The Common Triggers of Synesthesia are Social Conventions

7 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2014

See all articles by Ian Watson

Ian Watson

Bifröst University; Gjøvik University College (GUC)

Date Written: 1997


The stimuli that most commonly trigger synesthesia — letters, numerals, musical notes and keys, and days of the week — share something else in common. All of them are social conventions. They were created by human beings, and they continue to exist because they have become the socially standard ways to read, count, play music, and reckon time, rather than because they exist in nature. Unlike conventions involving video formats, household voltages, or screw thread sizes, these are standard ways of thinking. We might call them cognitive conventions. I think it is very interesting and potentially quite useful to reflect on why this particular class of phenomena should give rise to synesthesia.

My perspective, in short, is this: The alphanumeric, calendrical, and musical systems that commonly trigger synesthesia are each made up of a set of conventional units. Learning to distinguish and interpret these units is not a universal psychodevelopmental process, but rather a product of our cognitive socialization. Assigning color tags to these units reinforces their sometimes dubious distinctiveness. And common synesthesia is only one of many ways in which we use experientially primary contrasts like color to tag socially conventional categories.

Note: (This paper was delivered at the synesthesia symposium at the Central States Anthropological Society conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in spring 1997, while the author was a doctoral student in the Culture & Cognition track in the Sociology Department at Rutgers University.)

Keywords: synesthesia, convention, color, letters, numbers, musical notes, days of the week

Suggested Citation

Watson, Ian and Watson, Ian, The Common Triggers of Synesthesia are Social Conventions (1997). Available at SSRN: or

Ian Watson (Contact Author)

Gjøvik University College (GUC) ( email )

Teknologivn. 22,
Gjøvik, 2815

Bifröst University ( email )

Borgarnes, 311

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