Tag Archives: Driving

Does fascinating advice from a super-polyglot utilize a psychological effect unknown to science?

Tell me about your key technique for learning a new language, and how it works

I call it shadowing. I shadow the audio of the target language by listening to it through earphones and speaking along with it as fast as I possibly can. I’ve found the best way to do this is while walking outdoors as swiftly as possible, maintaining a perfectly upright posture and speaking loudly. [and he goes on to further discuss]

Hooper, Rowan You had me at halla. New Scientist. Issue 3110 January 28 2017 p.42-43.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331100-800-i-could-speak-a-different-language-every-week-for-a-year/

This is advice from Alexander Arguelles, who can speak around 50 languages, so it is definitely advice to take seriously. The part of the advice that interests me is the walking fast with an upright posture. This implies that bodily perceptions or perceptions of the position/location of the body in space, and movement, are important in boosting learning. This part of the advice fits in nicely with a phenomenon that I’ve described in at least one previous post in this blog, years ago, in which vection or actual physical bodily movement through space (in the form of walking outdoors while looking around) seems to evoke a cascade of thought, or somehow add fluency or speed to the normal train of thought (which could be described as the stream of consciousness or daydreaming). This effect is important to me (a super-recognizer synaesthete in a family that seems to have a gene for ease of learning languages and spelling) because I’ve found that when walking or driving a vehicle I get useful and creative and novel ideas that don’t happen when I’m not doing such activities. I also find that taking a shower (indoors!) has a similar effect, and I think the link to the outdoor activities is that parts of the brain that deal with bodily movement and visual-spatial perception are activated. I’ve observed that outdoor visual perception of movement through space or actual movement seem to promote thought or creativity, while it appears that Mr Arguelles has observed that this kind of experience promotes learning. As I’m a synaesthete who is interested in synaesthesia (specifically types involving visual memory and links between visual memory and conceptual thinking) I’ve suggested that this is actually a type of synaesthesia – experiences as one type of stimuli (visual-spatial) triggering or promoting, inside the brain, experiences of a very different type (language learning, combining discrete abstract concepts in thought). I don’t adhere to the idea that there’s a very sharp demarcation between synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes, but nevertheless, I’d be very interested to know whether Mr Arguelles is a synaesthete. Certainly there’s lots of evidence linking synaesthesia with superior memory, which a super-learner such as Mr Arguelles must surely possess.

Is the effect that I’ve identified and described embodied cognition? Is it a type of synaesthesia, enjoyed only by a minority of the population? Is it both? Neither? Has it already been described and named in the scientific literature? I don’t know. Does it need a name of it’s own? Visual-spatial stimuli-boosted cognition?

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Australian study finds evidence suggesting that use of recreational drug ecstasy will damage face perception ability

White, Claire, Edwards, Mark, Brown, John and Bell, Jason The impact of recreational MDMA ‘ecstasy’ use on global form processing. Journal of Psychopharmacology. August 20, 2014

Published online before print August 20, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0269881114546709

http://jop.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/08/18/0269881114546709.abstract?rss=1

 

Yeang, Lily Ecstasy use affects ability to detect faces, shapes and patterns. ScienceNetwork Western Australia.

http://www.sciencewa.net.au//topics/health-a-medicine/item/3085-ecstasy-use-affects-ability-to-detect-faces-shapes-and-patterns

 

One should bear in mind that this study only used a small number of long-term ecstasy users as subjects (6) and these people also used other drugs, which could have had an influence, and it appears that actual faces or images of faces were not a part of the study, which tested the type of visual processing of which face processing is apparently one example. The full text of the study is behind a paywall, so I’ve not yet read it in full. The study is certainly interesting, as it displays internal consistency in the findings which are also apparently compatible with the findings of other studies.

This study is just another good reason why the testing of visual processing, including abilities such as face memory and global form processing, should ideally be an element of the job recruitment selection process for many jobs. “If global form processing is damaged or deficient then our speed and accuracy in recognizing objects in the environment, and our ability to navigate amongst those objects, will be impaired.” So does that mean that long-term ecstasy users aren’t OK to operate heavy machinery or to drive? I think it is anyone’s guess, and there is no law enforcement or job screening process that I am aware of that is likely to detect people with this kind of visual processing disability, until they have a crash. If you know otherwise, please leave a comment and we we’ll all be the wiser.

