Living Colour


Jim Butler meets Neil Harbisson,
the real-life cyborg who hears colours…

Featured in the Senses Issue

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Artist Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, an extremely rare form of colour blindness that means he sees everything in black and white. However, thanks to an antenna that was implanted in his skull in 2004, he can hear colour. Life for Harbisson – routinely referred to as a cyborg – is now one kaleidoscopic symphony in which he ‘eats songs’ and ‘dresses to sound good’. It is, he says, a huge leap forward for evolution. Here, he talks us through his day to day sensory experiences… 

Growing up, life was normal. But everyone kept talking about colours and I felt it was more of a social element I was missing, not a physical element.

There are many advantages of only seeing in the greyscale. You can see better at night. You can distinguish shapes easier. You don’t get fooled by camouflage. Photocopies are also cheaper in black and white.

I was always expecting that I would have or create my own sense of colour. I guess I always thought it would be more psychological or philosophical, not that it would physically allow me to hear colour. This was a surprise: to think that technology could allow me to hear the light frequencies. That was something I learned when I was 20 or 21. I learned about cybernetics and how we could use technology as a sense, not as a tool.

When it comes to explaining how I hear colour, I have a short version, a middle version and a long version. Usually if someone stops me in the street I just say it’s an antenna that allows me to hear the light frequencies of colour.

I have an antenna planted in my head. There is a colour sensor at one end that picks up the colours around me. It sends the light frequencies
to a chip that is implanted inside my skull. The chip vibrates depending on the light frequency and these vibrations become sounds to my inner ear, so I can hear different notes to different colours. 

What I can hear goes beyond human sight. There’s another implant that allows me to receive colours from other parts of the world, or from satellites, so I can sense colours from space or extra-terrestrial colours. It’s a sensory extension that allows me to perceive colours that are not around me or colours that are invisible. Colour vision only goes from red to violet, but there are many more colours around us that technology can sense. The sensors I have go from near infrared to near ultraviolet.

My mother’s eyes sound like the BBC beeps when they mark the time. Limes sound like taxi horns in New York. It’s constantly happening. Mozart’s music has a lot of yellow. Justin Bieber has a lot of pink and Amy Winehouse had a lot of red. There are lots of connections that
I didn’t have before.

Dark or depressing music isn’t black to me. There’s no association between feelings and colours. Black would be silence. As is white.
The lack of hue is complete silence. Red is the lowest frequency, so it’s very calm and peaceful whereas violet is more active. It’s very high-pitched and more aggressive.

I’m a big jazz fan because that creates a lot of unexpected colours. Whereas music that is predictable – like a lot of pop music – you know what’s coming next. With jazz you never know what colours are going to be projected. I also like music with microtones, which is sometimes hard to find – they use it a lot in Asia and China. Electronic music with microtones I really like.

I dress in a way that sounds good. The way I put food on my plate is also dictated by this – I can eat songs. How I put food on my plate is dictated by how I want it to sound. The way I sense people – I can listen to people’s faces. The way I sense beauty has changed – the sound of someone’s face.

I think the next generation will start using technology as a body part and a sense, not as a tool. By extending our senses; by applying technology to the body, we’ll be able to connect to nature and other animal species in ways that we’ve never been able to connect. I think
this is a very strong change in the way we interact with nature. It will give us a stronger connection with reality.

Some people are hostile. They think it’s the end of humans, or the end of nature. I think they’re scared. Our job is to convince them that they shouldn’t be scared, that this is very natural, a natural part of evolution. This will allow us to connect closer to reality and nature. If we continue to use technology as a tool we will be distracted from reality and nature.

It’s a huge step in evolution. We might become a new species – a species that can survive in space. If we want to survive in space we have to extend our senses. We need to modify ourselves in order to survive in space and outer space. This is just beginning.

We are all equal. And by equal I include other organisms – not only cyborgs or cybernetic organisms but all kind of organisms. We have to see ourselves at the same level as a plant or an insect. We’re all on a horizontal line. Some people try to see things within a hierarchy, with humans on the top. They see evolution as a vertical line; I see it as a horizontal line. We are all equal.

I don’t like the word ‘human’. If you define yourself as a human you separate yourself from other animals. If you call yourself an animal you separate yourself from other organisms. I feel much more comfortable describing myself as an organism – and in my case I am a cybernetic organism.

Humans are orange. People who think they’re black, aren’t; they’re very, very dark orange. And people who think they’re white, aren’t white; they’re very, very light orange. We all share the same hue, but with different lights. It’s super simple. We’ve created an app that can prove this – it allows you to hear the sound of colour. If you put the app on two different skins it will detect it as the same hue. If you look at the rainbow there’s no brown, it’s orange. Orange is brown. It’s the same hue, which is why it sounds the same.


Interview: Jim Butler
Illustration: Clara Lacy