Monthly Archives: January 2011

I’ve got my chits together: gathering up my collection of records of my fine-motor movement -> visual memories of places synaesthesia

Over a period of a year or two I have been keeping a record of my fine motor movements -> visual memories of places synaesthesia. This is a type of synaesthesia that I have never seen described in anecdotes or in the scientific literature. This synaesthesia is relevant to the strange phenomenon that I described in my first post in this blog because the strange phenomenon involves face recognition, and there seems to be some type of scientific consensus that there is a close association in the brain between face recognition and scene recognition, and there are only two types of things that I see in my mind’s eye as visualised memories triggered by synaesthesia – one person’s face (in the strange phenomenon), and scenes of places that I have visited in the past. Face and place recognition are both thought to be both done in the same part of the brain or adjacent parts of the brain (Sacks 2010 p. 102), most likely in the fusiform gyrus, so I have good reasons to believe there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus, or in the structure of the nerves that connect it to the rest of the brain. The fact that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, a type of synaesthesia associated associated with extra activation in the fusiform gyrus (Rouw and Scholte 2007) and greater volume in the grey matter of the right fusiform gyrus (Weiss and Fink 2008) only adds to the certainty that my fusiform gyrus is not your average fusiform gyrus. Face recognition appears to generally rely on the fusiform gyrus in the right side of the brain, which is exactly the part of my brain that should have an unusually great volume of grey matter, given that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Anyone who has an keen interest in evolutionary psychology should have noticed here an important hint as to why grapheme-colour synaesthetes have evolved. Perhaps as a group our face recognition abilities are enhanced? Someone should do a study. So, my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia, my fine-motor chore -> scene memory synaesthesia and my strange phenomenon, in which the sight of a face is a synaesthesia trigger for a visual memory of another face, are three unusual neurological oddities of mine that are clearly inter-connected. This is why me seeing visual memories of places that I’ve been to in past while cooking or washing things is an important piece of the puzzle in my investigation of the strange phenomenon, though it isn’t completely clear what we are to conclude from this information. I explained how learned fine-motor movements fit into this puzzle in my post The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome? which can be found by clicking on the tag for “Benson’s syndrome”, so I won’t repeat that part of the story here.

This fine-motor movement-triggered synaesthesia typically happens when I am doing very mundane household chores. When I do one very specific movement with my hands and arms (housework), it will trigger in my mind’s eye a vivid visual memory of one very specific scene of a place that I have visited some time in my past. Another very specific chore will trigger a visual memory of some other very specific place, and there are many different examples of this effect. The funny thing about this type of synaesthesia is that it never seems to trigger a memory of a place that I visit often or keenly anticipate revisiting – the places that I get to revisit via memory are places that I no longer have a connection to, such as homes that relatives moved out of decades ago or beaches that I no longer live near, or places that I wasn’t much impressed with, such as dreary regional cities like Bunbury and Mackay, miserable public places or ugly streetscapes in working-class suburbs. This is why I sometimes call this my dragged down memory lane synaesthesia. It helps to make the drudgery of housework doubly uninspiring.

This memory-related synaesthesia is like being bored in two places at once. It’s like being in two places at once while not wishing to be in either. In fact, I have in the past wondered if the emotion of boredom could play a part in this phenomenon. This thing is a bit of a bummer, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is disturbing. If this synaesthesia was just a bit different it could give rise to some enjoyable daydreams. It could take me back to the home that I grew up in, or a return visit to the top of Uluru, or to a vibrant playground teeming with happy children, but it doesn’t. I don’t have such luck, but then again, maybe this is a good thing. I can imagine that if this type of synaesthesia took me back in time to places that are more desirable than my present environment, I might just be tempted to live in the past in a world of memories. I have wondered if the people who do seem to enjoy living in the past have a type of synaesthesia like the one that I experience, but which brings back more positive memories. I think this could be quite insidious, but this is all just speculation.

Over a long time I have been trying to document this synaesthesia by writing down what the trigger and the visualized memory was whenever I experience this effect. As the details are eminently forgettable, they are usually forgotten a moment after they are experienced, so I make an effort to stop my chores and find a chit of paper and jot down this information. I have planned to collect all these bits of paper and the idea is that I should find that over time that I’ve recorded exactly the same sets of motor triggers and visualised places more than once, confirming that this is a reliable and repeatable phenomenon, and not just random thoughts while doing chores. If this happens it will look like genuine synaesthesia.

