Is synesthesia tied to experience?

Is synesthesia tied to experience?

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For example, do color blind people only able to perceive experienced colors through synesthesia? E.g. if a person both has synesthesia (like grapheme-color synesthesia or chromesthesia) and some kind of color blindness (say, protanopia, when individual can't experience "red" color) will all his/her synesthetic experiences be tied to the colors experienced? Or can synesthesia make a person feel "new" color (or any other experience)?

Can synesthesia make a person feel "new" color (or any other experience)?

The answer may be yes. You can find this quote “V. S. Ramachandran and E. M. Hubbard (in their 2001 PRSL paper) described a partially colorblind man with letter-color synesthesia who said that when synesthetically stimulated, he saw colors he had never seen with his eyes-he called these “Martian colors.” Ramachandran and Hubbard subsequently found that “the Martian color effect” might occur in noncolorblind synesthetes as well.” from several websites, such as this site and this site.

But I can't find the original paper of V. S. Ramachandran and E. M. Hubbard. So, it's impossible to verify the finding. Also, I can't find any other reports of such a patient in the literature or any report of non-colorblind synesthetes who experienced “the Martian color effect” either. So, personally, I think this finding and the speculation that “the Martian color effect” might occur in non-colorblind synesthetes as well needs more confirmation.

Anyway, is there evidence that a person who is color-blind since birth can experience a color that he/she has never experienced before? Will his/her cortical color perception areas, which have never generated the missing color perception, able to generate it when given appropriate stimuli, such as from the eyes after gene therapy that restores the missing cone function in the retina? The answer from animal experiments is yes (for example see Ref1 and Ref2). So, potentially, a colorblind brain can still generate a color percept that it has never generated before, when given appropriate stimuli. Theoretically, then, synesthesia may be able to make a person feel “new” color he/she has never felt before if it can deliver appropriate stimuli to the color perception areas.

Synesthesia Could Explain How Some People See ‘Auras’

Synesthesia is a fascinating condition which causes a cross-wiring of the senses. People with it find they can taste numbers or associate particular colours with certain people.

Rather than being weird, spooky or mystical, it is now a recognised neuropsychological phenomenon which is thought to affect about 4% of the population.

Some argue that synesthesia may help to explain the claim that people have auras–a subtle field of energy around them which can be read.

It may be that seeing this ‘energy field’ is a type of synesthesia.

One example of this cross-over between New Age beliefs and recognised neuropsychological phenomena is the case of Esteban, a faith healer from southern Spain.

Researchers from the University of Granada have examined him and found that he has mirror-touch synesthesia (Milan et al., 2012). He experiences a sensation when he sees other people being touched this means he can literally feel other people’s pain.

He also has face-colour synesthesia, which results from a crossover between parts of the brain responsible for face processing and colour perception.

These synesthetic phenomena, along with high levels of empathy, and a slightly delusional personality, mean Estaban has special emotional and pain reading skills.

In Estaban’s case it looks like there is some relationship between his synesthesia and his perceived special abilities.

To further examine the claim, though, Milan et al. looked specifically at four synesthetes who don’t claim any special ‘New Age’ abilities.

They then compared this with known faith healers and aura readers who do claim special abilities. A large enough overlap between the two might suggest a causal role for synesthesia.

The researchers, though, found too many differences between the experience of synesthetes and those claiming to read auras.

This does not mean that the aura readers are really seeing auras, just that their ‘powers’ can be explained by alternative means. Seeing auras may instead be a result of the normal functioning of the visual system:

“…the complementary colour effect, which results from a temporary ‘‘exhaustion’’ of the colour-sensitive cells in the retina, could account for the presence of auric colours seen by a sensitive viewer when staring at a person. Staring at a darker object (a human figure) against a bright background may induce the perception of a bright ‘‘halo’’ around the object.” (Milan et al., 2012)

Or it could be that ‘aura readers’ simply see what they want or expect to see, and perhaps invoking synesthesia is too complex an explanation for a much simpler cause.

Synesthesia may explain healers claims of seeing people's 'aura'

Researchers in Spain have found that at least some of the individuals claiming to see the so-called aura of people actually have the neuropsychological phenomenon known as "synesthesia" (specifically, "emotional synesthesia"). This might be a scientific explanation of their alleged ability.

