A WOMAN in her 80s who sees a different colour for every word in her vocabulary has helped psychologists understand the bizarre phenomenon of synaesthesia - when one sensation, such as a sound, registers as another.
More than a hundred years ago, the geneticist Francis Galton wrote about people who associated colours with certain sounds. Some composers, such as Liszt and Scriabin, were said to have seen colours with certain musical notes, and the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov was reported to have seen white on hearing the letter 'o'.
Modern psychology, however, has not taken the condition seriously because of lack of scientific evidence. Elizabeth Pulford, 82, an artist who lives in Wales, has changed all that.
She has astonished psychologists with the power of her ability to see words as colours. Because of her artistic prowess she was able to paint or describe in colours the words she saw and so prove to scientists that synaesthesia was a genuine psychological condition.
Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London who have studied Mrs Pulford will shortly publish evidence showing that they have identified the region of the brain involved.
Using a brain scanner to analyse six other women who were shown to see in colour the words they heard, researchers found that sounds of a human voice caused activity in a part of the brain normally only responsible for the perception of colour.
Mrs Pulford said she had always had the gift of a coloured lexicon. 'Words and sounds are automatically coloured. I really took it for granted that anybody would think like that. I didn't think it was unusual.'
It was only after a lifetime of painting, however, that she realised it was unusual. Wanting to find out more about it, she advertised in the British Psychological Society's Bulletin in which she described herself as 'an artist who has experienced the life-long condition of hearing words and sound in colour'.
Psychologists from the Institute of Psychiatry in London conducted a series of controlled tests on Mrs Pulford and confirmed that the ability was genuine. She was given more than 100 words and was able to ascribe a precise colour to each one. A year later, she was given the same words, without any prior notice, and repeated the results with 100 per cent accuracy.
Mrs Pulford's ability to describe colours in precise detail helped to convince psychologists that they were witnessing a genuine phenomonon. She said the word 'Moscow', for instance, was darkish grey, with spinach green and a pale blue in places; 'fear' was mottled light grey with a touch of soft green and purple; 'Daniel' was deep purple, blue and red and shiny; 'Maria' was deep violet-blue.
Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, said that since beginning the research programme in 1987, they have made contact with several hundred people - nearly all women - who seem to share the gift.
A group of six were chosen to undergo brain scans at the Medical Research Council's Cyclotron Unit at Hammersmith Hospital in west London. The women were compared against six others who did not have synaesthesia. The researchers found that the regions of the brain normally used in visual perception became active in all six synaesthesia women, but remained inactive in the others.Reuse content