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How common is grapheme-color synesthesia?

Grapheme-color synesthesia is a neurological condition in which individuals experience consistent and automatic associations between letters, numbers, or other graphemes and specific colors. Estimates on the prevalence of grapheme-color synesthesia vary, but most studies suggest it is one of the most common forms of synesthesia.

What is grapheme-color synesthesia?

People with grapheme-color synesthesia see particular colors when they think about, hear, or read certain letters, numbers, or other symbols. For example, they may consistently visualize the letter A as red, the number 7 as green, or the symbol & as purple. The colors are experienced in the mind’s eye rather than being physically overlaid on the graphemes.

These associations are automatic, consistent over time, and memorable. Someone with A-red synesthesia will always experience A as red. The colors do not change or fade over time. Additionally, the synesthetic perceptions feel real and are easily recalled.

The condition arises from cross-activation between brain regions involved in grapheme processing and color perception. Neuroimaging studies show hyperactivity in color area V4 when synesthetes are exposed to graphemes.

Grapheme-color synesthesia runs strongly in families and is thought to have a genetic basis. The colors are highly specific to each individual. For instance, A may be brick red for one synesthete and cherry red for another.

Prevalence estimates

Determining the exact prevalence of grapheme-color synesthesia is challenging for several reasons:

  • Reliance on self-report – There are no clinical tests to diagnose synesthesia objectively. Researchers must rely on individuals self-identifying as synesthetes.
  • Lack of public awareness – Many people do not realize their experiences constitute synesthesia.
  • Individual differences – Synesthesia occurs on a spectrum, with some people experiencing stronger or more numerous associations.

With these caveats, research studies estimate the prevalence of grapheme-color synesthesia to be:

Study Sample Population Prevalence Estimate
Simner et al. (2006) University students in Scotland 1.4%
Sagiv et al. (2011) General Israeli population 1.1% to 1.4%
Novich et al. (2011) General U.S. population 0.55%
Cohen Kadosh et al. (2012) General UK population 0.45%

Based on these studies, a reasonable estimate is that grapheme-color synesthesia occurs in 0.5% to 1.4% of the population.

Is grapheme-color synesthesia more common in females?

There is conflicting evidence on whether grapheme-color synesthesia is more prevalent in females versus males. Some studies have found a female bias:

  • A 2006 study found a 6:1 female to male ratio in a Scottish university student sample.
  • A 2019 study found a 3:1 female to male ratio in a large international online sample.

However, other studies have found more equal gender ratios:

  • A 2011 study found a 1.1:1 female to male ratio in an Israeli sample.
  • A 2017 study found a 1.5:1 female to male ratio in a Dutch sample.

Potential reasons for the inconsistent gender findings include:

  • Sampling bias in certain studies skewing towards female participants.
  • Higher self-reporting rates among female synesthetes.
  • Cultural influences on likelihood of self-disclosure.

The most comprehensive studies show either no significant gender difference, or a modest overrepresentation of females. However, synesthesia appears to occur in both genders, with many documented cases among males.

Does prevalence change across the lifespan?

There is limited data on how grapheme-color synesthesia prevalence changes from childhood to adulthood. However, available research indicates:

  • Synesthetic associations are typically present early in life. In self-reports, most synesthetes recall experiencing colors for letters and numbers as far back as they can remember.
  • Prevalence may be higher in childhood. A 2017 study estimated 7% of children have grapheme-color synesthesia, compared to the ~1% of adults.
  • The associations remain stable over time. The specific synesthetic photisms do not change dramatically past early childhood.
  • Prevalence likely declines somewhat with age. Higher childhood estimates may reflect a portion of “transient” synesthetes losing these associations later in development.

In summary, while solid prevalence data across age groups is lacking, it appears grapheme-color synesthesia emerges early in life but may decline modestly by adulthood.

Does prevalence vary by grapheme type?

Within grapheme-color synesthesia, certain types of grapheme-color pairings are more common than others:

  • Letters and numbers: Colors triggered by letters and numbers are the most prevalent form, present in upwards of 90% of grapheme-color synesthetes.
  • Weekdays and months: Synesthetic colors for days of the week and months of the year are also very common, reported by over 70% of those with grapheme-color synesthesia.
  • Time units: Colored perceptions for time units like minutes or years occur for around 40% of grapheme-color synesthetes.
  • Musical notes: Synesthetic colors for musical notes are relatively rare, present in approximately 15% of those with colored graphemes.

In general, simpler and more common symbols like A-Z, 0-9, and days of the week tend to induce synesthetic photisms in the majority of those with grapheme-color synesthesia, while complex graphemes prompt colors more sporadically.

Does culture affect prevalence?

Very limited data exists on cultural or geographic differences in grapheme-color synesthesia prevalence:

  • Most research has relied on English-speaking samples from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) populations.
  • One study compared Dutch and South African students and found no significant prevalence differences, although sample sizes were small.
  • A case study documented grapheme-color synesthesia in a remote Himba pastoral community lacking written language.

More cross-cultural research is needed. However, current evidence suggests grapheme-color synesthesia likely exists in all cultures and populations, with little effect of language or environment on overall prevalence rates.


Grapheme-color synesthesia appears to affect 0.5% to 1.4% of the general population. Prevalence may be slightly higher in females, although findings are mixed. Synesthetic associations tend to emerge in early childhood and remain consistent over one’s lifetime. Colored perceptions are most commonly induced by letters, numbers, weekdays, and months. While more cross-cultural research is needed, available data suggests similar prevalence rates across geographic regions and languages.

In summary, grapheme-color synesthesia is one of the more common forms of synesthesia, experienced by a small but consistent proportion of people across the globe. Ongoing research aims to refine prevalence estimates and elucidate both the shared and unique mechanisms underpinning this fascinating neurological phenomenon.