In synesthetes, the brain regions responsible for the processing of each type of sensory stimuli are intensely interconnected. Synesthetes can see or taste a sound, feel a taste, or associate people or letters with a particular color.

The study was conducted by the University of Granada Department of Experimental Psychology Óscar Iborra, Luis Pastor and Emilio Gómez Milán, and has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes) in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than "normal" people. "These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected," professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

The case of the "Santón de Baza"

One of the University of Granada researchers remarked that "not all 'healers' are synesthetes, but there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon among them. The same occurs among painters and artists, for example." To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a 'healer' from Granada, "Esteban Sánchez Casas," known as "El Santón de Baza".

Many local people attribute "paranormal powers" to El Santón, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people "but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia," the researchers explained. According to the researchers, El Santón has face-color synesthesia (the brain region responsible for face recognition is associated with the color-processing region) touch-mirror synesthesia (when the synesthete observes a person who is being touched or is experiencing pain, s/he experiences the same) high empathy (the ability to feel what other person is feeling), and schizotypy (certain personality traits in healthy people involving slight paranoia and delusions). "These capacities make synesthetes have the ability to make people feel understood, and provide them with special emotion and pain reading skills," the researchers explain.

In the light of the results obtained, the researchers remarked on the significant "placebo effect" that healers have on people, "though some healers really have the ability to see people's 'auras' and feel the pain in others due to synesthesia." Some healers "have abilities and attitudes that make them believe in their ability to heal other people, but it is actually a case of self-deception, as synesthesia is not an extrasensory power, but a subjective and 'adorned' perception of reality," the researchers state.

12 Famous Artists With Synesthesia

is a condition in which the brain links a person's senses together in a rare manner, prompting unusual sensory responses to stimuli. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia “hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes” in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange—unlike, say, someone who hallucinates colors while on LSD.

Scientists still disagree as to what causes synesthesia. Some claim it is a series of learned responses, but most point to a neurological foundation. Some studies reveal unusual connections in synesthetes' adjacent brain regions, similar to those in babies in fact, it is believed that all babies have synesthesia until they are about four months old, when the synaptic pruning process normally severs those neural connections.The condition, which occurs in about 4 percent of the population, is more common in women than in men, and appears to be genetic. Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. Unsurprisingly, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative capacity—and quite a few talented artists through history have had it.


Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

A writer of novels, poems, and short stories, Nabokov was not the only one in his family to experience synesthesia—his mother and son, Dmitri, also had chromesthesia. Nabokov’s descriptions of his condition are as captivating and well-written as any of his works, and in his memoir Speak, Memory, he describes his condition: “As far back as I remember … I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h … among the red, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”

Nabokov even mentions the moment he and his mother learned of their shared synesthesia, writing, “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by music notes.”


Type of synesthesia: Unspecified

Amos experiences an unusual type of synesthesia in which sounds produce different images of lights. When commenting on her synesthesia in her book Piece by Piece, Amos said, “The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it … I’ve never seen a duplicated song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”


Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, spatio-temporal synesthesia

In an interview, Rush said his synesthesia goes back to his toddler days: “When I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue …. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is a sort of pale yellow.

Rush experiences several types of synesthesia, another of which, spatio-temporal, he describes by explaining, “I can say to my wife, ‘That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.’ I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlemagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that.”


Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

In Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington, author Don George recounts Ellington’s statements on how his synesthesia affected his music: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”


Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia, grapheme-color

Joel is fond of his synesthetic experiences, in which songs create worlds of color. As he told Psychology Today writer Maureen Seaberg, “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens … When I have a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds.”

On his grapheme-color synesthesia, Joel commented, “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color." He associates strong vowel endings—such as -a, -e, or -i—with "a very blue or very vivid green … I think reds I associate more with consonants, a t or a p or an s something which is a harder sound.”


Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Though synesthesia can be overwhelming and unpleasant for some, Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, also seems to appreciate his condition. As he told NPR, “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen … Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.”


Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

It’s not definitively known whether Rimbaud had synesthesia, but his poem Vowels strongly suggests as much, assigning color values to different vowels:

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!


Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, chromesia

Fall Out Boy's Stump addressed his synesthesia directly in a blog post in 2011. He stated that “most letters and numbers feel like a color. Music also can have colors associated with them (but this is a lot less pronounced than my grapheme-color associations). I’ve talked to a lot of musicians though and the more I talk to [them] the more I’m finding out that this is fairly common.” Stump is right about that—musicians with synesthesia are quite common.


Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Perhaps one of today’s most well-known synesthetes, Williams is a firm believer that synesthesia isn’t a disorder but an asset—he implores an NPR interviewer to “dispel the connotation behind the phrase ‘medical condition.’” He explained, “If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realize something’s different.”

Williams relies on his chromesthesia when making music, saying, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.”


Occupation: Pianist, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

It must have been interesting to be a musician in one of Liszt’s orchestras. He would reportedly use his synesthesia to help with his orchestrations, telling the musicians, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Apparently, the orchestra initially thought Liszt was just being funny, but over time they realized he really was seeing colors in the sounds.


Occupation: Singer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Like many musicians, Charli embraces her synesthesia and uses it to make her music: “I see music in [colors]. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red—but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” From her perspective, Charli says, the Cure’s music is “all midnight blue or black, but with twinkly pink stars and baby pink clouds floating around it.”


Occupation: Artist

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Poor van Gogh. He seems to have been one of those synesthetes who was more impaired than empowered by his condition. One paper highlighted the negative effect of his chromesthesia, noting that when van Gogh took piano lessons in 1885, his teacher realized he was associating the different notes with specific colors. Unfortunately for van Gogh, the teacher took this as a sign of insanity and forced him to leave.

A study is pointing out, that meditators are more likely to experience Synesthesia. And the synesthesia research Pioneers Prof. Eagleman and Prof. Cytowic put it this way:

Discover all types of Synesthesia! “Learn to meditate if you hope to experience Synesthesia.” In the Sensorium, you find over 150 exercise of Synesthesia Meditation.

It is a mix of traditional mindfulness and synesthetic explorations. Discover and become familiar with the different types of Synesthesia.

Who Gets Synesthesia?

It seems to affect women more than men, but some researchers say this isn’t true. They say women are just more willing to discuss the condition. Left-handed people may be more likely to have synesthesia than righties. Also, researchers suggest some synesthetes are artistic and often have hobbies like painting, music, or writing.

If you have this condition:

  • Your perceptions are involuntary. When you hear music and see shapes or see a color when you hear a word, you don’t think about it. It just happens.
  • You may be able to describe your sensations to others.
  • The crossovers between senses are predictable. For example, you may always see green when you hear the name “Alex.”

About 1% to 4% of people are thought to have it. We don’t know for sure because:

  • You may not realize you have it.
  • You think that everyone senses the same way as you do.

The number of people who come forward may go up because more people are talking about synesthesia.

The surprising world of synaesthesia

As a boy growing up in London, James Wannerton (below) would travel by the underground to school. He could taste his way along the route. ‘Piccadilly Circus tasted of the peanuts and goo you get inside a Picnic bar. Bond Street tasted of a tangy aerosol spray. I liked Tottenham Court Road it tasted of breakfast. The word “Tottenham” tasted of sausage, the “Court” tasted of egg and the “Road” tasted of toast,’ he tells me.

James experiences a rare type of synaesthesia, a condition in which sensory input from one cognitive stream gives rise to sensory input from another unstimulated cognitive stream (Cytowic, 1989). The word comes from the Greek for ‘joint sensation’ – as opposed to the more familiar term anaesthesia, which is Greek for ‘no sensation’. Synaesthesia is involuntary, the different associations and senses generally remain stable over time, and associations are often unique to the individual. It is thought to affect at least 4.4 per cent of the general population (Simner et al., 2006).

There are over 60 known types of synaesthesia. James’s lexical-gustatory form leads words to be experienced as strong tastes. One of the most common types is grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which is when letters and numbers are tinged with colour. Letters can represent different tones of colour, as can whole words. Chromaesthesia is another common form, and involves the association of sound with colour – musicians Pharrell Williams, Mary J. Blige and Lady Gaga all claim to have it. Authors and artists including Nabokov and Van Gogh are also said to have experienced forms of synaesthesia.

