Tactile-visual synesthesia

Touch-colour, touch-shape and possibly touch-image

This is one of the types of synesthesia that can be called "visualised sensations" or "coloured sensations"

One uncommon type of synesthesia involves perceiving colour or shape sensations in response to a tactile stimulus of some kind: the sensation of being touched, the sensation of touching something, the perception of the textures touched or tactile sensations on the body such as water or a breeze. An especially rare case is when the colours or shapes are evoked by the perceived sensations of the person the synesthete is touching, rather than their own tactile experience.

For some people, rather than just colour or shape, tactile sensations evoke the visualisation of figurative images that are involuntary and automatic but not consistent. This might not actually be synesthesia but rather a parallel phenomenon, little studied so far, showing similarities with hypnagogic hallucinations (images seen on the verge of sleep). It is currently accepted by some researchers as a possible manifestation of synesthesia.

The following are descriptions of experiences where touch sensations produce concurrents of colour or visual images:

A synesthete who perceives colours when they are touched

“I've always had colors associated with touch. Like, I was with my friend the other day and he was giving me head scratches, and it was like a pastel-toned rainbow. When he'd move his hand down my face, it was bolder, like bright orange and green.
I've had partners in the past slide their fingers across my whole body, from the tips of my toes to the tips of my fingers and I experience lots of different colors when they do that." (...)
"It's most intense with light touch. On the top of my head, it's normally a rainbow of pastel colours like I previously described. I also associate it with the taste of Smarties candies in the US. On the side of my face, the colors go from pastel to deep and sharp with a much darker background.
Throughout my body, it's similar to the colors when touched on my face, but it's a rainbow of colors. On the back of my body, it has that dark background and reminds me of the taste of jawbreakers at times."

(Source: This post and comment on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2022.)

For this person, different body postures evoke colour

“For example, if I'm sitting on the ground in such a way so that my right leg is on top of and is putting pressure on my left foot, my left foot feels light blue. If I tilt my body so that my pelvis digs into the floor, it doesn't hurt but the pressure is orange. If I cross my legs while sitting, the pressure on both of my thighs is purple. I can also sort of tell by color if I have a good posture or not... If I have good posture the color in my spine and shoulders should be a dark greenish-teal. If I'm slouching, the color is more concentrated in my neck and is light blue.”

(Source: this comment on the Do I Have Synesthesia page of the Synesthesia Tree)

A synesthete who perceives colours when they touch things

In this case a tactile sensation produced by touching objects consistently gives rise to a colour perception, seen either physically (projective synesthesia) or as a mind’s-eye impression (associative synesthesia). Associative impressions are probably much more common than projective experiences, although in any event this is a very rare type.

“When she held a palm-sized object made of plastic, wool and foam she said: ‘There are many different textures here and there are colors for each texture. The smooth plastic outside part is a sort of blue-green silver grey color; it’s metallic. The spongy bit is yellow, the wool is another color. For some reason, the inside of the plastic is white. That’s quite clear.’”

(Source: the study The color of touch: A case of tactile-visual synaesthesia (J. Simner, V. Ludwig, 2011) on the synesthete EB, who experiences colour perceptions on touching different objects. The study also mentions a person with similar colour sensations, although in this case he projected them – i.e. saw them physically – while EB was an associator who saw them in her mind’s eye only.)

Perceiving colours from another person's touch sensations too

This is a particularly fascinating example, as it’s by a synesthete who not only has colour perceptions when they are touched but also receives them from the other person’s perceived touch sensation. The name for this type of synesthesia would be "perceived touch-color". In this case, the colours and shapes vary according to where the other person is being touched:

“Whenever I give someone a hug, head scratches, massage, or whatever it is, there are specific colors for it. It's not a result of a physical sensation I'm experiencing, but the fact that they're experiencing the physical sensation. They are similar to the colors I experience when touched, but with some differences.

(…) When I'm touching him, it depends entirely on where I'm touching him and not with what. Like, if I place my hand on the left side of his head, it's a particular abstract shape with a specific color scheme, and it's the same if I place my forearm or random object there. The color and shape changes as the part being touched changes. The thing that prompts it is that I have to be the one touching, whether it's some part of my body or object like a pencil.

Also, there really is something more intense/ special about having synesthesia and hugging a loved one.”

(Source: This post/comment on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2022.)

Drawing touch sensations

Left: “The feeling of freezing cold water flowing down my back, drawn from memory." Right: "The feeling of a hot shower.”

