A Is for Apple: the Role of Letter–Word Associations in the Development of Grapheme–Colour Synaesthesia

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  • 1 School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

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This study investigates the origins of specific letter–colour associations experienced by people with grapheme–colour synaesthesia. We present novel evidence that frequently observed trends in synaesthesia (e.g., A is typically red) can be tied to orthographic associations between letters and words (e.g., ‘A is for apple’), which are typically formed during literacy acquisition. In our experiments, we first tested members of the general population to show that certain words are consistently associated with letters of the alphabet (e.g., A is for apple), which we named index words. Sampling from the same population, we then elicited the typical colour associations of these index words (e.g., apples are red) and used the letter → index word → colour connections to predict which colours and letters would be paired together based on these orthographic-semantic influences. We then looked at direct letter–colour associations (e.g., A red, B blue…) from both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes. In both populations, we show statistically that the colour predicted by index words matches significantly with the letter–colour mappings: that is, A red because A is for apple and apples are prototypically red. We therefore conclude that letter–colour associations in both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes are tied to early-learned letter–word associations.

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