Some ideas that I’d like to (explicitly) lay claim to (right now) in 2014

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post or using it in 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 my objection will be well publicized. If you believe that you published any of these ideas before I did, please let me know the details in a comment on this article. If you want to make reference to this blog 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.

The idea that Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy or PCA, a variety of dementia, is caused or develops in a way that can be seen as the opposite of the synaesthesia linked with exceptional visual memory and literacy skills that runs in my family (this idea has been explored previously in this blog).

The idea that the above cited states develop or are caused in a way that makes them seem like opposites because they both affect the same or similar areas of the brain, but in opposite ways.

The idea that the above described process happens because Benson’s syndrome and our variety of synaesthesia are both mediated by the same or similar natural chemical or cells or biological agent in the brain, one caused by high levels of the mystery substance and the other caused by low levels (a hypothesis that I briefly suggested in January 2011).

The idea that one of the many known or unknown elements of the immune system that impact brain development is the mystery substance referred to above (a hypothesis that I briefly outlined in 2012).

The (implied in above ideas) idea of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. (This idea was first published by me in 2012 in a blog post archived here, was I believe plagiarized in 2013 here, and was the subject of my plagiarism claim here.)

The idea that one or more of the complement immune chemicals is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that the C3 complement immune chemical  is the  mystery substance referred to above.

The idea that synaesthesia is linked with one or maybe more immune diseases or conditions caused by low levels of complement.

The idea that genes for synaesthesia stay quite common in the gene pool because of some associated cognitive advantage (probably superior memory) that balances out any disadvantages caused by deficiencies in the immune system.

The idea that some or many people unintentionally experience a memory process that operates in a similar way to the method of loci memory technique in their everyday lives, unintentionally forming long-term associations between individual learned concepts and individual visual memories of scenes (I have named this phenomenon Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization or IMLM).

The idea that IMLM operates in such a similar way to synaesthesia that one could argue that it is a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes are more likely to experience IMLM than non-synaesthetes.

The (implied) idea that the method of loci memory technique is similar to or a type of synaesthesia.

The idea that synaesthetes might have a natural advantage in using the method of loci because the method of loci is similar to or is a type of  synaesthesia. This idea that seems likely in light of the case of “S” the Russian memory performer with many types of synaesthesia described by Luria. 

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span and can thus be used as an indicator of which synaesthetes are synaesthetes due to enhanced synaptic plasticity throughout the life span rather than other possible causes of synaesthesia. Support for this idea comes from the fact that IMLM appears to be a non-developmental variety of synaesthesia that can form new long-term associations in adolescence and adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is a phenomenon that is caused by the unusual possession of levels of synaptic plasticity typical of a young child, during adolescence or adulthood.

The idea that IMLM is caused or enhanced by some characteristic of the immune system that affects the functioning of the brain. Many different elements of the incredibly complex immune system are thought to affect the functioning or development of the brain, and could thus be involved in IMLM, including the complement system, microglia and the MHC class I molecules. Researchers such as Beth Stevens and Carla Shatz have investigated this exciting area of neuroscience. In 2012 I hypothesized at this blog that synaesthesia could be caused by low levels of complement, this idea implying that the immune system is directly involved in synaesthesia (or at least some cases of synaesthesia). I believe these ideas were plagiarized in a paper published in 2013.

The idea that IMLM is similar to the “Proust phenomenon” in that it is very similar to synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia and involves episodic or autobiographical memory as a concurrent.

The idea that phonics as a foundational reading skill is similar to or is arguably a type of synaesthesia in that it involves the involuntary association of individual speech sounds with individual printed letters or combinations of letters, as the result of learning in early to mid childhood.

The idea that at least one type of dyslexia is like a deficiency of synaesthesia.

The implied idea that if synaesthesia has as it’s basis hyperconnectivity in the white matter of the brain, dyslexia as an opposite of synaesthesia or a deficiency of synaesthesia is or could be caused by hypoconnectivity in the white matter of the brain (I suspect there might be existing research evidence that supports this idea).

