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How Hallucinogens Turn Letters into Colours

Hallucinogens Turn Letters into Colours

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that can cause hallucinations, meaning profound changes to your perception of what is real. 

That does not mean that hallucinogens exclusively cause you to experience things that are not real—like, for instance, seeing a basketball where there is no basketball. They can do this, but they can also cause you to see reality in new ways—life, for instance, seeing a basketball only as a basketball but also as a perfectly symmetrical sphere in a world compromising a seemingly infinite variety of geometrical shapes. 

The term hallucinogens is, therefore, a little misleading, because hallucinogens don’t only cause you to hallucinate. They may also cause you to see with fresh eyes and experience familiar things as you have never experienced them before.

Synesthesia and Hallucinogens

Acid and other hallucinogens may cause you to taste colour or see sound. 

When you experience one of your senses through another, you are having what is called a synesthetic experience. The word synesthesia derives from a Greek word that means perceiving together. People who perceive the world in this way all the time are called synesthetes. 

About one to four percent of people are synesthetes. But more than one to four percent of people have synesthetic experiences when they take hallucinogens like acid, magic mushrooms, and DMT. That’s because synesthesia can be induced by hallucinogens.  

Grapheme-Colour Synesthesia 

One of the most common forms of synesthesia, called grapheme-colour synesthesia, is seeing numerals and lettersas having an intrinsic colour. For instance, “A” may be red, while 

  • “E” is yellow
  • “I” is blue 
  • “O” is white
  • “U” is purple 
  • “Y” is silver

Someone with grapheme-colour synesthesia does not perceive “A” as being only red, however. Rather, they experience the letter as it appears on the page—say, in black typeface—while simultaneously experiencing it as red. More accurately put, a synesthete will experience the letter A outside of themselves as black while at the same time experiencing it inside of themselves as red. 

Another way to say this is that for synesthetes the letter “A” does not appear to be red but is red. 

Interestingly, although it is highly unlikely that one synesthete will perceive all letters and numerals as being the exact same colours as another synesthete, there are commonalities when it comes to certain letters. For instance, many synesthetes say “O” is white and “A”is red

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You Don’t Choose to Be a Synesthete 

Synesthesia is involuntary and consistent. Someone with grapheme-colour synesthesia does not willingly see the letter “A” as being red. On the contrary, they cannot help it. And if they perceive “A” as red now, they will experience “A” as red fifty years from now. 

You Can Choose to Have a Synesthetic Experience 

However, you may choose to have a hallucinogenic-induced synesthetic experience by taking a hallucinogenic drug like magic mushrooms, acid, or DMT. It’s unclear exactly why hallucinogens can induce synesthetic experiences, but recent neuroscience suggests that it may have something to do with how hallucinogens affect serotonin levels in the brain.

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