(Images: nottellingunosytwat, in these two posts on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Acupuncture and massage can sometimes trigger colour experiences, more likely hypnagogic than synesthetic

“I had acupunture, and when I closed my eyes I saw a oval red form in my right eye. After some time it turned to grey and white. (…) I also have had different colors show in my eyes (when closed), when having a massage.” 

(Source: a comment in the blog The Splintered Mind. 2006.)

The colours, shapes and images that people sometimes report on receiving acupuncture and massage might be a kind of tactile-visual synesthesia in some cases, but they are much more likely to be related to hypnagogic imagery (also called hypnagogic hallucinations or hypnagogia), i.e. the fleeting, non-consistent colours, shapes and figurative images some people see when they are on the verge of sleep or in situations of profound relaxation such as meditation. If the colours and shapes are different every time, physically visible and not just in the mind's eye and appear brightly illuminated, and if sudden images of random places, objects or people appear, then the experience is clearly hypnagogic and not synesthetic.  This phenomenon also bears a similarity to sexual (or romantic) synesthesia, which can be induced by touch, and is also probably closer to being a hypnagogic manifestation even though it has traditionally been considered synesthesia.


So when is seeing colours and shapes with acupuncture synesthesia and not hypnagogia? The answer is that in the case of tactile-visual synesthesia the sensation in each specific part of your body would evoke its own consistent colour and/or shape, and although a few synesthetes would see it physically in front of them it would be more likely for the image to be seen in the mind's eye rather than as the physically visible, bright, "backlit" flashes of random colours/shapes and images that characterise the hypnagogic experience. So for example, a sensation in your hand might always produce a white square, while a sensation in your back would always give you a green oval. Pain, or different types of pain, might be an alternative inducer for some synesthetes during acupuncture (see the page on pain-colour synesthesia), and the different emotions felt during the acupuncture process could be an inducer for others, so relaxation, contentedness, nervousness etc. would all have their corresponding consistent perceptions (see the page on emotion-colour synesthesia).

The artist Carol Steen often writes about both her visualisations during acupuncture sessions, when she sees shapes and colours she describes as being of a clearly synesthetic nature, and the hypnagogic images she also frequently experiences. In this text she describes what she sees and explains how she has started to have both types of visions together:

“During an acupuncture session, once all the needles are in place, I will watch the colored shapes move. It’s very much like watching a movie. (…)

This particular vision was usual when it started, but after about 5 minutes that changed. At first, I watched my usual moving, soft edged, forms which, that day, were a lovely shade of bice green mixed with yellows, much like golden daffodils in the Spring. This vision was suddenly pierced by a hard-edged, extremely detailed, bice green and yellow colored, symmetrical hypnagogic vision. I was seeing both kinds of visions at the exactly same time! Since that first time, this has continued to happen."

(From the article Two Kinds of Visions, Synesthesia and Hypnagogia: A Comparison by Carol Steen in Revue Iris, 2019, Dossier Acta Litt&Arts no. 11.)

"Vision" (1996), oil on paper. In this picture, artist Carol Steen painted her synesthetic response to acupuncture (image taken from “Synesthesia in Art”, in the blog Welcome to Nowhere).


This experience with acupuncture sounds very much like some of those recounted by people who see hypnagogic images before falling asleep or as part of sexual (or romantic) synesthesia:

“Particularly when I am undergoing acupuncture I see images of faces… many different faces... some I can describe in detail. I never know any of these faces. It is fascinating and strange at the same time.”

(Source: This comment in the blog The Splintered Mind. 2006.)


The following example of touch-image, which I find quite compelling, might also be connected with the random figurative hypnagogic-like visions that can appear with sexual (or romantic) synesthesia in response to touch:

“When I am stroked or touched a picture just pops into my head. Sometimes I see it projected on to what I am looking at and sometimes it is in my mind's eye, but they are always small individual pictures, like a biscuit, a red umbrella, a frog etc. One time I had a pain in my side and when I pressed it I saw a cup and saucer filled with smalI potatoes.”

(Source: Jacqui, in the Gallery section of the website Sensquence. 2007. )


The following pages of The Synesthesia Tree also have more examples of related phenomena:

Sexual (or romantic) synesthesia

Seeing flashes on hearing loud or sudden sounds

Figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent

Pain-colour synesthesia

This page last updated: 26 March 2024

This page is about touch-color synesthesia, touch-to-color synesthesia or tactile-visual synesthesia
This page is about touch-colour synaesthesia, touch-to-colour synaesthesia or tactile-visual synaesthesia

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