But it’s not just famous musicians and artists who experience synaesthesia. One example is JB, a teenager from New York who has synaesthesia and eidetic memory. When JB was three years of age, he was able to recall the script of the movie Shrek word for word. JB’s mother tells me she didn’t realise he had synaesthesia until he reported seeing numbers in blue. Is JB’s profound memory merely incidental, or is it potentially linked to his synaesthesia? And, if that is the case, could having decent memory be one of the advantages of the condition? Are there other benefits to having synaesthesia? Before answering these questions, we must offer some context into how this fascinating phenomenon was first recognised as a psychological condition.

A brief history
The first scientific reports on synaesthesia emerged in 1812 (Jewanski et al., 2009). German physician Georg Sachs described his own feelings of synaesthesia in a dissertation on his and his sister’s albinism. Two pages of the thesis described some of his feelings of synaesthesia he claimed to experience coloured words, sequences and music. Regrettably, Sachs did not attempt to explain why he was experiencing those feelings.

Although there were other instances of synaesthesia recorded later in the 19th century, academic interest waned with the rise of behaviourism in the 1930s. The theory of behaviourism postulates that all behaviour is explained by conditioning or experiences in one’s immediate environment. Researchers began to focus more on external influences, as it was widely assumed that internal feelings and thoughts were not measurable.

Synaesthesia wasn’t more widely recognised as a condition until the 1980s. American neurologist Richard E. Cytowic attended a dinner party where he saw someone cooking a chicken sauce. The chef tasted the sauce and said that it tasted ‘wrong’ and that it ‘needed more points’ on it. Cytowic questioned the chef and found out that the chef experienced shapes on his hand whenever he tasted food. Cytowic was intrigued by this, and started researching the phenomenon we now know as synaesthesia.

At about the same time in the UK, psychologist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen came across an interview of a painter called Elizabeth Pulford. Pulford (EP) said she experienced words and music in colour and asked whether anyone was interested in studying her. Baron-Cohen got in touch and went on to write several papers on EP (e.g. Baron-Cohen et al., 1987), identifying a synaesthesia that was both genuine and stable. In 1995 Baron-Cohen and his colleagues then proved that synaesthesia was a real neurological condition using fMRI scans on six synaesthetes and six non-synaesthetes (controls). The scans showed brain activity in the part of the brain associated with vision when sound occurred, even when the participants were blindfolded. This only occurred in the brains of the synaesthetes, and not the controls (Paulesu et al., 1995). These findings encouraged other members of the scientific community, particularly neuroscientists, to focus their research on synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia and touch
As fascinating a condition as it is, synaesthesia can be a hindrance to the individual. Carolyn Hart, who works as a massage therapist at Twitter’s main headquarters in San Francisco, has a rare type known as mirror-touch synaesthesia. Someone with mirror-touch synaesthesia involuntarily feels the same sensation another person feels. Carolyn tells me about her experiences: ‘My earliest memory of it was when I was about three years old. We had a dog that broke her leg in front of me. I remember that at the moment I saw that fracture I felt pain. It’s been with me as long as I remember.’

Carolyn’s pain is experienced instantaneously, before she has time to think. It doesn’t matter how she feels about the person or animal in pain – she has to see the image or object before she feels a tactile sense. ‘Sometimes, when I am engrossed in a movie or watching an athletic event, I will involuntarily move my body in ways I see the people on the screen moving. I don’t watch a lot of action movies because they are too synaesthetically stimulating for me. Often I’ll really tense my muscles because I feel like I’m running along with the actor who is running from the bad guy.’

Carolyn tells me she saw an article in Time magazine recently about the downing of the MH17 plane. ‘There was an image of a person strapped to an airline seat in the middle of a wheat field where the body landed. The body was intact and there was no bleeding, cut, or rupture’. At first, Hart didn’t react, as there was no visible bleeding, but when she saw that the man’s leg was at an impossible angle, it triggered her synaesthesia. She experienced a shooting, electrical pain, from the back of her hips all the way down to the front of her legs and through the back of her arms.

Although Carolyn’s synaesthesia can sometimes be a problem, it also can be of great help – especially with her job. ‘When I touch people, I tend to feel it in my own body where I’m working on them. It’s very pleasant it’s almost like I’m massaging myself. It’s not quite as intense as my sense of pain,’ she says. ‘My fatigue while I’m working gets mitigated by the fact I feel really good physically when I’m massaging. There’s a pleasurable component to my work that is beyond simple job satisfaction. I find my work interesting
I enjoy the personal interaction.’

