How synesthesia helps me to “read” people

(This post is a comment on ‘How To Disrupt Unemployment‘ by Vint Cerf and David Nordfors, which provocatively – and not without reactions – used an aura-healer in their scenario for a service that can disrupt unemployment. This post by Joana, a synesthete,1280px-Synesthesia.svg seems to validate their scenario)

By Joana 

Few months ago, I hired a dark green web developer, a real pro obviously. We’re lucky to have him, as dark greens are some of the best when it comes to programming, but they’re hard to find.

Everyone who works in the field of HR management knows the struggle of finding the right people for the right positions. We look for qualities, skills (also the soft skills), levels of education, experiences and so on. I also check the colors.

I am a synesthete, one of approximately 2-4% of the world population. Synesthesia is a rare condition which means that my brain connects things like letters and numbers to certain colors. Letters, numbers, and people, to be precise. People? Yes. Weird, isn’t it?

My name is Joana, I’m located in Germany and I’m a writer and peace activist. Besides, I work part time in a media agency. My job there is actually project management. Since the beginning of this year, I’m also in HR management because my boss noticed that I seem to have a “knack” with getting people’s character, talents and abilities within just a few seconds.

I never told my boss what makes me so good in “reading” people but my ability of associating people with colors, is actually what helps me to feel a person’s character and talents.

Synesthesia is also described as a “mixing of senses” and many view it as some kind of augmented reality. It was not until 2012 when a research study has been published about a special kind of synesthesia, that only very few of the 2-4% of synesthets seem to have: A synesthesia that is linked to persons and emotions.

So I’ll leave it to the scientists to explain how it works and why, and will simply describe how it feels to have this kind of synesthesia and what benefits I gain from this condition.

When I am doing job interviews, I do all the common things like checking their CV, asking for their experiences, going over their education, skills and so on. But my most precise tool that rarely ever fails, is my synesthesia.
Since I can remember, I “see” people in colors. I don’t see it with my physical eyes, of course. It’s more like a very strong and clear association, a “seeing” with the “inner eyes”. So when I see someone and concentrate on this person, I instantly get a color that I see with my inner eyes.
Later, in my late teenage years and as a twentysomething, I figured out, that certain colors match certain characteristics.

People who have similar colors, also have similar characters, similar interests or similar talents. I like to use the term “color-families” or “mind-groups” as the people with similar colors have a similar way of thinking and thus a similar mind.

So, when I meet someone, I know from just seeing their color, what kind of person he or she is. Not in every detail, of course, but the basic characteristics, some ways of thinking – you get the idea.

I came into HR management because I’m nearly almost right when selecting someone for a special position. Not only does it often confirm what CV or experiences have indicated (purple people almost never study things like business or marketing, for example), but it also can show talents that people are not aware of themselves. I can often “see” when someone is lying and I can also see hidden talents or characteristics. I know what kind of color fits in which position:

For office management, e.g., you need someone who’s really organized and has a “down-to-earth”-mentailty.
I know that the people to which these characteristics match best, are the ones with reddish or pinkish hues, sometimes also yellow or light green fits. I know that most dark blue people are smart minds but get bored easily over routine so they would not fit very well in this kind of job and they hardly apply for it.

The dark green developer, by the way, did not apply for this position. He applied for Sales and Marketing but his color indicated an introvert and a very great talent for technical understanding and computer related things. Since the position of web dev was vacant, I carefully asked, if he ever thought of working in the field of programming. Suddenly his face lightened and he explained that he does programming as a hobby but has never studied it (he studied communications and marketing, because job chances were good). It took some time to persuade my boss to give him a chance as developer but in the end we hired him and it was the best decision ever. He learned what he needed to know in no time and is now one of our best developers. My boss is still surprised about how I found out this special talent, but it was pretty obvious for me.

It seems that the augmented reality I have, is similar to that of a dog who can sense emotions. It has been suggested that people-related synesthesia is based on a subconscious reading of non-verbal signs like body language, which the brain translates into color.

But whatever it is, that makes me see people in color, it has not only got me a career in Human Resources, but also the ability to understand people very well. All in all, my synesthesia has helped me develop a greater understanding for people and the ability to approach people in a better way.







  1. Ramachandran, V.S., Miller, L., Livingstone, M.S., Brang, D. Colored halos around faces and emotion-evoked colors: A new form of synesthesia. Neurocase. 18(4), 352-358 (2013)
  2. Milán E.G. et al. Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison. Consciousness and Cognition. 21, 258-268 (2012).

David Nordfors

David Nordfors is CEO and co-founder of IIIJ and the chair of the i4j Summit. He was previously co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Innovation and Communication at Stanford University. He was one of the World Economic Forum Innovation 100 in 2009, and has served on WEF Global Agenda Councils. He serves on advisory boards of the Poynter Institute, Discern Investment Analytics and Black & Veatch. He is an adjunct professor at IDC Herzliya in Israel, a visiting professor at Tallinn University, the Tecnologico de Monterrey, and the Deutsche Welle Akademie. He was advisor to the Director General at VINNOVA, the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems, where he co-initiated the national Swedish Incubator System and set up a bi-national R&D fund between Sweden and Israel for mobile applications. He was Director of Research Funding of the Knowledge Foundation, KK-stiftelsen, administering an endowment of $300MUSD, building a funding framework underwriting over a hundred innovation initiatives between universities and industry. He initiated and headed the first hearing about the Internet to be held by the Swedish Parliament. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the Uppsala University and did his postdoc in Theoretical Chemistry in Heidelberg, Germany.