The physiology of coloured hearing: A PET activation study of colour-word synaesthesia

E. Paulesu, J. Harrison, S. Baron-Cohen, J. D G Watson, L. Goldstein, J. Heather, R. S J Frackowiak, C. D. Frith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a small proportion of the normal population, stimulation in one modality can lead to perceptual experience in another, a phenomenon known as synaesthesia. In the most common form of synaesthesia, hearing a word can result in the experience of colour. We have used the technique of PET, which detects brain activity as changes of regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF), to study the physiology of colour-word synaesthesia in a group of six synaesthete women. During rCBF measurements synaesthetes and six controls were blindfolded and were presented with spoken words or pure tones. Auditory word, but not tone, stimulation triggered synaesthesia in synaesthetes. In both groups word stimulation compared with tone stimulation activated the classical language areas of the perisylvian regions. In synaesthetes, a number of additional visual associative areas, including the posterior inferior temporal cortex and the parieto-occipital junctions, were activated. The former has been implicated in the integration of colour with shape and in verbal tasks which require attention to visual features of objects to which words refer. Synaesthetes also showed activations in the right prefrontal cortex, insula and superior temporal gyrus. By contrast, no significant activity was detected in relatively lower visual areas, including areas V1, V2 and V4. These results suggest that colour-word synaesthesia may result from the activity of brain areas concerned with language and visual feature integration. In the case of colour-word synaesthesia, conscious visual experience appears to occur without activation of the primary visual cortex.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)661-676
Number of pages16
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1995


  • Conscious perception
  • Multimodal integration
  • Visual physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Statistics, Probability and Uncertainty
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Mathematics(all)
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Clinical Neurology

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