means that it very well may just be incidental…

    • NatW

      If you’ve read the article to the end, you’d know that they did not proposed that the magnets are the cause of synesthesia. To quote them: ‘people who already have the condition, or are predisposed to it, seem to incorporate cues from their environment to shape their individual letter-color pairings.’

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        Your objection is irrelevant. Eddie is not arguing about what causes any kind of synesthesia, he’s arguing about why synesthetes have the particular mappings they do. The researchers thinking the causality goes Letters~>Mapping, but he’s arguing that it’s actually Mapping~>Letters.

    • Ross Edelman

      It’s enough to cause statistical significance in the stat analysis.

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      OP says that 1 in 10,000 Americans have synesthesia; you really think that a prior of 0.01% (that the designer had synesthesia) makes for a better explanation than the possibility that some synesthetes might be influenced by letter-colorings in their environment?

  • Alex Johnson

    Very interesting finding, though I don’t think I’d rewrite the books on it yet. Its possibly in this absence of multi-sensory inhibition maybe their associations were externally cued, but I certainly wouldn’t say Its causal by any means.
    Not trying to crap on the findings, it’s really interesting, just think they ran with their interpretations a bit

  • Lisa Scott

    What about the most obvious synesthesic connection? Am I the only person who hears a particlar pitch for each digit associated with a touch-tone phone? To this day, it’s how I remember phone numbers, or know I’ve dialed, or even written or spoken aloud any string or numbers, incorrectly. Like that magnet set, I imagine it’s a learned, nationally specific connection.

    • Lodovico Poldovico Gobbo

      I am not learned on the subject nor a synesthete myself, but if that association is the only connection you experience, I would be inclined to guess you just learned them off a phone, possibly through habit.
      I myself have thought of learning the tone/number association off of my home phone numerous times, purely because it seemed like a useful mnemonic tool.

      • Lisa Scott

        Yep, I think you hit the nail on the head there. Even at a very young age, our brain is probably devising learning and memory strategies constantly, whether or not it’s fully conscious or intentional. (Due to a set of colored and labeled hand shapes in my 1st grade classroom, left will forever be green and right is programmed as red). Combine that with a extremely common, but demographically specific, pedagogical tool and a neurological predisposition to synesthesia, and suddenly you find a statistically signifigant corlation of particular synesthetic content. I wouldn’t claim to be a synesthete myself, and while they may not be either, I’ve know people with perfect pitch who have developed that talent via instructors who explicitly taught them at a very early age to associate each tone with a specific color. The novel idea this study indicates is that true synesthesia isn’t and entirely random, mysterious phenomenon of neurological “crossed wires”, but, as with much of our evolving understanding of the brain and individual sensory and emotional experience, it’s the result of a complex interaction of biology, genetics and environmental influences.

        • Anechidna

          Is it thaat we are devising learning and memory strategies at that age. We remember things via them being put into memory retrieved and then restored. That isn’t a learned behaviour that is innate. So a child seeing the letters and a colour simultaneously would associate the two together doesn’t mean that they experience synesthesia per se, but rather learnt that that colour is associated with that letter. But they do acknowledge now that synesthesia experiences go wll beyond the original narrow definition of what it was thought to be.

    • asdfghjkhgf

      That’s what synthesia truly is – learning new ways to think about something by associations with the environment at the time. Like for example, learning that there are 12 months in a year at the same time as the 12 hours in a clock, and picturing the months that way.

    • kenny.login

      No you are not the only one. Look up DTMF tone scale.

  • Geoff

    Sesame street – numbers – I’m convinced, a study should be made on this too

  • Kimberly Dutton

    Read the article again people. They said the alphabet sets are NOT the cause.

    • Lisa Scott

      Yep, that very often overlooked distinction between causation and correlation is key when interpreting this study… The concept is frequently neglected when research is translated into more colloquial terminology and presented to the public, intentionally or unintentionally…. *ahem* Jenny Mccarthy *ahem*

      • nancy0942

        I stop work­ing a­­t m­y previous j­­o­­b an­d at this moment I make 85 dollars per-h. …How? I work over internet! My previous work was making me un-happy ,s­­o I was forced to try something different… Two yrs have passed since And I can say it was a best decision I ever made! This is what i do…—>

  • Robert Firmin

    What about the person(s) who assigned the colours to the alphabet set during the design phase at Fisher-Price?

    What if the decisions were based upon the driving influence of a person who was themselves a synesthete?