Carolyn’s mirror-touch synaesthesia allows her to easily palpate her patient’s injuries and knots. She recently left a job she was at for eight years where she was the most requested massage therapist in the 20-year history of the business. Her synaesthesia has allowed her to perceive sense in ways many of her peers cannot.

It also helps her memorise her appointments with clients. ‘In my head, I can pull up my entire calendar for months into the future. I don’t need to write down my appointments. They are colour-coded in three-dimensional space,’ she says. Although synaesthesia can make some mundane tasks difficult, what if we were to focus on the potential benefits and use them to enhance day-to-day life?

Synaesthesia and memory
In the same way as JB’s, Carolyn’s remarkable memory is unlikely to be incidental. One of the leading experts in synaesthesia and memory is Dr Nicolas Rothen, who is based at the University of Sussex (where he has worked with Professor Jamie Ward, who wrote a ‘State of the art’ piece on synaesthesia for this publication in 2003). Rothen has written papers on a wide range of different topics around synaesthesia, including how it is linked to artistry and to higher cognitive functions.

In his review paper, Rothen has had to study the parts of the brain associated with vision. The ‘Two Streams’ hypothesis proposes that the visual system is made up of the dorsal pathway and the ventral pathway. The dorsal pathway is involved in guidance, actions and where objects are in space while the ventral stream is associated with object recognition (Goodale & Milner, 1992).Nicolas discusses some of the trends he has found in his experiments. ‘As a group, synaesthetes tend to perform better on memory tasks than non-synaesthetes. More so on tasks involving colour, abstract patterns or words, but not as much on things like spatial location,’ he says. ‘For example, in grapheme-colour synaesthesia, there is an increased sensitivity in the ventral-visual pathway.’

That leads to a performance advantage in certain types of memory tasks. ‘That’s the reason why synaesthetes often have an advantage in tasks involving high spatial frequency information, such as words, colour and abstract patterns but not for spatial information, location and sound – those are functions that are mainly located in the dorsal path.’

In music
Some of the memory benefits of synaesthesia can be transferred into creative disciplines. Daniel McBride is a second-year student at the Royal College of Music in London and experiences synaesthesia. After starting piano lessons aged 16, he learned very quickly, and within only seven months, he was performing professionally. ‘I’d never write down any of the songs I’d play. I could memorise everything from the colours and patterns I’d see when playing them,’ he says.

‘Being at college introduced me to a lot of music, some of which used non-traditional triads. Sometimes I’d listen to music and be hypnotised by the colours I’d see,’ he says. In college Daniel is often given music projects to work on – it’s the style in which he plays them that is influenced by his synaesthesia. ‘I clearly see a change in colour when I hear one note and hear it rise slowly in pitch. Because of that, I really like listening to Middle Eastern music. That stimulates me the most.’

Studies that have looked into synaesthesia and creativity have found promising results. For example, one study took a sample of 82 synaesthetes and got them to answer creativity questionnaires and say how much time they engaged in art. There was a significant tendency for synaesthetes to spend more time engaging in creative disciplines, relative to non-synaesthetes. Different degrees of creativity were also linked to the type of synaesthesia experienced (Ward et al. 2008). For example, people who had chromaesthesia were more likely to play musical instruments than other synaesthetes. These findings imply that if scientists are able to figure out a way to teach people chromaesthesia, it may enhance how well people learn to read and compose music.

Daniel has recently got into modern dance music. ‘With classical music I experience many different colours, but as house music is more repetitive, I often see one solid colour appear throughout the tracks. There’s one track I like at the moment by Koan Sound, which starts as an intense yellow and by the end of the song turns into a cascade of blue. The harp sound coming in at the end makes it a dark blue.‘Part of my listening experience is seeing what colours the musical notes evoke. It’s positive, as I get really into it and it’s part of my performance,’ he says. ‘When I’m composing, in my head I can imagine what colours I would see if I was to play it. Composing is months of work condensed into four minutes of playing time. While I’m writing I imagine the colours I see – and when I finally hear it I am amazed.’

