A man with a rare form of colorblindness made himself into a cyborg and now he can hear colors.

A man with a rare form of colorblindness made himself into a cyborg and now he can hear colors.

In the eyes of musician Neil Harbisson, the entire world is a classic black-and-white film.

Not everyone who’s colorblind sees the world in the same way. There are some people, for example, who just can’t see the color green. But Neil Harbisson is one of only 30,000 people in the world born with achromatopsia, a unique form of colorblindness that renders your entire visual spectrum in grayscale. He’s literally never seen color.
And while some colorblind folks have been able to use EnChroma glasses to see colors for the first time, Harbinsson’s full grayscale colorblindness means those won’t help him. But that didn’t stop him from finding another way to experience colors, even if he can’t seethem.

Harbisson has found a way to hear color instead.

And he did so with the help of an antenna implanted in his head. (Yeahbutwhat?! — I don’t think you understand how excited I am that I got to type that sentence.)
Neil Harbisson. Photo by Dan Wilton/The Red Bulletin via Wikimedia Commons
Harbisson installed the antenna back in 2004 using a process known as ” osseointegration,” meaning it’s directly connected to the bone of his skull.
The antenna interprets color frequencies on the visible spectrum, then translates those light waves into sound waves Harbisson hears through bone conduction (that is, vibrations in the bones of the inner ear). And yes, “built-in skull speakers” are pretty much the most metal thing ever.
Each color has its own unique musical tone, which allows Harbisson to, for example, understand that the blue of the sky and the blue of someone’s eyes are the same color — a relationship that he was otherwise unaware of when he was just seeing in grayscale. By using sound as a reference point, he can more easily connect the colors of two related objects and sonically recreate a visual portrait for himself.
As he explains in a short film by Greg Bukalla (embedded below):
Also, a fun fact: Since the UK doesn’t allow electronic devices or cosmetic alterations to appear in government-issued IDs, Harbisson had to obtain special permission to include his antenna in his passport photo. Which means he’s technically the world’s first legally-recognized cyborg.
Neil Harbisson, discussing his own cyborg nature. Photo via Neil Harbisson/Flickr.

Of course, Harbisson isn’t the only person who can hear colors.

While Harbisson’s ability to hear colors is helped by technological means, people born with a condition called “synesthesia” naturally process certain sensory information through their other senses. It’s estimated than one in every 2,000 people can taste color, or hear smells, or smell sounds, or have some other totally unique — and totally real — way of using their senses.
Just as Harbisson associates that G-sharp sound with car horns and limes, there are people for whom the word “speak” tastes like bacon, people whose mom and dad taste like ice cream and peas, respectively (and I mean that in the least creepy and cannibalistic way possible, and even people who learn constitutional amendments or math based on theircolors.
While this might sound like pretty poetic imagery to others, for these individuals, this is how they actually perceive the world around them. That’s the reality they live with — and it’s no more or less accurate than yours or mine.
Neil Harbisson’s first ” Color-conducted Concert.” Photo by PaulDter/Wikimedia Commons.

Different people see the world in different ways. And sometimes that difference is even more literal than we realize.

We’ve all been told before that we should try to see the world from other peoples’ points of view. Usually we’re talking about unique life experiences and how they shape or inform an individual perspective. And that’s still a very important lesson.

But synesthetes and people like Neil Harbisson remind us to take a step back from that deep, metaphorical lesson and realize that even things as basic as tastes, sights, sounds, and other sensations aren’t necessarily universal. It’s easy for someone like me to take for granted that a lime is green and tastes like a lime. But for someone else, that lime is actually the color of a car horn or might taste like the Ten Commandments. Who’s to say that either one is right or wrong?

Who knows? Maybe the world would be a better place if we all knew, like Neil Harbisson does, that every shade of human skin just sounds like a slightly different orange.

Here’s a short documentary film about Neil Harbisson and his extraordinary antenna:

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