  • Hayley Francesca Smith

    That’s crazy. I thought I was really weird because I’ve always been able to feel and hear colors when I listen to music. Alternatively, I’m an artist and when I look at paintings, I read the colors as music. It’s like each note is a different color, and the different pitch is different shades of that color.
    When I’m painting abstract, sometimes I’ll put on music and I’ll paint the music I’m hearing. Does anyone else here have that?
    If the Fisher-Price alphabet magnets can create connections between colors and letters, then maybe my source of connection is the Windows Media Player on our family’s old computer.. you know, the player that plays music while showing you an acid trip mixture of colors that change to the beat lol. God, I’d stare at that thing for HOURS.

    • jay dubbs

      There was a girl in my communications class in college that discribed hers the exact same way. She was a music major. Idk about the painting thing butim sure if she did ittd be the same

  • stargene

    I’m reminded that the great physicist Richard Feynman once wrote
    in an autobiography that whenever he thought about (or perhaps
    even saw?) equations, different kinds of symbols (variables, coefficients,
    exponents, etc.) had different colors. It took him a long time to realize
    that everybody else did not have that ability. I wonder if it helped him
    juggle different mathematical ideas in his work.

  • Anna Fuchs

    I was born in the late 70s and had the fisher price but the colours don’t match.
    I was always convinced that the colours of my numbers came from my favourite toy when I was 2 or 3, a cash register for playing “shopping”. I was totally confused when my mum found it in the basement and none of the colours matched. I also seemed to remember that the prices of the newspaper announced on the stickers always matched as they were going up, the only exception being 8. I also found out later that this wasn’t the case. Or that we took train number 3 (red) and then number 5 (green) to get to a certain point. Also wrong. I just remember the numbers and assign them “my” colours in my memory. I think I get them from the sound (Red like ThRee, for example)…

  • Solly

    With respect, an interesting article. But I think that a greater description of ”Synesthesia” is warranted. For some one who is not familiar more than ” … it forever changed the colors they associate with letters … new study on synesthesia, a condition where sensory stimuli overlap. … ” . I will now test myself. Thank you.

  • Harry Gilbert

    I discovered I had synesthesia as a student of language in college, when I discovered my word for Friday in Japanese is white, while the word in English is black. My days have their own colors that don’t correspond with my colors of their letters – not sure why. At wine tastings I see pictures with shapes and colors that I can use to recognize the wine later, and cooking I figure out what seasonings to use based on their contribution to the shape and color of the dish I’m making. Clarinet sounds are blue, trumpets sounds are gold, violins from tan to yellow, etc. To me it seems like the visual, aural, taste, smell signals all arrive in the same location and stimulate the visual senses. My colors for letters have never changed, but they aren’t the same as the Fisher-Price letters.

    • Joanne Roll

      I was born in 1941 and so missed Fisher Price. I think that maybe I had an alphabet book that had the first letters..A.B,C in the colors I see now. I see the days of the week in a form with colors that do not correlate with the colors I see the names of the days of the week. I also have a number form and god only knows where that came from. I see the months in a beautiful arrays of colors and designs that move in a circle through the year and the lighting and some of the designs come right from my childhood and reflect in some months the lightness or darkness of that particular time of year.

      I think the artistic combination of colors or words with sound and music must be beautiful to have. I am not particularly creative an am tone deaf.

      I did take the test matching colors with letters and numbers…however, I think it was poorly designed. The colors did not begin to match the colors that I see in my mind’s eye. Also, the instructions were not implicit. It took me ten or fifteen pages into the test to finally figure out where white and black were and how to move the triangles and the circles. I felt it was testing perceptual motor coordination as well as synthesia. I wonder if anyone has tested those with the music synthesis to seek if the notes or tones link to the ABC song that every little child learns.

      For me, the real mystery is not why do some people have synthesis, but doesn’t everyone! How do these “others” think and remember…is their mind’s eye in black and white? Or do they not have any images when they think of words?

  • Sean Wang

    Didn’t a recent study using hallucinogenics trigger a synesthesia like effect in the subjects? Basically it created new neural pathways that connected some senses with others allowing them to hear colors, and visualize sounds.

  • Anechidna

    I dislike any discussion about injuries or operations, as soon as they start I see flesh, exposed bone, blood vessels and muscle tissue.

  • Scott Schaeffer

    I am definitely one of these fisher price kids, and I have always been aware that it’s the reason I have color associations. I also have color associations with states, because I had a jigsaw puzzle of the 50 states as a kid.

