Everything Means Something

We forget sometimes that we’re all associative thinkers. For all of us, everything means something. We can use that fact to help us, or we can ignore it and blame the fact that mercury is retrograde on why our message didn’t get through as intended. Here is a little test of that strength of association.  The power in all of us, of metaphorical thinking.

Does everyone see the numbers here?

What about the colors?

What about now – do you see colors?

If you do, you are among the 1 in 23 people who experience this involuntary commingling of the senses called Synesthesia. This one, number-color linking, is the most common (in fact my wife has it – these are the colors she sees) but it also can occur when people strongly associate sounds with smells, colors with personalities, sound with taste.

What happens is that parts of the brain – the ones that distinguish numbers and colors, or tones and colors – which are normally not connected in an adult brain, stay connected.  This makes that capacity for metaphorical or associative thinking,  involuntary. It is especially strong in creative pursuits – among poets, artists and novelists synesthesia is 8x more common.

To show you that it is not just synthesists that heavily associate meaning, even subliminally, I borrowed this from V.S. Ramachandran.  Neurologist, Researcher.  He’s on Ted.

Just like the regular alphabet, A is A, B is B, C is C.  Different shapes for different sounds, this is two letters of the martian alphabet.  One of them is KIKI, one of them is BOOBA.  Which one is which?

You probably guessed correctly, BOOBA is on the left, KIKI is on the right. If none of you are Martians, how did you do that?  It isn’t a trick, you are all doing what he calls a cross modal syneshetic abstraction.  In other words, even unconsciously, you associate meaning to things.

BOOBA, because it has a soft rounded sound, is associated with the soft, rounded shape.  KIKI, because it has a sharp Kee Kee sound, is associated with the sharp angular shape.

So if we all associate – especially visually – how do we turn it to our advantage?

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Peter | August 31, 2012 at 10:46 am

    I’ve often wondered would it feel like to be synesthesic (my spell-checker tells me that “synesthesic” isn’t actually a word, but what the heck). To be able to hear colors and taste sounds. Wow.

    When it comes to writing a presentation, or any tother form of writing for that matter, it might be an interesting experiment to imagine you had synesthesia. If you could actually feel or hear shapes and colors for example, how would that affect your choices and design?

  2. Gavin | August 31, 2012 at 11:39 am


    What I take away from this is that everything you put in front of people, words, pictures, the structure and organization of what you are saying has a low grade synesthetic (also not a word on spell check) so I will go with associative effect. Almost like a background noise that you are so used to, you don’t hear anymore. I would imagine it’s very difficult to measure, but it’s the same kind of thing that allows us to assess, (in 6 seconds or less) whether a person is credible, worth listening too, etc.

    The most obvious examples are font choices, but color, structure, word choice, I think that they all add up. Designers (and speech writers) have over the years come up with a lot of heuristics that make this associative effect work in our favor (think the golden circle, the rule of thirds, or various rhetorical devices).

    It’s a huge job, but something I have always wanted to do is to try and catalog those things so that the layman can make use of them…

  3. Carl Kwan (@carlkwan) | September 3, 2012 at 9:23 am


    I can’t wait to talk to you! This is brilliant. Most presenters would never think about something like this.

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