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.

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  • Nicki  On August 1, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly
    long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted to say excellent blog!

    • Anna  On December 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm

      Hi Nicki, my name is Anna and I am an UK based PhD researcher looking for super-recognizers for my eye-movement research. If you live in UK and would be interested in taking part, please contact me. Our lab will cover your travel expenses and reimburse you for your time. Contact details are available here- Cheers, Anna

  • C. Wright  On August 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Sorry Nicki, I can’t find your first comment. I find it’s best to log in to blogs before trying to leave a comment, or else copy the comment just in case. Thanks for your kind encouragement. I’ve had a rather uninspiring day, so that’s most welcome.

    I’ve had a quick look at your blog, and I wish you the best of luck with your quest to bring your husband to live in your home country.

  • cosmogoblin  On October 6, 2016 at 4:54 am

    Hi, just to let you know – I’m a low-level synaesthete (just number-form), and also have some prosopognasia (not debilitating, but enough to make my job as a teacher just a bit trickier).

    I found this site wondering if my number-form synaesthesia came at the expense of my face-recognition ability!

  • C. Wright  On October 6, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    I can’t offer an authoritative answer about whether or not your synaesthesia and moderate/mild prosopagnosia are related or just coincidental. My guess is that there are different clusters of types of syn that relate to different genes for syn, some of which might give rise to hyperconnectivity and others which might give rise to unusually uneven connectivity in the brain, causing a mixture of syn and any of the things that could be caused by lack of connectivity such as proso or dyslexia etc. There certainly are plenty of people who claim to have both syn and proso, but for sure, both atypicalities need to be confirmed with tests such as the CFMT and the Synesthesia Battery (which cannot confirm all types of syn). If there is a fairly common gene for uneven connectivity, it must come with some type of advantage, otherwise it wouldn’t be fairly common.

    I’m of the opinion that there are different genes for numbers or dates in space type syn and the colourful sequences types involving letters and months etc. I have lots and lots of types of syn, but not time units or numbers with spatial locations, and this seems to be true of my synaesthete blood relatives. We also do not seem to have any of the atypicalities that have been theorised as caused by hypoconnectivity such as proso or dyslexia or tone deafness.

    I think the time sequences in space type of syn is a quite different world than the one I experience, and I have respect for it because there’s evidence that people who have it possess a number of areas of superior ability that I do not believe I have, including important stuff like memory for events. See this study: It is really interesting and if you read the full text you might notice my name in the acknowledgements. I suspect that people who see sequences of time in space are more organised than most in relation to time and planning and also memory for events placed into the context of time. In contrast, I always have to ask other people when filling in the date on forms, as I never have an awareness of what day or month it is at any one time. I do not have a calendar in my brain, as some people do.

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