This week I was cooking a béchamel sauce, and I found that when I scraped the thick sauce from the sides of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, I automatically saw in my mind’s eye a streetscape somewhere in North Fremantle that I visited once on a bicycle about a quarter of a century ago. I went looking for a chit of paper, but couldn’t see any handy. Then I forgot what the place was that had just flashed through my memory. Then I stirred the sauce again as I didn’t want it to burn, and again I saw in my memory that empty carpark at the back of some large old two-storey  public or business building with reddish bricks somewhere in North Freo. Then I forgot the place again. It was only after three stirs of the pot that I managed to scribble a record of what I had seen and forgotten. That carpark is a very unmemorable carpark, if it still exists at all. Not all of the places that this synaesthesia evokes are old and only visited long ago. When I cut up and tear apart chicken thigh fillets while preparing dinner I will receive a visual memory of an alleyway and a carpark close to a Nando’s chicken-based fast-food outlet in a fairly new suburb of Perth. Sometimes there seems to be a conceptual link between the chore and the place, a chicken chore evoking a streetscape beside a Nando’s, squeezing lemon juice evoking a scene of a garden where a game of “oranges and lemons” was played at a children’s party that I attended as a young child, crushing passionfruit pulp against a strainer with the back of a spoon evoking an ancient memory of an aunt’s garden which probably had a passionfruit vine in it.

For many examples of this synaesthesia no conceptual link between the trigger chore and the evoked scene is apparent, but I have reason to believe that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with conceptual thinking. Another type of synaesthesia that I experience is thoughts about particular concepts triggering visualised memories of places that I have visited in the past.  As far as I know this is another type of synaesthesia that I have that hasn’t been described by scientists. I know that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with the type triggered by fine-motor tasks, because some visualised scenes are involved with both types. This type of messy complexity is not characteristic of descriptions of synaesthesia that are typically found in the scientific literature. I believe this difference between reality and literature is due to the methods of science imposing an over-simplified framework of neatly separated types of synaesthesia which does not really reflect the organic and complex structure of real synesthete brains. Would you really expect that a neurological condition that has been described as “crossed wires” or “mixed senses” would fit neatly within a set of sharply delineated categories?

One thing that I’ve noticed with this synaesthesia is that the memories can be evoked in the same way as normal memories, but are not evoked like memories by the synaesthesia. I can remember that I remember a back street of central Fremantle when I gently push the hard ends of softening spaghetti into a pot of boiling water with my hands, but unless I have made the effort to remember that this happens, I will not be able to just summon up the correct memory that goes with the task unless I actually do it and make the synaesthesia happen. I can also simply try to recall what that part of Freo looks like for navigational reasons, but I suspect that the visual memory that I retrieve in that way will not be as clear or as specific as the spontaneous vision in my mind’s eye that I get from the synaesthesia.

I think it is interesting that my fine-motor triggered synaesthesia seems to indicate that, at least in my brain, memories of places that one does not anticipate revisiting are stored in a separate place than visual memories of places that I visit often or that I would really love to visit again one day. By what mechanism are these memories sorted into separate places, and when during the forming of these memories does this sorting happen? I don’t know if this is stuff that is already known to neuroscientists. Perhaps I unconsciously take more effort in attending to places that I don’t foresee returning to soon, so that a better memory of the place is formed for long-term storage, and for some reason these superior-quality place memories are the only ones triggered by this synaesthesia.

