Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dr Kevin Mitchell has a blog

I’ve just discovered that Dr Kevin Mitchell from Trinity College in Dublin has a blog and also a lab website. If you asked me to cite the synaesthesia researchers whose work most interests me, for sure Dr Mitchell and also Dr Julia Simner from the University of Edinburgh would be on that list. If you’ve found stuff that I’ve written here about synaesthesia interesting, I think there’s a fair chance that you’d also find Dr Mitchell’s blog of interest.

Wiring the Brain

Developmental Neurogenetics – Dr Kevin Mitchell


Wish I had time to read this – journal paper from last year about Williams syndrome, music and synesthesia or synaesthesia-like experiences

What exactly do people who have Williams syndrome experience when they listen to music?


Auditory Attraction: Activation of visual cortex by music and sound in Williams syndrome.

Tricia A. Thornton-Wells, Chris J. Cannistraci, Adam Anderson, Chai-Youn Kim, Mariam Eapen, John C. Gore, Randolph Blake, and Elisabeth M. Dykens
Am J Intellect Dev Disabil. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 March 1.
PMCID: PMC2862007

Published in final edited form as: Am J Intellect Dev Disabil. 2010 March; 115(2): 172–189. doi: 10.1352/1944-7588-115.172.


A link between autism and super-recognizer ability, or am I reading this wrong?

I was just having a look at an Australian/UK study of face recogniton ability that was published last year in the open-access science journal PLoS One. The subjects in one of the two studies reported in this paper were parents of autistic kids, and they were tested with the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The CFMT happens to be one of the tests that were used in the 2009 paper by Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama that established the concept of the super-recognizer. There are a couple of problems with comparing scores between these different papers – the 2009 paper used both the short and long forms of the CFMT and gave raw scores, while the 2010 paper used only the 72 question short form of the CFMT and gave age-standardized z-scores based on a study of the Australian population. But having looked at the 2009 study I don’t think the long form does that much better a job of sorting the super-recognizers from the controls than the short form does.

I’m happy to stand corrected, but to my eye it looks as though there is an interesting score in the CFMT reported in Figure 2 of the 2010 paper. If the vertical axis is in standard deviations then I guess that the top score from a father of an autistic child that is nearly level with the number two is close to super-recognizer class. He almost looks like an outlier. According to the authors of the 2010 paper, none of the parents of autistic kids in this study scored in the range of prosopagnosics, who apparently typically score less than two standard deviations below the control mean.

Definitions of prosopagnosiacs and super-recognizers can be found in the 2009 paper; “Most developmental prosopagnosics we have tested in our laboratories score around 2–3 SDs below normal on the CFMT short form. In comparison, 3 super-recognizers scored around 2 SDs above the mean on the CFMT long form.” It appears that the short and long forms of the CFMT are comparable with regard to SDs and face-blindness, and also I presume with regard to super-recognizers. What would really be interesting would be to see what kinds of scores the autistic kids would get on these tests.


Wilson CE, Freeman P, Brock J, Burton AM, Palermo R (2010) Facial Identity Recognition in the Broader Autism Phenotype. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12876. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012876

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 2009 Apr;16(2):252-7.

The more important posts in this blog

In this blog I have described a number of types of synaesthesia that I experience which I believe possibly have not already been described by scientists. Perhaps my experiences are very common. Perhaps they are very rare. I don’t know. You tell me.

Report on my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia

A Most Peculiar Experience (my description of The Strange Phenomenon)

Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization (IMLM) – what the heck is that?

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome?

My Brain Put to the Test

A brief report on my synaesthesia experiences that involve concepts as triggers or evoked experiences

Super-recognizer test? Forget it mate!


A brief reflection on grapheme -> colour synaesthesia

What does grapheme -> colour synaesthesia tell us about the brain? I guess it tells us that there must be in the brain, or at least in the brains of colour-synaesthetes, one particular area devoted to each of every colour imaginable. Why do I believe this? Because the colours that are connected to letters or numbers or other things in this type of synaesthesia are incredibly specific and stable. Even the most dreary-coloured letter in my alphabet will be exactly the same colour next year that it was ten years ago, for me. So it follows that there must be a hard-wired connection between the part of my brain that “does” one letter of the alphabet and the part of the brain that “does” that dull, unmemorable but very particular colour that the letter has always been associated with. It follows that there must be very specific parts of the brain for very specific colours. So, does that mean that there must be a specific part of the brain for every concievable variation of colour? Well, I guess if a colour is conceivable to an individual person, there must be a part of their brain that represents it. I couldn’t guess how many colours or brain locations that would be. It would have to be something huge. So does everyone have a part of the brain that codes for a range of colours that is like the colour sample wall at a big hardware store?

