Ticker tape

Ticker tape consists of automatically visualising written words in the form of “subtitles” when hearing other people speak. It can also occur with one’s own speech and/or with internal dialogue, i.e. verbal thinking.

It is considered a type of synesthesia, although it does not actually meet all the  requirements for being one and some researchers are of the opinion that it should not be included as a type (Chun and Hupé, 2013). No figure is yet known for the exact prevalence of "ticker tapers" among the synesthete and non-synesthete population, but an interesting study (Holm, Eilertsen and Price, 2015found that almost half the general population reported some kind of mild experience of this type. The same study also discovered that the prevalence of “strong” ticker tapers (the ones with highly automatic and “obligatory” word visualisation in response to heard words, their own speech and verbal thinking) could be 1.4%. It has been noted that the strongest forms frequently occur in the synesthete population – i.e. people with other types of synesthesia – although it is not known whether it is always the case.

The term “ticker tape” originally refers to the long thin strips of paper with information on the changing stock prices that were used at the New York Stock Exchange (and subsequently at others) up until the 1960s. Today an electronic version with a slimline screen is used to transmit this information, but it still rolls by in a way that is broadly similar to the visualisations of some ticker tape synesthetes. The words they see appear on a mental or visual “screen” in front of them as if they were captions for the words they are hearing or thinking, often travelling from right to left or vice versa. Others see their “subtitles” as static and they appear and fade out as the words are pronounced, and some see them as coming out of the mouth of the person speaking or hovering around their head. For some people with stronger forms of ticker tape, the words are actually physically seen projected in the air (this is the case of projector synesthetes), while others with weaker forms (associators) only see them in the mind’s eye.

A ticker tape machine. (Source: Investopedia)

Some aspects of ticker tape synesthesia:

  • ·         The words appear in a specific font – they might be in Arial or Times New Roman, for example. In other cases they can take the form of handwritten text or look like words being written in chalk on a blackboard, and there are even people who feel the sensation in their hands that they are writing or typing the text themselves, in a “proprioceptive” or “motor” variant of ticker tape.

    ·       The way in which the words appear is consistent for each ticker taper, but the font, colour and other characteristics of the photisms can vary according to the type of voice of the person speaking, their accent, the emotion they put across, the volume, if they are singing rather than talking, etc.

    ·       When ticker tape coexists with grapheme-colour or phoneme-colour synesthesia, the words visualised can have different colours or chromatic nuances.

    ·       The words can appear visually with a short delay after being heard (a third of a second, half a second, for example) or not, depending on the ticker taper in question.

    ·       People with strong ticker tape usually feel overwhelmed by the confused mass of words they see when many people are talking at the same time, finding themselves unable to “disconnect” or stop seeing the words.

    ·       People with ticker tape often report being very good at spelling. Some of them can even spell words backwards amazingly quickly, although it seems that this skill also requires practice (and that there are no advantages of this kind for ticker tapers whose photisms fade quickly away rather than persisting in the air for a few seconds).

    ·       They can also be particularly good at learning languages. However, they sometimes have more problems than the average person with understanding a new language when it is spoken, as they cannot “see” the words properly and get confused and blocked as there is no visible information to help them.

    ·       Some ticker tapers report having learnt to read early in life, at 3 or 4 years of age for example (I am not aware of any studies carried out to determine whether this is so for all or most or just a few, but there might perhaps be a relationship).

    ·       Possible variants that have been described are seeing ambient sounds as written or printed words in the air (the typical “Pow!” “Bam!” “Wham!” in comics), or seeing certain objects “labelled” with their corresponding name floating in space beside them.

Here are some descriptions written by people with ticker tape:

"When someone is speaking or if I’m thinking to myself, my brain runs captions across like the stock market does with stocks. Single words are seen in large bubble-like font, appearing and disappearing in similar fashion to a puff of smoke."

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

"The words hang there in 3D space until I will them to fade away, or I leave the room and come back having forgotten what was said. My friends have once or twice caught me sidestepping non-existent floating subtitles in public spaces. Yelling is red and scraggly, British people are cursive, caligraphic font, usually black or white inked."

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)


"Running dialogue goes right to left on a black background in a little serif font. If there's a word I don't know how to spell, or didn't hear properly, it buffers and knocks against the left side until I get clarity, then whooshes away."

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

"For me I see them enter from the bottom and exit right, sometimes one at a time or two or three really depending on how fast they’re talking and my understanding of what they’re saying.

If they’re talking fast and I can’t understand what they’re saying it’s just a bunch of nonsense coming right to left with no spacing."

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

"For me English is white with black borders, German is blue, anything Slavic sounding is maroon, otherwise it's red and everything is Times New Roman font. (...)

And if I'm unsure of what someone is saying it's usually red and spelled really weirdly but it's also like my brain intentionally doesn't focus on the words at that time.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

I definitely have ticker tape, but not every word appears. Only words that are large, uncommon, or pronounced wrong. Closing my eyes actually enhances the words.”

(Source: Cath, in her blog Synesthesia and Such. 2013.)

An example of seeing a singer’s voice on listening to music

In this sequence you can see a simplified version of how I see part of Mikel Laboa's song "Txoria Txori".

The concurrent experiences always appear on a black background.

You can see the colour of the vowels in each syllable here.”

(Image and text: the Basque artist Miren Karmele Gómez, on this page of her blog 2018. Original in Spanish.)

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