Another thing that is interesting about this synaesthesia is that it is almost indistinguishable from my normal stream of consciousness when my conscious mind is pretty much idle and undistracted while I’m doing tasks that are so well learned that they are done almost automatically. If I didn’t have a keen interest in synaesthesia I would never have identified this seeing of scenes in my mind’s eye as synaesthesia or anything out of the ordinary. Before I figured out that synaesthesia is involved, I had thought that the reason why I often thought of the same places when doing particular chores was possibly because a random neurological paring of task and memory was reinforcing itself each time I did that chore, and two unrelated things were by accident becoming wedded in my mind. Later I realised that there was a set of fine-motor movements which were individually and fixedly paired with another set of visual memories of scenes, and then I realised that this was synaesthesia, because this type of situation is typical of synaesthesia, where you can get a set of letters of the alphabet paired individually and permanently with  a set of colours. The fact that synaesthesia can be so subtle raises a number of questions. How many subtle types of synaesthesia have not yet been identified and studied by science? How many people are synesthetes but don’t realise? How much do my synaesthesia and other neurological oddities influence my idle thoughts and daydreams? Does this matter? How much does synaesthesia influence the way all synaesthetes think? Are the idle thoughts of “normal” non-synaesthete people influenced by subtle and undetected synaesthesias? Is there an interesting diversity in the subject matter of people’s idle thoughts and daydreams which is attributable to neurological differences? Does this matter? All of this seems like small potatoes when one compares this synaesthesia stuff with the influnce that things like sex, worries, enthusiasm and mental illnesses can have on people’s everyday thoughts, but still, I have to wonder, are there people out there who think about faces, voices, objects or text as much as I automatically tend to think about places and scenes?

I decided that this week was the week for gathering up the chits of paper and notes at the bottom of shopping lists that I’ve been collecting for I don’t know how long, stuffed into a file, typed on a sheet and sitting in a heap next to my computer, and sort through what I have recorded. Is this how science is conducted? It doesn’t seem terribly scientific. I have counted my chits and records of this synaesthesia, and I’ve laid them out on the bed and looked at all of the connections. The patterns I have found are much more chaotic but interesting and connected than I had expected. A brief report is in the works.


Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia. Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93.

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007.

Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010.

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008.

A Face to Avoid (on aesthetic grounds at least)

I had known for a long time that the murderer with some type of personality disorder had the same surname as a man who I will refer to as “Mr Train-smash”, a perplexing person who I used to know many years ago. I have also known for a long time that there is a genetic link and a definite family resemblance between Mr Train-smash and Mr Vile. I’m not the only person who thinks Mr Vile is vile. A great many people share my opinion. We have good reasons.

I knew about the shared surname but there was nothing else that I knew of to link these three strange men, so that’s the last I thought of it. Then I was reading the paper and saw a photo of the killer, with his flat cheeks, fairly long face, his underbite and his unattractive eyes, with not just bags under them, but wrinkly pouches under them that look odd in a young man, and something about his eyes that makes one think of Down syndrome. All three men have these features. At least it is some consolation that Mr Murderer won’t be fathering any kids. I don’t think they allow that type of thing in maximum security.

I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’ new book The Mind’s Eye

After I read much of Oliver Sacks’ previous book about the mind and music Musicophilia, which has within it a very good chapter about synaesthesia, I expected that Sacks’ newest book would certainly be worth a look. The Mind’s Eye is about the processing of vision in the brain and visual disorders/disabilities, so it is exactly the right Oliver Sacks book for the moment for me, as I have recently stumbled into a keen interest in matters of the brain and visual images. For a period of over a year I have been experiencing a strange visual/memory phenomenon, which I have named “the strange phenomenon”, and although I have consulted academics, university researchers and experts from all around the world for an opinion on this (without divulging the identities of the people whose faces are involved with the strange phenomenon), as is often the case, I have been left to figure it out myself, which hasn’t been all that bad because this has been a very interesting period of discovery and I’ve always had a keen interest in the life sciences.

The Mind’s Eye is a book that has lived up to my expectations. It has a chapter about a case of Benson’s syndrome (Sacks favours the alternative term for it “posterior cortical atrophy” or PCA). As I have already explained in this blog, in my family there seems to be a gene that gives people a profile of superior abilities that could be described as the opposite of Benson’s syndrome. Benson’s syndrome is degenerative disease that can have as its first symptom the loss of the ability to read.

The book also has a chapter about prosopagnosia (face-blindness) which is an extended version of the interesting magazine article “Face-Blind” that Sacks wrote for New Yorker magazine on this subject. Sacks described his own quite severe inherited developmental prosopagnosia which is accompanied with agnosia for scenes (Sacks favours the alternative term for this “topographical agnosia”). This chapter also mentions super-recognizers. I was quite struck by descriptions in this book of the many ways in which people, including psychiatrists, have misunderstood and misinterpreted the effects of prosopagnosia. Sacks exposes an unpardonable level of ignorance of this disability among medical professionals.

