Perceived emotion-to-colour (and other concurrents)

Other people’s emotions trigger colour or other perceptions

Intuitively perceiving emotions in other people can be a stimulus that triggers synesthetic concurrents such as colour (possibly also with shape and movement/direction), smell, taste or tactile sensations. These types of synesthesia are very uncommon.

Perceived emotion-colour

A synesthetic concurrent of colour is evoked on observing or intuitively sensing emotions felt by other people. In the case of associator synesthetes the colours are perceived in the mind’s eye, while projector synesthetes actually see them physically, around, above or near the person observed.

When the colours are seen physically, it is a case of “aura synesthesia”. The coloured halos seen around people are more frequently triggered by another type of synesthesia, involving perception of their personality in general, but for some synesthetes they are evoked by the emotions perceived. Sometimes both can trigger it – personality and emotions. This tends to give rise to more than one colour at the same time, with the personality colour forming a base hue which is then tinted, modified or accompanied by colours representing the emotions they are feeling.

Go to the page on aura synesthesia

Here are some descriptions written by people with these types of synesthesia:

Perceived emotion-colour

“For example, my fiancée is purple. When she's sad, and I realize it, it becomes a hazy, kinda out-there purple. When she's happy, it's really bright. It only happens when I personally see people, or remember something about them, though.”

(Source: This comment on the Synesthesia subReddit. 2018.)

“When my friends are sad, I see shades of grey. Sometimes I see storm clouds hovering over certain people who later turn out to have active depression. When they’re happy, their colors radiate from them like waves of bright colors. It’s nice to know others who see this are out there. I thought everyone saw the colors and things but I have yet to meet someone in person who does.” 

(Source: This comment on the Synesthesia subReddit. 2020.)

If I am exploring a sad story with someone, and I do well to empathize and feel with him or her, I see the colors around them and this changes depending on the emotional tone of the story. For example, I was speaking to a friend about his relational struggles and rejection, for which he was sad. However I noticed a slight hint of green which is hope for me, so I reflected back to him that he seemed to have resolve, which was accurate and a good way to steer the conversation.”

(Source: This comment on the Synesthesia subReddit. 2020.)

“I did some research tonight - I’ve always seen colors around people’s heads. Only heads. (…) The colors I see change throughout the day, and I don’t see them around strangers. (…) I also see colors around animals sometimes. I realized tonight that I’m not seeing auras, but my color coded visual perception of other people’s emotions.”

(Source: This post on the Synesthesia subReddit, with the author’s own map of their colour correspondences. 2023.)

Perceived emotion-shape

I found myself feeling shapes toward people's condition, emotion, and human relationships as well as hearing the sound. It's like a soap bubble. I feel a kind of texture including clarity, size, weight, brightness and so on. 

Not for everyone, but especially for my family, I am checking whether my kids are psychologically OK or not by feeling the bubble. When one's sound and shapes are changed dramatically, I start to be worried about her/him.”

(Source: Synesthete Miho Ito. 2022.)

Perceived emotion-taste/smell

My sense of emotions seems to be interpreted as smells, with a sense of atmosphere pressure. (…) When people are sad I will smell that weird "sick" smell like you get from someone who has been ill for a few days. Jealousy / envy seems to invoke a strange coppery flavor whether from me or anyone. People who lie smell and feel of cold, wet mucous, and I won't let them touch me.”

(Source: this post in 2013.)

Perceived emotion-sound

“The sound of a person who has got angry is really loud. For example, when two people have a quarrel. The voice is noisy of course, but the sound is also loud too. Two angry sounds crush each other in big volume, and after they stop talking, start ignoring each other, the sound still remains. That sound scares me a lot.

I understand people by hearing sound. Another example, the sound of loneliness. That sound is like breaking glass. It's clear, straight, a sort of beautiful, but it comes to stab in my chest, and hurt me so deeply.”

(Source: Synesthete Miho Ito. 2022.)

Perceived emotion-tactile sensations

“[It's] mainly with emotions from other people. It’s like they wash over me in different ways.

Disingenuousness is the most common. (...) It’s like there’s something slipping off of my face and then, the feeling goes down the front of my body and around the sides of my face. Ironically I could describe it as façade coming off a building.

Happiness is like it shining off them through me, and in turn I shine too.”

(Source: This comment on the Synesthesia subReddit. 2019.)

Perceived emotion-tactile synesthesia could be related to mirror touch or perhaps to pain empathy (vicarious or indirect pain).

All the types of synesthesia mentioned on this page seem to be more common in people on the autism spectrum. In some cases they are actually useful as a way of learning to interpret and classify emotions, which in turn helps them determine an adequate response, so they often develop or cultivate them for this reason.

It is interesting that although this type of synesthesia is extremely uncommon in real life it is the top choice for synesthetic characters in fiction: there are numerous examples of novels and TV series with characters who see other people’s emotions as colours. This tends to give them prodigious skills such as knowing everything people are feeling, when they are lying or what they are thinking, which turns out to be very useful for investigating and solving crimes, or for committing them perhaps. It’s unlikely that many real synesthetes can perform feats of this kind, but the books and series about them are well-accepted. A couple of examples are the Red Sparrow trilogy of spy novels by Jason Matthews or the TV series Criminal Minds, with the character Carl Finster whose combination of perceived emotion-to-colour and ticker tape synesthesia determines his victims: “Hear your evil, see your evil…”.

A more common type of synesthesia is when the synesthete’s own emotions rather than those of other people evoke synesthetic concurrents: mainly colour, but also smell, taste or tactile sensations. There are descriptions of these types of synesthesia in response to one’s own emotions on the following pages:

Emotion-colour/shape synesthesia

Emotion-taste synesthesia

Emotion-tactile synesthesia

Emotion-smell synesthesia (particularly for other people's emotions in this case)

Related types of synesthesia:

“Aura” (projective personality-colour) synesthesia

Personality-colour synesthesia

Person-colour synesthesia

This page last updated: 27 June 2023

This page is about perceived emotion-to-color synesthesia

This page is about perceived emotion-to-colour synaesthesia

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