Could there be individual variation in the size of the range of colours? Perhaps people who don’t have a very nuanced perception of colour have a brain that has a lot less “places” for colours than other people. For a long time I have suspected that even people who are not colour-blind can have a diminished ability to perceive colours. I recently attended a semi-public talk with a Powerpoint presentation of a bar graph which was explained by a highly educated authority figure in our community. I noticed that he kept referring to blue bars, but there were no blue bars. There were mauve bars, but definitely not any blue bars. I know perfectly well what blue looks like, and mauve and purple and lavender and the colour that I call violet. I don’t think any of the more common forms of colour-blindness could account for the lecturer’s mislabelling of colour, but I’ve noticed that an inability to tell the difference between purples and blues, and to a lesser degree the difference between blues and greens, is a very common thing, even among intelligent people who should have good brains. Do some people have a colour disability that is brain-based, unlike the recognized type of colour-blindness which is caused by a defect in the colour-perceiving hardware in the eyes?

Another instance comes to mind, of my concept -> visual scene synaesthesia

The concept of the sense of freedom, confidence and peace that can be acquired by travelling alone in a remote place -> a not very interesting scene at a track leading onto a main road somewhere near Finke Station, Chamber’s Pillar and a barren landscape of meteorite craters in the NT.

I’ve heard on the radio that the Finke Desert Race has recently been run. I’ve travelled part of this track myself, and it was a most odd experience. Dirt tracks that have been driven on too fast develop corrugations, which can be hard to travel on and can cause quite dangerous driving conditions. The dirt track that was I assume used for this Finke race was, at the time that I visited many years ago, not so much corrugated as waved. Driving along it in my 4WD was more like voyaging on a choppy sea in my Dad’s boat than driving in the desert – scary and funny at the same time. Who would have thought that seasick tablets would be required for a desert trek? I imagine this track would be a very noisy place during the race, but when I was there the lack of sound was incredible. The tiniest bird tweets were striking. Much of the scenery from this track was also striking. I recall seeing the type of landscape that is known as “jump ups”. Unfortunately I can find no photographs of beautifully eroded hills of this distinctive shape. The famous Chamber’s Pillar gives some idea of what this looks like.

Here are some images of scenery from this area:

a piece of music that seems to resonate with the idea of travelling alone through stunning desert scenery – Better Living Through Chemistry by the Queens of the Stone Age:

More most interesting comments

(this post edited a number of times June 17th 2011)

I have recently received another most interesting comment at this blog, this one a comment on the previous post “Synaesthesia linking concepts with scenes”, and I have replied with my own comment that is as long a blog post. We had quite a discussion about our similar, but not identical, brain-based experiences. You might find this interesting. Many thanks to the people who have shared accounts of their experiences!

This means I now know of four people living in four different countries, including myself here in Australia, who experience or apparently experience visual scenes triggered by thinking of particular concepts. One thing that I and some others want to know is how common this experience is. I suspect that we are a not-insubstantial minority, but I know of no published information about or published descriptions of this phenomenon. If anyone can let me know about any such already-published information about this type of experience, I’d be very appreciative. I believe it is a type of synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia linking concepts with scenes – maybe not so hard to explain, and maybe not really so strange?

I have recently been reading the chapter about synaesthesia in V. S. Ramachandran’s latest book about neuroscience, and among many other interesting things Ramachandran explained that some simple concepts are processed in the temporal lobes. This is the general part of the brain that I believe is hyper-developed or hyper-connected in my case, and it is the part of the brain in which the fusiform gyrus is located, where the recognition of faces, bodies, scenes, numbers and words is done, and colour is processed. I know as the result of testing that I have an above-average ability in face recognition, possibly in the super-recognizer class, and I also experience types of synaesthesia that involve faces, scenes, colours, words, letters and numbers, so I think I’m on solid ground when I assert that there is something interesting about my fusiform gyrus. Like many synaesthetes I also experience synaesthesia triggered by listening to music, and I believe that appreciating music has an unusual prominence in the lives of me and some of my synaesthete relatives. This type of thing is thought to be associated with the temporal lobes which do auditory processing among many other things, so I believe that whatever is different about my fusiform gyrus or (gyri?) is not limited to it but extends into the temporal lobes. So I was particularly interested that the processing of simple concepts goes on in the temporal lobe, because another type of synaesthesia that I experience links concepts with visual scenes which are processed in the fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobes. If these concepts are also processed in the temporal lobes, that would be another type of synaesthesia of mine that is a purely intra-temporal lobe phenomenon, and therefore a scientific explanation of many of the synaesthesia experiences of mine could be explained in one very short phrase; bushy temporal lobes. But I’m not completely sure that the types of concepts that my mind links with scenes are the same type of thing that goes on in the temporal lobes. This is the passage from page 104 of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran:

“Brain damage can make a person lose the ability to name tools but not fruits and vegetables, or only fruits and not tools, or only fruits but not vegetables. All of these concepts are stored close to one other in the upper parts of the temporal lobes, but clearly they are sufficiently separated so that a small stroke can knock out one but leave the others intact. You might be tempted to think of fruits and tools as perceptions rather than concepts, but in fact two tools – say, a hammer and saw – can be visually as dissimilar from each other as they are from a banana; what unites then is a semantic understanding about their purpose and use.”

This is a list of some of the concepts that are involved with the concept->scene synaesthesia of mine:
the concept of a bad “state housing” area that one could conceivably find one’s self living in if one’s life went to hell
the concept of Charles Darwin
the concept of Charles Darwin coming to terms with the death of a child
the concept of adoption
the concept of doing one’s own tax return
the concept of cooking with lard
the concept of Bettina Arndt
the concept of the toy the sketch-a-graph.

These concepts aren’t quite as simple as the conceptual categories of “fruits” or “tools”. Is this really the same type of conceptual thinking as that described by Ramachandran? I really don’t know. Maybe I would have more of a clue if I could find the time to read through an interesting-looking paper that I have found on the internet; The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain by
Alex Martin. I’ve had a quick look at the paper, and I have spotted a couple of interesting things on page 32, a truly amazing misspelling of the word “synaesthete” and what appears to be confirmation that different types of grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involve different parts of the brain. I’m betting that my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia involves the ventral temporal cortex rather than sites in the occipital cortex, because for me the colours of the alphabet are experienced as knowledge of the colours of letters more than a perception of the colours of letters. This doesn’t make the experience any less real or specific. I can still “see” the colours very clearly in my mind’s eye.

I’ve had some thoughts about my concept -> scene and scene -> concept synaesthesia, and I think it could be the case that it only seems to be a strange and nonsensical way of thinking because it has been taken out of the context in which it evolved, and placed into this abstracted, complex, high-speed modern world that we live in. As I have previously observed, often there is a semantic relationship between the place seen in the scene and the concept, and sometimes the scene is of a place that I visited or frequented during the period of time when I was introduced to the concept or was thinking intensively about that concept. This would appear to be a completely useful and sensible way to think, with a thought triggering a real and visible scene illustrating and spatially locating the concept. Maybe a pre-historic human thinking with this type of synaesthesia might experience an appetite for a particular type of seafood, and then in her mind, helpfully, in response to the concept of that specific type of seafood, flashes the scene of the exact beach where she previously went hunting successfully for that particular seafood delicacy. I’ve had a little bit of experience hanging out with fishermen who knew what they were doing, and I know that catching a fish often requires knowing and doing exactly the correct thing – being in the right place at the right time with exactly the right bait and tackle for the specific thing that you are hunting. Casual attitudes and fuzzy thinking don’t get results. The exact nature of synaesthesia seems to fit in with this type of task. In the stable, predictable world of the hunter-gatherer in which there isn’t much abstract thinking to complicate life, this type of synaesthesia could possibly be a most useful tool of the mind, retrieving memories of exact locations just when they are required. One has to wonder if this type of thinking would have been so useful that everyone should have evolved to have it. Was synaesthesia the norm rather than the exception in early humans? Is my mind an atavism, or could it be a souvenir of a liaison between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal race? Or is it true that this phenomenon isn’t synaesthesia at all, but a completely normal synaesthesia-like thing that is so ordinary that people don’t notice or discuss it?

Having a mind that automatically connects concepts with scenes might have been a very useful and sensible thing in the early times of our species, but when we link concepts with scenes in a mind that is living in the modern industrialized world, things can start to look a bit weird, because there has been an explosion of more abstract thought and complex learning, bringing with it a massive range of possible concepts to think about. In prehistoric times there were no tax returns or underclass suburbs or female sex therapists with gruff voices and high media profiles. It’s a strange old world that we live in, and as synaesthesia involves our thoughts and perceptions of this world, it should probably look just as strange.


A brief report on my synaesthesia experiences that involve concepts as triggers or evoked experiences

Martin, Alex The Representation of Object Concepts in the Brain. Annual Review of Psychology. 2007. 58:25–45.
First published online September 1, 2006.
The Annual Review of Psychology is online at
This article’s doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190143

Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.