I’ve enjoyed this book, and I’d recommend it to others.

A type of synaesthesia which I experience in which non-food words or names automatically evoke the concepts of particular foods: is lexical-gustatory synaesthesia an evolutionary adaptation?

(last addition April 2015)

pilgrim (word) – fatty roast chicken with nice greasy gravy made from the roasting pan juices with plenty of chicken fat

Crombie (surname) – crumble in a fruit crumble dessert

Abercrombie (surname) – apple crumble

Muriel (name) – bland breakfast cereal with milk

Date (word for unit of time) – date that you eat

Date (slang word for anus) – as above

Dateline (TV program) – date that you eat

testosterone – (word) – Toblerone (brand of very nice chocolate bar)

Blake (name) – Flake bar (a brand of chocolate bar with a distinctive structure)

Debbie, Deb (name) – “Deb” brand instant mashed potato reconstituted, something I’ve only tried very few times, mostly in childhood

Deborah (name) – no associations

vegie (colloquial word) – potato chips or some fried food, the suffix “ie” or “y” turns the word into greasy junk food like a hot potato chip because it transforms the word into slang. I hate the word “vegie” because the food association seems inappropriate or misleading.

vegetable (word) – weak association, mixed steamed vegetables

China (name of a nation, spoken in a cheerful, excited tone by a woman) – glace ginger, a treat I haven’t eaten for years.

Jam (word describing informal musical collaboration) – jam (delicious fruit spread)

Gurkha – gherkin

serial – breakfast cereal

salary – stick of raw celery (I have never liked the taste of raw celery, but don’t mind it cooked in soups)

parsimonious – parsnip (never liked it, only ever ate it as a part of roast dinners made by my mother when I was a kid)

Swede (nationality) – swede, the dullest vegetable of them all, rather like a parsnip but not quite as horrid

macro (word, word prefix) – macaroni cheese

Marconi (surname) – macaroni cheese

Macri (surname) – macaroni cheese

Tonkin (surname, street name) – pumpkin

Duncan (surname, first name) – pumpkin

Barlow, Barwick (surnames) – barley sugar lollies

Bickley (place name) – blackcurrant jam (this concept evokes a visual image in my mind’s eye of a person eating this jam revoltingly while speaking)

Imperatrice (surname) – vanilla rice custard, liquid and sloshy-sounding

Shorten (surname) – Shortbread (Reminds me of that awful “negro” folk song they made us sing in primary school – “Mammies Lil babies love shortnen shortnen bread” When I think about this song it evokes a vision of the scene of one shady part of the school playground near the girls’ toilet block, in an example of my concept – visual memory of a scene synaesthesia.)

Maggie – fried egg

Eric – egg

Clegg (surname) – egg

Parsons (surname) – Parsons Ricecream (vanilla, tinned rice dessert)

Crean (surname) – cream

Kershaw (surname) – cashew

Grille (word) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

Grylls (surname) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

multi (prefix) – malt, malty

Berkshire Hathaway Inc – Yorkshire pudding

Yorkshire – Yorkshire pudding

out to tender, it feels tender -> tender and moist cooked beef

Lamb, Lambe (surname) -> tender and fatty roast lamb (yum!)

minstrel -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mince (sissy mode of walking) -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mints -> mince (cooked ground beef)

fondle -> fondant

jubilation, jubilant -> jube (jelly confectionary)

jubilee -> jube (jelly confectionary)

abscond -> scone

studio -> stew

custody -> custard

customer -> custard

customs -> custard (not as strong an effect evoked by this word as the effect evoked by the word “custody”)

accustomed -> custard, custard cream biscuits

appraise -> braise

praise -> braise

pastor -> pasta

scheme -> ice cream

kidney-shaped dish, pool -> kidney, steak and kidney pie

Kennedy -> kidney

Pye (surname) -> pie

Pi -> pie

Murray -> meat pie

Yokine -> yoghurt

“100 megs” -> nutmeg

Meg -> nutmeg (a spice used in traditional British/Australian cookery, such as sprinkled on top of egg custards or custard tarts)

