Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The colour of numbers

The latest Numberphile video goes into more detail with Alex Dainis, speaking about her synesthesia.

Here is the video:

And here is the original video on which is this based.

Here are the graphs by Dave Wiley with are mentioned in the new video.

Higher resolution versions can be found on Flickr here and here.


  1. I understand this is fairly old, but I only just watched the video on this and had some thoughts.
    I noticed 0 and 1 have a high association with black and white. In the case of 0, "clear" also comes up.
    I wonder if this is a result of cultural influence, especially with "clear", where they're known as "empty" colours. On top of that, I'm guessing nobody used both white, or both black for 0 and 1? This could indicate which colour people see as "empty"(0) or "full"(1). This begs the question as to whether number-colour synesthesia is in fact an association with the "feeling" and concept of a number rather than the graphic depiction of it. An interesting test, would be to see how a synesthete responds to Roman Numerals. Similarly, would the colours change for someone with a strong understanding of Binary? Would "10" look the same as 2 if they were thinking in Binary, then change again if it was in the context of base-10 numbering?
    Alex mentions the 5 blue chairs seems "wrong" once thought about in the context of numbers, so I'd really like to see what happens when she looks at "V" in Roman numerals or "101" in Binary. Perhaps you'd need to do some basic maths questions in the appropriate number system to get into the mindset first.
    If this is true, I wonder if synesthesia could be "trained" at an early age (if it could be identified) or if colours can change due to personal view. Maybe one could be hypnotised into flipping their understanding of black and white so that the numbers take on different colours?
    Im not a synesthete myself, so I could be completely off base. But I just find it very interesting.

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  3. Pardon my lateness to this party, but I just stumbled over this video yesterday and I have some concerns about the fact that you have made this video in the hopes of educating others, yet none of you, including Alex herself, seems to know much about this phenomenon, and the research is available.

    I think you've confused associations with synesthesia, which is understandable since it is often confused in the literature. Synesthesia is a condition in which neuronal connections in one region of the brain encroach on connections in another region. A synesthete experiences two modalities (e.g., numbers and colors) at once because the neural connections overlap. It is not something, as the first commentor suggested, that can be learned.

    I don't know if Alex is a synesthete, but she can be tested (and quite easily) to see if she is simply making associations (something many people do, as this blog post demonstrates) or if she is truly a synesthete. Her type is very easily tested using simple visual search tasks.

    To find out more about it, I high recommend V.S. Ramachandran's work on the matter. He has books suitable for laypersons in addition to academic publications.

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  5. Testing akes sense to me. I would not be surprised if, as a child, she learned the numerals with coloured blocks or something and that what is going on is nothing more than her continuing to associate the numbers with those colours.