The ABCs of Alphabet-Magnet Synesthesia

By Elizabeth Preston | March 27, 2015 8:06 am

letters2

Is it cool or existentially disturbing to think that your personal brain quirks might come from the toys you played with as a toddler?

In a study published earlier this month, psychologists asked 6,588 American synesthetes what colors they associate with each letter of the alphabet. Then they compared these associations to a certain vintage set of Fisher-Price alphabet magnets. They found that at least 6% of their synesthetes had improbably close matches to the colors of the magnets.

The researchers defined a statistically unlikely match as anyone with more than 10 letters corresponding to the colors of the toy. At least one person had a 26-for-26 correlation, though. For people born between 1970 and 1985, around when the magnet set was manufactured, more like 15% of synesthetes were Fisher-Price matches.

You can see the whole study for free online, or read more about it at Discover’s D-Brief blog. The psychologists—Nathan Witthoft, Jonathan Winawer, and David Eagleman—stress that no one’s synesthesia (as far as they know) is caused by a toy. Rather, people who are already prone to associating letters with colors may learn those associations from something in their environment.

Longtime Inkfish readers will not be surprised that I gasped in excitement when I saw this paper, because I wrote about a preliminary version of the study (with only 11 subjects) back in January 2013. I was also excited to realize that I’m part of the new data set, since I completed a survey at www.synesthete.org a shortly afterward.

I am not a Fisher Price six-percenter. But my own internal alphabet does seem like an uncanny match to an old set of Playskool magnets, which my mom kindly dug up and photographed a couple years ago (above). Maybe I’ll see these in the next study?

Read more Inkfish on synesthesia:

You Might Have Outgrown Synesthesia as a Kid

Man Develops Synesthesia after Stroke, Finds James Bond Theme “Orgasmic”

Even People Without Synesthesia Find Colors in Music

I’m a Synesthete. Is Something Wrong with Me?

ABCs

The complete sample of synesthetes from the new study, with average colors for each letter on the bottom.

Images: top by Nancy Preston; bottom, Witthoft et al.

Witthoft, N., Winawer, J., & Eagleman, D. (2015). Prevalence of Learned Grapheme-Color Pairings in a Large Online Sample of Synesthetes PLOS ONE, 10 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118996

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  • polistra24

    I don’t match colors to letters, but I do match colors to numbers, from a perfectly obvious source. Working many years with electronic stuff permanently implanted the resistor color code. No mystery there!

    • 7eggert

      For some time, I correlated them to CGA/EGA-Colors:
      0x8: bright/blinking
      0x4: red
      0x2: green
      0x1: blue

      So 0xC (12) is bright red, 0x3 is cyan (mixing green + blue).

      • Guest

        (testing the commenting functions:)

        For some time, I correlated them to CGA/EGA-Colors:
        0x8: bright/blinking
        0x4: red
        0x2: green
        0x1: blue

        So 0xC (12) is bright red, 0x3 is cyan (mixing green + blue).

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Consider the abscissa sequence 1) high correlation, 2) no correlation, 3) high correlation. Do we see two stripes or three? Three! One then desires a second block ordered not by alphabetical abscissa but by correlation abscissa, to reduce Mondrian effects.

    Perhaps the Lüscher Color Test was on to something (else).

  • Tim Fisher

    I think we’re all missing the real question here… WHERE IS THE LETTER C?!

    • 7eggert

      There is always a lost letter. Did you look under the couch or in your pet’s lair?

  • 7eggert

    The obvious question: How were the magnet-letter’s colors chosen? Maybe it was by a (latent) synesthete or by a common association between sounds and letters, and then somebody changed some letters to have a better mix of colors? I guess we’ll never know.

    • Abigail Pine

      That’s a good thought. Were the letters chosen randomly, or were they chosen by a synthetic?

  • Destanie Jones

    I think it is interesting how those who grew up around the time the magnets were manufactured, could relate a color to letters all those years later. Although I can understand that if they saw the letters everyday on the fridge for a few years, that they could memorize and associate colors with specific letters in their adult life. I could imagine it invoking a sense of nostalgia for an adult or they may have just gotten lucky.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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