Charmain -> chow mein

Carmody (surname) -> cardamom (a spice with a strong smell)

Tegan -> Tegel’s Turkeys

Fiona -> Passiona (a brand of soft drink that used to have a little bit of passionfruit juice in it many years ago, but no longer does, and isn’t much good at all)

Prue, Prudence -> prune

Prude -> prune

Kate, Cate -> cake

Charlotte -> chocolate or pudding of some kind

Sophie -> Copha (artery-clogging gunk that is best known as an ingredient of chocolate crackles, a traditional treat for childrens’ parties)

Jessica -> dessicated coconut, as sprinkled on top of my mother’s home-made warm chocolate milk custard, like she made it over 30 years ago

Candy -> rod-shaped mint-flavoured rock candy coloured white and pink

Carmel -> caramel, caramel butters (my favourite type of confectionery as a child)

Hamilton (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Hamil (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Cheryl , Sheryl -> glace cherry, Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

Renee -> Mornay (salmon mornay is a food that I mostly ate as a child, cooked by my Mum)

Rosemary -> the herb Rosemary

Sherwood -> sherbet (can almost taste the fizz)

Sherbet (1970s pop group) -> sherbet (fizzy contectionery)

Fried (surname or part of surname) -> Fried (cooked in fat or oil)

Ceduna (place name) -> tuna

Tunisia (country) -> tuna

Salman (foreign first name) -> salmon

salmon (the colour) – salmon, the fish that can be a food

Breen (surname) -> fishy brine (as in a tin of tuna or salmon)

Jesus -> cheese, cheeses

Cheddle (surname) -> cheddar cheese

Chesney (surname) -> sounds pretty cheesy to me

Bega (place name, cheese brand name) -> cheese

Grattan (surname) -> gratin (french word associated with cheese toppings) -> cheese

Curry (surname and place name) -> classic Australian version of an Indian-style curry, yellow, fairly hot and including ground fenugreek

Mueller (place name, surname) -> museli

Polonium (element in chemistry) – polony

Polonius (name form Shakespeare) -polony

Polonaise (a kind of music) – polony

Bolognese (from Bologa) – spaghetti bolognese

Sardinian (from Sardinia) – sardines

Hutton (street name and surname) -> some kind of nasty fatty smallgood meat product, something like polony with grainy white fat residue on the outside (There is a smallgoods company with this name, and it also sounds like “mutton”)

Murcott (surname) -> apricot (dried, the only type of apricot that I was given as a child) The idea that there is a variety of mandarin that is called a Murcott mandarin is a bit of a mindf…. to me, quite frankly, because the name “Murcott” and the word “mandarin” both automatically make me think of different foods, neither of them being exactly the same as the taste of a Murcott mandarin.

Walcott -> walnut

Waldorf -> walnut

McCusker -> bread crust, cereal rusk

Ryan -> bacon rind, cooked bacon fatty bits

Ayn Rand – -> bacon rind

Marmion -> marmalade (I can almost taste it)

Marmaduke -> marmalade (ditto)

Marshall (surname) -> marshmallow

marshal (word) -> marshmallow

Mandarin (language) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (the Imperial type that is not a hybrid)

mandarin (word) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (I can almost smell it)

lime (as in the white calcium stuff that is very alkaline) -> lime (citrus fruit, lime flavouring)

Frankfurt -> Frankfurt sausage

Maroochydore -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

rifle -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar (these were heavily advertised when I was a kid)

scholarship -> a crispy batter on a piece of fish in fish and chips

scholar -> as above

Heinz (name) -> Heinz tinned food for preschoolers (a tinned product that was on the market when I was a child consisting of chunks of beef and vegetables)

Campbell (surname) – some kind of thickened canned stew or soup with chunks of beef and potato and carrot and stuff

Kojonup (place name) -> coconut

Punnet (word) -> whipping cream in a carton (did I once confuse the words “punnet” and “pint”?)

Notes, Ideas and Questions

So, now you know why I didn’t name any of our kids Tegan or Prue or Carmel. There is actually a synaesthesia-related pattern in the names that I chose for the kids, but that is a subject for another post.

