Reading in two colours at the same time

March 9, 2011, Elsevier

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once wrote in his autobiographical book (What do you care what other people think?): "When I see equations, I see letters in colors - I don't know why [...] And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students."

This neurological phenomenon is known to as synaesthesia and Feynman's experience of "seeing" the letters in colour was a specific form known today as "grapheme-colour" synaesthesia. What is perhaps most puzzling about this condition is that people actually claim to see two colours simultaneously when reading letters or numbers: the real colour of the ink (e.g. black) and an additional – synaesthetic – color.

Now a new study, published in the March 2011 issue of Elsevier's Cortex, has revealed the patterns of that allow some people to experience the sensation of "seeing" two colours at the same time.

A group of researchers in Norway used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain activity patterns of two grapheme-colour synaesthetes, as they looked at letters written in different colours, presented on a screen while inside an MRI scanner. The participants had previously been asked to indicate the synaesthetic colours that they associated with given letters and were then presented with single letters whose physical colour sometimes corresponded to the synaesthetic colour and other times was clearly different.

Prof. Bruno Laeng from the University of Oslo, along with colleagues Kenneth Hugdahl and Karsten Specht from the University of Bergen, had reasoned that increasing the similarity between the physical and synaesthetic colours should affect the level of activity seen in areas of the brain known to be important for colour processing, and their results confirmed this expectation, revealing that the strength of the observed brain activity was correlated with the similarity of the colours.

The authors concluded that the same brain areas that support the conscious experience of colour also support the experience of synaesthetic colours, allowing the two to be "seen" at the same time. This supports the view that the phenomenon of colour is perceptual in nature.

More information: The article is "The neural correlate of colour distances revealed with competing synaesthetic and real colours" by Bruno Laeng, Kenneth Hugdahl, Karsten Specht, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 3 (March 2011). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.