Teaching synaesthesia
It is clear that McBride’s synaesthetic associations help him with his music, but where do his associations come from? A study by Witthoft and Winawer (2013) may help answer this question. They tested 11 colour-grapheme synaesthetes and found they had surprisingly similar colour-grapheme pairings (graphemes are the smallest unit of a written word that has meaning). But, with synaesthesia being thought to be predominantly a hereditary condition, why was this the case? The researchers pointed to a surprising answer: the colours they saw matched those of a well-known set of Fisher-Price magnets, which 10 of the 11 participants recalled owning when they were younger. This suggested that environmental associations learnt in childhood had a strong effect on synaesthetic symptoms.

If synaesthesia is partly determined by your perceptual environment, could it be possible to teach certain aspects of the condition? In her lab at the University of East London, research fellow Dr Clare Jonas trains non-synaesthetes for a week to help them associate letters with colours. She does this by continuously exposing a person to a letter associated with a particular colour. After training them, she gives them word lists containing achromatic (colourless) words, words with colours congruent to the colours they learned, and words with colours incongruent with the colours they learned.

Jonas often finds that the non-synaesthetes start to behave in a way synaesthetes do – they are often more likely to remember congruent and achromatic words, but find it difficult to remember incongruent words, relative to non-synaesthetes who hadn’t been trained. These outcomes suggest that certain aspects of synaesthesia could be taught. Nicolas Rothen’s work also supports this theory – he reviewed all of the research in the area and found that some aspects of synaesthesia were transferrable to non-synaesthetes (Rothen & Meier, 2014). However, a lot of the effects depended on the intensity and duration of the training and the intrinsic motivation of the participant to take part in the experiment.

If aspects of synaesthesia can be taught, does this mean there is potential to augment memory in non-synaesthetes by teaching them synaesthesia? ‘At the moment we know that synaethesia has benefits for memory in young adults, but we don’t know whether it has a protective effect on memory as we get older,’ Jonas says. ‘Memory declining later in synaesthetes would be an obvious prediction. If that is the case, synaethesia training could be used to either protect or improve the memory of older people.’

Jonas’s method of teaching synaesthesia isn’t the only method that might work. Olympia Colizoli, an Assistant Professor in Brain and Cognition at the University of Amsterdam, adopts a more passive approach when training her non-synaesthetes. She has them read books with repeating differently coloured letters to prime them into future synaesthetic associations. In one of her experiments, she coloured the letters a, e, s and t in the book, but left the other letters in black. After training, she flashed letters of the alphabet quickly and asked participants to identify the letter’s matching colour. In the test Cozoli purposely showed some of the coloured letters in a different colour to what they were in the book. She found that it took people who had been trained (or taught aspects of synaesthesia) longer to identify those colours than those who hadn’t been taught – they experienced interference in reaction time known as the Stroop effect (Stroop, 1935). This would have occurred because of the involuntary associations non-synaesthetes formed after being trained. The results showed that this method of training is successful, at least in the short term (Colizoli et al., 2014).

Other, more recent research suggests that taught synaesthesia can have long-lasting effects. A paper published by Rothen and his colleagues found that non-synaesthetes were able to learn synaesthetic characteristics that remained present when they left the lab. Results such as these, along with other those of other training studies, imply that synaesthesia isn’t just a hereditary condition, but is shaped by exposure to certain environmental factors during our early development. Other research supports the environmental theory too, finding that coloured synaesthetic associations can be blunted by negative moods (Kay et al., 2014).

Implications for treating disorders
Researcher and installation artist Barbara Ryan has gone a step further by formulating ideas to help synaesthetes with neurodegenerative disorders cope better. A grapheme-colour synaesthete herself, she tells me: ‘I worked with a person who could no longer use a telephone – she had to wait for everyone to phone her. Although she was losing the ability to read language, replacing people’s names with colours or characters helped her remember what names matched with what numbers.’ Ryan believes that a lot can be done with synaesthesia and memory. ‘I actually think that synaesthetic techniques could be used to help with disorders like dyslexia. I think synaesthetic techniques can be used as a learning aid in some cases. A friend of mine is dyslexic and has trouble with certain letters, so I asked him what letters he had problems with. I then asked him what kind of associations he had with those letters. Initially, he didn’t think he had any, but I told him to take his time and think about it. I then formatted the text so that the letters he had trouble with were now in colour, and straight away he could read it in a way he couldn’t before. They became recognisable. Recognition is a lot quicker with synaesthesia, as you have more than one mode of stimulation coming in.’