By far most of the foods and drinks that are evoked by this type of syanesthesia are things that I ate during my early childhood, and many of them are food or drinks that I only ate as a child, but not as an adult. At the risk of stating the obvious, the foods and drinks evoked are very delicious. They are things that I very much enjoyed when I was a kid.

There is a definite but subtle distinction to be made between this synaesthesia and learned cultural associations. The name of the city Frankfurt automatically makes me think of those dreadful pinkish-red coloured mini-sausages that have traditionally been cooked in a large pan of hot water for kids’ parties, but the city of Hamburg does not automatically make me think of hamburgers, except in a silly joking sense. There is a definite difference between the way that these names of German cities make me think of specific foods. My association between the place name Bega and cheese is similar to my association between the city Frankfurt and sausages. It is more vivid and automatic than a mere asociation created by the advertising of a brand of cheese. I don’t automatically think of cheese when confronted with the word “coon”, even though Coon is also a well-known brand of cheese. It’s a similar thing with the name Heinz. The association between the name and the food is not merely knowledge of a brand name – the concept of a specific food product is automatically evoked. Bega isn’t a brand-name of cheese that I recall being around in my childhood, so this shows that this type of synaesthesia appears to not be exclusively formed in early childhood. There are quite a few cheese-related associations listed here, so I’d say cheese is a food that has had quite an impact on my mind, probably because it is so very delicious to eat.

My attitude towards this synaesthesia isn’t completely neutral. Food-related surnames seem ridiculous to me and I find it hard to avoid thinking of food when hearing them. Some examples: Mr Peach, Mrs Cherry, Miss Sultana. Yes, I know this seems childish. I am mildly annoyed by the childishness of this synaesthesia. It’s as though part of my brain never grew up.

I consider this type of synaesthesia to be very close to flavoured word synaesthesia or “lexical-gustatory synaesthesia” that has already been described by synesthesia researchers. I don’t quite have this type of synaesthesia. I suspect that this type of synaesthesia might even fall under the definition of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but my synaesthesia always involves words or names that sound similar to food words-none of the words involved in my food-related synaesthesia look like random pairings. This is a feature that has been mentioned in some published descriptions of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but is apparently not a universal feature. On page 149 of the book Wednesday is indigo blue by US synesthesia experts Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman there is a discussion of examples of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia that operate in the same way as mine. Some examples given are:
dogma -> hot dogs
Jackson -> cracker jacks and
Cincinnati -> cinnamon rolls
which looks like exactly the same type of phenomenon as my gustatory synaesthesia. There is something about this synaesthesia that possibly hasn’t been noted by any of the syanesthesia experts – when my mind is hijacked by synaesthesia to involuntarily think about a food when I hear or think of a word that sounds the same or similar to a word for that food, it is as though my synaesthesia nudges an ambiguity in the interpretation of the meaning of words towards the direction of interpreting the word as a food word.

Many of these food concepts and words that evoke food concepts appear to be associated with my early childhood, which is I believe consistent with reports by synaesthesia researchers about flavoured-word synaesthesia, and it is also consistent with the early childhood origins of grapheme-colour synaesthesia (a type of synaesthesia that I also have). Words such as “jubilation” and “praise” and the name “Jesus” are words that haven’t been much a part of my life since my mother dragged us kids to church on Sundays a very long time ago. I remember thinking about cheeses in church when I was a kid when the minister was raving on about Jesus. Perhaps this neurological subversion of The Word of God could explain why the religion meme never flourished in my mind. Foods such as braise, stew, steak and kidney pie, chocolate custard with coconut sprinkled on top, sherbet, Copha, Passiona drink and Frankfurt sausages are also much more a part of my distant childhood past than my present. A range of lollies, all of which are ones I enjoyed as a child, are represented among the concepts evoked by this type of synaesthesia (oh, sweet memories!).

There are only three vegetables represented in this phenomenon, and they are vegetables that I never liked, and which are memorable to me for being unpalatable, but there are lots of lollies represented, desserts, children’s party foods, some spices, a herb, heaps of meat and fish-type foods and even a bit of offal. How strange. Did I actually eat any vegetables during my childhood? Was I a salad-dodger, or were there simply no salads served in our family when I was young? Did vegetables have such little appeal to me when I was young that the thought of them didn’t fire off enough neurons to create a synaesthesia association in my brain, and only the ones that evoked negative feelings had enough impact to become permanently a part of this neuropsycholocial phenomenon? If I had been raised in a non-white-Anglo family, a vegetarian family or a twenty-first century family my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia would have been very different.

