Monthly Archives: June 2012

I wish I knew Spanish

This is a Google translation of the publicity blurb of a new Spanish book about synaesthesia:
“What if the words have color? Normally, we see the colors, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the flavors and feel sorry only the things we touch. But this is not always true, newborns experience the sensations coming from the different senses mixed together, as happens to people and adults who experience the phenomenon of synaesthetic perception. When a person perceives synesthetic sensory stimuli, such as listening to a musical note, the note is heard not only more or less acute but also have taste or color. You may know fresh watermelon, or you can see green lemon. Others are synesthetic each letter of a particular color but are written in black, or perceive each number, or days of the week, or month of the year, arranged in front of them at a particular location in space. Why are experiencing these feelings? Can it be avoided? Do they affect other facets of life? Are we all a little synesthetes? Scientific research is uncovering the secrets of synesthesia to answer these questions, and also lead to a radical rethinking of how our senses are organized and how the brain allows us to interpret the complex world we live and unfold it.”

It sounds interesting. Pity I don’t know the language.

Sinestesia: El color de las palabras, el sabor de la música, el lugar del tiempo…

Alicia Callejas (Autor/a), Juan Lupiáñez (Autor/a)
Colección: Alianza Ensayo

Sinetisia – Facultad de Psicología – Universidad de Granada

A 100% certain sighting – what makes a face interesting?

I have had the unexpected opportunity to see Jean properly at close range for the first time in something like ten years, and I’m thoroughtly disgusted that she doesn’t look any older. There’s no doubt that I’ve changed for the worse. I’d like to know her secret. Jean is notable because her face, and to be completely correct, her personality as manifested in her face and voice and typical expressions, is the concurrent in a particularly interesting type of synaesthesia which I experienced on a few occasions over a period of a few months a couple of years ago. It was an interesting type of synesthesia because it appears to be a mixture of synaesthesia and face recognition, experienced by a person (me) who gets face memory test scores in the range consistent with being a super-recognizer. I believe I am the first and the only person in the world to describe such an experience, which I gave the title of The Strange Phenomenon. Jean is working in pretty-much the same job for the same large organization that she was working in ten-odd years ago. Maybe she had always been doing shifts here and there somewhere. The day I met her was a chance deviation from my usual routine in my usual neighbourhood.

This sighting has given me the opportunity to answer a few questions about Jean’s appearance and The Strange Phenomenon that have been unanswered for a couple of years. Firstly, Jean does have a face that has many features that look the same as John’s face (John’s face is the inducer or trigger of the particular type of synaesthesia). Jean’s colouring, nose, lips and ears do look similar to John’s. Both wear glasses and short hair all the time and both have uninteresting, drab eyes. John is always clean-shaven. Despite these similarities, she isn’t John’s female double, as I think their faces have quite different shapes. When I saw Jean I didn’t think “Wow, looks like John!”, I thought “Wow, it’s Jean, and the ***** hasn’t aged!” The sight of Jean’s face did not trigger any type of synaesthesia, and it did not trigger any memory or vision of John’s face. I can’t completely rule out the possibility that The Strange Phenomenon might work as a two-way type of synaesthesia, because I didn’t stare at Jean’s face for long, and I think The Strange Phenomenon takes some time to be set off. It requires a quite focused attention, which is I think pretty typical of synaesthesia.

I now think it is plausible that The Strange Phenomenon happens solely because from a certain angle Jean and John’s faces look similar in a sufficient number of ways that it triggers some critical threshold of visual recognition (and be reminded that it only happened when John’s face was viewed under specific conditions from a 45 degree angle). Perhaps there is more to it than that, because there is still the question of why my mind would retain a visual memory for several years (with amazing clarity) of the face and manner of a woman who was nothing more to me than a person occasionally seen at the other side of a service desk. I’ve previously explained that I find John’s face more interesting than most and it holds my attention, and I’d say the same about Jean’s. She is one of the many quite unfortunate people who are born with facial features that can subtly give the false impression of a particular mood by virtue of the innate shape of one or more features. Sometimes people with heavy or oddly-shaped eyebrows have a look of gravity that isn’t really a reflection of their true mood or personality. Jean happens to have a nose and mouth that give her face a somewhat mean or angry look about it, and I think this aspect of her face frequently unconsciously draws attention from the parts of the brain that monitor facial expressions, and then it is up to the conscious mind to correct the feeling that I might be in the presence of a person in an unsympathetic mood. I think there are some faces which play merry hell with the various face processing modules in the brain, playing one off against the other, creating ambiguity and uncertainty, and I think this might be why some faces are so much more interesting than others. Well, I find them interesting.

Battered and unappreciated sculpture depicting a personified object

Macca's burger monster sculpture on drive-thru bollard

Burger monster sculpture on drive-thru bollard at a McDonalds restaurant

Sculptures of personified objects are everywhere. This one has seen better days. I’m not quite sure why this cute metal face-like hamburger bollard decoration makes me think of live scallop shells. I used to collect sea shells as a child and was once frightened after picking up what I thought was an empty scallop shell, to find that it was alive and it leaped out of my hand.

Grow Your Own by James Angus – another sculpture in Perth that looks like a personified thing

Grow Your Own by James Angus, sculpture in Forrest Place, Perth, Western Australia

Grow Your Own by James Angus, sculpture in Forrest Place, Perth, Western Australia

Grow Your Own by James Angus, sculpture in Forrest Place, Perth, Western Australia

Grow Your Own by James Angus, sculpture in Forrest Place, Perth, Western Australia

Perth Train Station lego sculpture at Claremont Showgrounds exhibition 2012

Lego sculpture of Perth Train Station and surrounds at Claremont Showgrounds exhibition 2012

I’ve heard this prominent sculpture in the centre of Perth at Forrest Place unofficially described as a “dancing cactus”, but when was the last time that you saw a cactus dance? This seems to be the personification of an inanimate object, a phenomenon of the mind which could be the result of a range of causes: a well-cultivated imagination, hallucinatory drug usage, illness affecting the mind or perhaps a type of synaesthesia which involves thinking about concepts or objects as though they have personal attributes, attitudes, expressions or movements. The classic example of this is the involuntary association of letters of the alphabet and/or numbers with personal characteristics such as genders and ages and personalities, which is known as ordinal-linguistic personification, but all kinds of other things can be personified. The official title of the large green cactus-like sculpture in the Perth CBD suggests some kind of link with an illicit mind-bending drug, so it seems reasonable to speculate that this was the inspiration for this design. I don’t do drugs but I do experience ordinal-linguistic personification and I can certainly see what is “cactus” about this sculpture and also what is “dancing” about it, but I guess this could be an interpretation or perception which is assessable to just about anyone. When I look at the thing I see a group of cactus dancers with their heels rather awkwardly sticking out in mid-air. Do you see that? In an article about this sculpture which was published in The West last year, the great green thing was described as lively, playful and off-balance, which is generally what you are when you are dancing. It is the cactus that dances.

Some press articles about the dancing cactus:

Great green giant graces city. by Stephen Bevis The West Australian. August 18, 2011.

Exclusive interview with the Perth Cactus. by Jimmy The Exploder PerthNow. September 20, 2011.

Is synaesthesia caused by low levels of complement? Is Benson’s syndrome (PCA) caused by too much complement C3? Could synesthesia and posterior cortical atrophy be considered in some way opposites?

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post and using it as your own work without giving me (C. Wright, author of the blog “Am I a Super-recognizer?”) the proper acknowledgement and citations, then think again. If you do that you will be found out and you will regret it. If you want to make reference to this post or any of the ideas in it make sure that you state in your work exactly where you first read about these ideas. If you wish to quote any text from this post be sure to cite this post at this blog properly. There are many established citation methods. If you quote or make reference to material in this blog in your work, it would be a common courtesy to let me know about your work (I’m interested!) in a comment on any of the posts in this blog. Thank you.

A quote from New Scientist magazine about a study of microglia responding to changes in synaptic function in mice by Assistant Professor Beth Stevens and colleagues:

“Synapses were marked out for destruction through labelling with an immune chemical called C3”

Immune cells gobble up healthy but idle brain cells. 1 June 2012 by Andy Coghlan New Scientst. Magazine issue 2867.

A quote about her research at Prof Stevens’ professional web page:

“C1q and downstream complement proteins target synapses and are required for synapse elimination in the developing visual system.”

Beth Stevens, PhD, Boston Children’s Hospital

A quote from Wikipedia about synaesthesia:

“This cross-activation may arise due to a failure of the normal developmental process of pruning, which is one of the key mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, in which connections between brain regions are partially eliminated with development.”

Wikipedia contributors Neural basis of synesthesia.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 May 2012, 01:45 UTC,

A quote from Wikipedia about Benson’s syndrome or Posterior Cortical Atrophy:

“The disease causes atrophy of the back (posterior) part of the cerebral cortex, resulting in the progressive disruption of complex visual processing.

Wikipedia contributors Posterior cortical atrophy Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 February 2012, 22:34 UTC,

Two quotes by me from this blog:

“The idea that I have something like the opposite of Benson’s syndrome would neatly draw together all the elements of some odd phenomena that I have observed over a number of years…”

“I guess the million-dollar question is  – why does Benson’s syndrome affect only some specific parts of the brain? What is it about a certain group of areas of the brain that appear to make these areas prone to hyperconnectivity in some families, and vulnerable to dysfunction in Benson’s syndrome? Is there some magic chemical or process that regulates growth in these areas of the brain? I doubt that the answer could be so simple.”

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome? by C. Wright Am I a Super-recognizer? January 4, 2011.

My doubt has suddenly evaporated! Could complement be the “magic chemical”? Where’s my Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?

The DOI link in the New Scientist article discussed above doesn’t work, but I’m quite sure this is the journal paper that the article is about:

Dorothy P. Schafer, Emily K. Lehrman, Amanda G. Kautzman, Ryuta Koyama, Alan R. Mardinly, Ryo Yamasaki, Richard M. Ransohoff, Michael E. Greenberg, Ben A. Barres, Beth Stevens Microglia Sculpt Postnatal Neural Circuits in an Activity and Complement-Dependent Manner. Neuron. Volume 74 Issue 4 691-705, 24 May 2012. 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.03.026

A number of other interesting journal papers can be found through Prof. Steven’s web page, some available to read in full text (if you can find the button to click on in the top right corner of the PubMed page). I also found a recently published item by Stevens and colleagues that looks like it is about the same subject as the New Scientist article, published in a conference abstract supplement of the journal Schizophrenia Research, which is a bit of a mystery as I didn’t think the title suggested schizophrenia. You need to pay to read the full text, which I didn’t.

Here’s something else to read, if you’re keen. You can read the whole thing for free:

Marie-Ève Tremblay, Beth Stevens, Amanda Sierra, Hiroaki Wake, Alain Bessis and Axel Nimmerjahn The Role of Microglia in the Healthy Brain. Journal of Neuroscience. 9 November 2011, (45): 16064-16069; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4158-11.2011


C3, C4, C5....

C3, C4, C5….