Barbara Ryan mixes 'taste of November' cocktails as part of a 2010 installation.

Synaesthesia doesn’t just have potential benefits for memory and creativity – some believe that synaesthetic interventions can help treat mental health disorders. Ian Jordan, from Ayr, Scotland, describes himself as ‘an optician with a difference’. He employs synaesthetic methods to try to reduce the effects of different multisensory disorders, such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD. ‘We use and monitor synaesthesia in a lot of interventions,’ he says. ‘Sensory processing disorders are often synonymous with synaesthesia. We think that tinnitus in some ways is a synaesthetic condition. If you change the visual input significantly, you can tune the sound out in the hearing for around 60 per cent of people. It’s a synaesthetic effect that probably hasn’t been recognised as one.’

‘Professionals need to be more aware of synaesthesia,’ Ian tells me. ‘They need to be trained to understand and work with it. Many opticians haven’t even heard of it. We need to have opticians, occupational psychologists and therapists working together as a minimum.’

Nicolas Rothen gives his predictions for the future. ‘In the last decade, people were concerned about showing that synaesthesia was a real phenomenon, but now, people are looking into what the effects of synaesthesia are on higher cognitive functions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of synaesthesia? Is it linked to conditions like schizophrenia or autism?’ Clearly, we still have a lot to learn.


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Synesthesia: a new approach to understanding the development of perception

In this article, the authors introduce a new theoretical framework for understanding intersensory development. Their approach is based upon insights gained from adults who experience synesthesia, in whom sensory stimuli induce extra cross-modal or intramodal percepts. Synesthesia appears to represent one way that typical developmental mechanisms can play out by magnifying connections present in early life that are pruned and/or inhibited during development but persist in muted form in all adults. As such, the study of synesthesia provides valuable insights into the nature of intersensory development. The authors review evidence on the perceptual reality and neural basis of synesthesia, then summarize developmental models and evidence that its underlying mechanisms are universal in adults. They illustrate how evidence for consistent sensory associations in adults leads to predictions about toddlers' perception and present 3 bodies of work that have confirmed those hypotheses. They end by describing novel hypotheses about intersensory development that arise from this framework. Such intersensory associations appear to reflect intrinsic sensory cortical organization that influences the development of perception and of language and that may constrain the learning of environmentally based associations.

Is synesthesia tied to experience? - Psychology

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr. John Harrison want to hear from women synaesthetes who are pregnant or have young infants. They need volunteers for a new study on infancy and synaesthesia. Contact Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen by email or at the ISA, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB UK. (Simon Baron-Cohen is a UK scientist who theorizes that synesthesia is the normal state of the brain in infancy and that most people lose it in favor of perceptual modularity through the normal course of development. See his writings (noted below) or his article in the journal Psyche for more complete details.)

Dr. Richard Cytowic is a US researcher who believes that synesthesia is a special ability possessed only by a certain few individuals. See his writings (noted below) or his article in the journal Psyche for more complete details.

Dr. Peter Grossenbacher and doctoral student Chris Lovelace use structured interviews to investigate the range of synesthetic experience. They suggest that similarities to non-synesthetic perception provide clues about the underlying nature of synesthesia.

Dr. John Harrison welcomes volunteers with colored hearing synaesthesia to participate in his ongoing study which looks at brain activity in people with synaesthesia. He can be contacted by email or by phone at 01223-3336098.

Tony Monaco of the Wellcome Centre for Molecular Genetics in Oxford, UK, is carrying out a "linkage study" of families in which several families have synaesthesia. The researchers want to know if synaesthesia is genetic, and if it is, how it is passed on. He is looking for volunteers who are prepared to give a blood sample for genetic analysis. He can be contacted through Shehlagh Eggo at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK Tel. 01223-333557 for further information.

Membership in the ISA is available by contacting Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen at Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, United Kingdom, or Carol Steen in the US. (Yearly dues are $10.00 US, $12.00 Canadian or 5 Pounds British Sterling. The dues include the receipt of 2 newsletters yearly and notification of the ISA yearly meeting.