Is this type of synaesthesia just a case of mistaken brain connections or is it some archaic type of evolutionary adaptation? Generally what is happening here is that my brain is operating on a hardwired bias towards interpreting words and names that sound a bit like words for foods as words for foods. It is as though my brain is set up to never, ever, ever miss out on noticing any discussion that is relevant to food. You can’t tell me that this wouldn’t be a useful feature to have in the ruthless game of life for our distant human ancestors, who would have lived from hand to mouth, and would have had to hunt, gather, steal or scavenge food to survive. Did I hear someone say “roasted antelope”? Did someone mention peaches? You can call me anything you like except late for breakfast!

Two popular books about synaesthesia that include discussion of the lexical-gustatory synaesthete James Wannerton

Cytowic, Richard E. and Eagleman, David M. Wednesday is indigo blue: discovering the brain of synesthesia. MIT Press, 2009.

Ward, Jamie The frog who croaked blue: synesthesia and the mixing of the senses. Routledge, 2008.

James Wannerton’s web site:

Welcome to the World of Synaesthesia

The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test can be found in a few different places

“Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Revised, Adult)”

“Eyes Test (Adult)”

“Reading the mind in the eyes”

Vision, Memory, and Face Recognition Online

The test can also be found in hard-copy as an appendix of this book:

Baron-Cohen, Simon The Essential Difference. Penguin Books, 2003.

Another interesting recent article in a science magazine about face recognition – why does the ability mature so late in life?

It isn’t clear why face recognition ability should mature so much later in life than other abilities. Research published in the journal Cognition by a team that includes Laura Germine of Harvard University and face recognition researchers Ken Nayayama and Bradley Duchaine has been discussed in ScienceNews. One of the tests used in the study is the Cambridge Face Memory Test. The original paper can be viewed in full text, not behind a paywall.

Bower, Bruce Face memory peaks late, after age 30: Finding challenges view that all mental faculties max out in young adulthood. ScienceNews. January 1st 2011. Vol. 179 No. 1 p.16.,_after_age_30

Germine, Laura T., Duchaine, Bradley, Nakayama, Ken Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, Volume 118, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 201-210

Link between face recognition and synaesthesia becoming obvious – interesting new article about tone-deafness and prosopagnosia in Scientific American magazine

This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!

A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of  amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his  migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!

Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011.

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.

Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4.


Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.

Interesting new article about face processing and prosopagnosia in Discover magazine

This is a most informative article detailing some enlightening research by academics such as cognitive neuroscientist Marlene Behrmann, involving face processing by regular people and by different types of prosopagnosics. It turns out there are important differences between different types of prosopagnosics. An important theory in the science of face processing, the “face space model”,  is explained in this article, and it also explains who the heck Dan and Jim are.

Although synaesthesia is not mentioned in this article, at the end of the article there is a great big hint as to why synaesthesia might be associated with superior face processing abilities (super-recognizers or high ability), and why an under-connected brain might be associated with developmental prosopagnosia (congenital face-blindness).

Zimmer, Carl The brain: seeing the person behind the face. Discover. January-February 2011. Online January 19th 2011.

Do you get this?

Do you find that your ability to spell and edit words correctly can fade if you get very, very tired? I’m generally a pretty sharp speller, so if I find that I’m looking at written words and not getting an instant “feel” for the correctness or incorrectness of the spelling of the words, and have to look at the word and think about the word, that is a sign that it is way past my bedtime. It’s as though words lose their essential “personalities” and become nothing more than strings of letters. When things get that bad there is simply no point battling on, because the brain is unreliable and likely to do more harm than good.

A Forest by The Cure

This is one of those tunes that I would listen to over and over again when I was a pale youth, many years ago. I think it is a particularly memorable song because it evokes such a strong sense of place. Can’t you almost smell the pine trees? This is surely a dark-coloured piece of music.

A sense of place seems to have a central role in the way that my brain works, and it is also a source of happiness and transcendence for me.

Don’t forget to click back once you’ve finished viewing the clip!