  • Lisa Raffensperger

    Thanks for the heads up! It’s been fixed now.

  • Lisa Raffensperger

    Thanks for the heads up! It’s been fixed.

  • Suel

    Maybe the person responsible for choosing the letter-color pairings, when inventing the Toy Alphabet Letter Magnets had Synesthesia.

  • asdfghjkhgf

    This article is so wrong and mis-informed it’s making me laugh.
    Glad a few commenters understand.

  • Joanne Roll

    I just looked at the letters in the picture. I was born long before Fisher Price and my letters don’t match those colors with the exception of A and E. It is disconcerting to me not when I see in real space letters with different colors than mine, but when it is suggested to me that this how most people with synthesis see the letters and their colors. i guess I am real possessive about my own colors! Except, I really can not stand to see A painted as Emerald green.

  • Joanne Roll

    The studies and these comments suggest all kinds of studies that might be undertaken. For example; can a person who is illiterate have synthesis? If so, what concepts do they see in color? Writing in the Western World is relatively recent. I wonder if it varies by ethnic background or gender. Hebrew is written in black and white, I think. Most of the writings of the Bible and other tracts copied by monks in the middle ages have Initial letters that are very colorful. African-Americans were not allowed to read and write when they were enslaved and most came from non-literate tribes in Africa. What is the incidence of synesthesia among African Americans and people who are Jewish? Women were more likely to be illiterate in many cultures and centuries. Yet, I think that synesthesia is more prevalent among females. Why?

    I also thought that synesthesia was a way of early learning for things that were not concrete. A child can see a table, but not a month. Because we moved when I was five and I know that I wanted to read at that age, but I could not make any sense of words that I saw written. But, I had months colored and formatted in my mind’s eye before I could read. I do not know when I realized letters had colors and letters.

    I also wonder if in prehistoric times, everyone had synesthesia and it became less prevalent as humans evolved. It just seems to me that synesthesia is a logical way to learn and to remember.

  • JEng

    I never saw those magnets until after synesthesia.

  • D.A. Hänks

    I always thought it was normal to see words or taste them, but people would seem puzzled when I said that something smelled like a stomach ache or sounded like a tangerine. I thought everyone was like that. Also, some words produce a sensation. Pull on your earlobe and that is what “young” feels like. Push your Adam’s apple to feel “nickel,” and “acid” feels like a chapped upper lip.

    Every word has a visual picture, and this apparently has extended into adulthood. As I learn new words or foreign words, they take on their own mental image. Each day of the week has a color: Sunday is baby blue, Monday and Thursday grayish-blue, Tuesday is pink, Wednesday and Friday are yellow and Saturday is brown. Some of these words are snapshots from life, but others are bizarre images identifiable only to me. I could not begin to describe what I see, even for a million dollars. It’s like a dead person coming back and trying to describe colors that do not exist here on Earth.

    I see time as space; three dimensionally. I can see forward or backward in time. The current year is a wheel as viewed from within. I turn with the days of the month, although each week or month is viewed as a bar graph. The years are also viewed as a bar graph and I can zoom in or out for recent or distant years. Interestingly, the bar graph bends at Y2K, but nowhere else in the history of time; past or future.

    I also see myself three dimensionally wherever I travel. I move through space, in a map in my head. Like the time graph, I can expand it from a local level to an intergalactic map and everything in between. I can also sometimes feel where an address is located.

  • kats

    “Their results don’t indicate that playing with Fisher-Price letters leads to the development of synesthesia, or that synesthesia can be learned” is different from saying the alphabet sets is not the cause. It’s not proven.

  • seahen

    Might the association set white-A, red-E, black-I, yellow-O, blue-U have come from somewhere too (maybe Sesame Street)?

  • Jennifer Smith

    That’s cool. So, if they were prone to develop synesthesia, and played with the magnet sets, their brain made those associations, probably because it was familiar.

  • RaymondSwenson

    As a parent in that era, I found that the tactile experience of handling the letters helped our kids to recognize the distinctive shape of each letter, its name and sound. Our kids learned to read fairly easily, and were reading by the start of kindergarten. Our daughter was reading fluently at age 4, just from us reading simple books to her and pointing out how to recognize the sound of each letter. In a few years she was reading with high comprehension at high speed. She would read a 250 page book in the evening after school. And she could retell the story and the characters’ names and offer a critique of the book. This came in handy when she worked as a salesperson in a bookstore.

    So our experience with magnetic letters has been very positive.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar