Colors That Speak


By Zach Schepis

Photos courtesy of Neil Harbisson.

Ever wanted to taste sounds? Or have the ability to smell what you see?

Sounds ridiculous, right? Not so fast. What were once limited to psychological befuddlements like synesthesia are now modifications we can make with our own bodies.

Enter Neil Harbisson. He installed an antenna into his skull that allows him to “hear” colors. The phenomenon is made possible through registering vibration frequencies and translating them into the color spectrum. What we once wrote off as mere science-fiction lore has finally become reality.

BTR takes a moment to chat with Harbisson about what it’s like to be the first cyborg outlier.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): So you were born with a rare visual impairment. For those in our audience that don’t know about it, could you explain a little bit about it?

Neil Harbisson (NH): I was born with total color blindness, I’ve always seen things in total gray scale. So when people would say words like red or blue, I had no idea what they were talking about because I’d never experienced them before. I was really curious to understand what they were at an early age.

BTR: How did you initially get involved in the project to help you hear color?

NH: Since I was 11 years old I would try out different ways of perceiving it. At one point I selected a person for each color–so if someone said “red” I would think of my friend who behaved like red. For blue it would be another person with a different behavior. After a while of trying that out I started to use music instead. Each note on the piano would correspond to a different color.

The big change happened though when I was 20. I was attending a lecture on cybernetics, and this ultimately inspired me to begin working on a third eye; an antenna that would allow me to actually hear colors in front of me.

BTR: Was it hard for you to adjust to hearing color all the time?

NH: Yes, basically the antenna picks up the light frequency in front of me and scales it down to sound frequencies. The sound frequencies are then translated to different colors. In the beginning it was very chaotic because we have so many colors that are constantly in front of us. I was hearing colors everywhere that I looked, which started to give me some really bad headaches.

Luckily after five weeks the headaches began to diminish and hearing the colors became normal. In the end it just became a new sense, and now 12 years later it doesn’t feel strange or different at all.

BTR: Were there any colors that particularly stuck out to you when you were first getting used to the electronic eye?

NH: Yeah, the different combinations of colors were interesting. For instance, going to the supermarket became an overwhelming experience, because there are so many colors there. They sound amazing!

On top of that, I can also hear infrareds and ultraviolet, which are colors that the human eye cannot perceive. These are actually my favorites. Infrared is interesting because it’s ultra-low, and behaves much differently than other traditional colors.

BTR: So aside from supermarkets, what are some other experiences that give you enjoyable listening experiences?

NH: Faces are interesting, because I can actually listen to people’s faces. Each one sounds different, and I really enjoy pointing my antenna at different parts to see how they sound. The eyes, the lips, the hair, the skin–I write down the notes and then I make sound portraits out of them. Then my subjects can actually listen to how their face sounds. And even between twin brothers and twin sisters, the results always sound unique to the individual.

BTR: You’ve made these sound portraits for a lot of famous people, who were some of your personal favorites?

NH: I really enjoy listening to someone’s face that’s well known, because you’re so used to recognizing them by the shape of their face and then you listen to their sound and you can’t as easily tell who is who. It’s a new way of seeing people.

Everyone has their own peculiarities of course. For instance, Al Gore has very different sounds between each of his eyes; his left eye and right eye sound completely different. Woody Allen has really high-pitched lips.

BTR: I imagine the way people dress also affects you.

NH: Now that I hear color I can actually dress in a way that sounds good. So I pick up the clothes that I wear in the way that I want to sound that day. I’m also designing a line of clothes where if you want to wear, say C major or D minor, you can do that and wear a song. We’re making bow ties right now that sound like different chords, because they are made up of three different colors or “notes.”

Most people wear colors that don’t really sound good together because when you wear combinations of the same color the notes clash, because harmonically they are so close together and that creates dissonance.

BTR: You’ve mentioned that even ordinary sounds now are beginning to appear as colors to you. It’s probably pretty hard to tell over the phone, but what colors would you say each of our voices are?

NH: Everything that has sound has color. Now when I listen to music I can paint what I’m hearing. The same is true now for voices. Each person occupies a different frequency when they speak, so if I listen to you speak for an extended time I can tell what color voice you have. Your voice, as I’m speaking to you now, is a combination of orange and red. But mostly red.

To hear the rest of our interview with Neil Harbisson, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.