The implied idea that in at least one cluster or grouping of cases synaesthesia is associated with superiority in literacy or reading skill.

The idea that synaesthesia can happen in different regions of the brain, and because of this the experience of various types of synaesthesia can vary in detectable ways because of the influence on the synaesthesia of the varied ways that different areas of the brain operate. This can mean that one synaesthete can experience different types of synaesthesia that operate in very different ways, for example, some types of synaesthesia more rare or spontaneous or intrusive than other types. (I am not completely sure of the originality or the novelty of all of this idea.)

The idea that there is an association between synaesthesia and super-recognition that is not merely coincidental.

The idea that synaesthesia is a type of memory or learning. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact).

The idea that synaesthesia concurrents are re-experienced memories, or re-activated “learnings” of concepts, not perceptions. (Not sure if I’m the first to note this obvious fact). In support of this idea I can assert that synaesthesia is like face recognition in that both are visual memory-based phenomena which are subject to the Verbal Overshadowing Effect or something very similar. My assertion that synaesthesia is subject to the verbal overshadowing effect is based on my own observations (outlined elsewhere in this post).

The idea that super-recognizers should or could be trained and employed as expert consultants in the practice of medical genetics.

The idea that medical geneticists and all types of medical specialists need to have a super-recognizer level of face memory or face recognition ability, so that they can intuitively and quickly recognize medical facies.

The idea that there is no clear point of distinction between medical facies or faces associated with genetic syndromes and normal faces.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify blood relatives of a person or persons.

The idea that super-recognizers could be used to facially identify the specific ethnicity of a person.

(below ideas added January 28th 2014)

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could develop as the result of an unusual level of fascination with the visual appearance of landscapes or scenes, rather than from a fascination with faces, and thus be a side-effect hyper-development of a part of the brain that serves two similar functions.

The idea that super-recognition or being a super-recognizer could, at least  in some cases, develop as the result of a general hyper-development of the visual sense to compensate for problems in the auditory sense during childhood such as temporary deafness, recurrent ear infections, glue ear or poor auditory processing.

(below idea added February 1st 2014)

The idea that lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is an exaggerated form of some kind of evolutionary adaptation in the brain that biologically primes the mind to attend to or react to speech on the subject of food (this idea was discussed at this blog in a post dated January 27th 2011, with more consideration in a later post).

(below ideas added February 6th 2014)

The idea that creativity might be immediately enhanced during and only during the duration of physical or visual-spatial activity because the activity activates areas of the brain associated with movement and in turn these areas activate other areas of the brain including those that give rise to conceptual thinking, and the increased activation makes novel associations between diverse thoughts and concepts more likely, and that this process is like synaesthesia or is a type of synaesthesia, and the types of physical activity that are the most effective inducers of this effect might be highly specific, highly specific in effects, highly varied between individuals and highly idiosyncratic, as is typical of synaesthesia inducers and concurrents. Driving a car can act as an inducer of this effect. (I have gone some way to exploring this idea in past posts.)

The idea that mental flexibility might be immediately enhanced by the above effect, which I will name “movement – thought-flexibility synaesthesia”.

The idea that thinking might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that memory might be immediately enhanced by the above effect.

The idea that the above effect is similar to embodied cognition or is a type of embodied cognition.

(below ideas added February 14th  and  February 20th 2014)

The idea that synaesthesia is like the process of face recognition (and vice versa), because they both

– are subject to the verbal overshadowing effect or something similar

– are automatic

– are involuntary

– have a sensory inducer, in face recognition always visual, in synaesthesia I think most frequently visual

– have or can have a concurrent that could be described as a memory, a concept or a personality (I’m comparing face recognition with personification synaesthesias and the synaesthesias that I have described at this blog which have visual memories of scenes as concurrents)

– are or can be visual in both the inducer and concurrent

– typically involve the fusiform gyrus

– involve set pairings of inducers and concurrents (same person’s face seen before then recognized later)

– involve set parings of highly specific inducers and concurrents (I recognize that an employee at my local supermarket has a sister who has just started working there too, as their faces and bodies and hair are near-identical, but for the extra acne and the more receding chin of the new employee. They are very similar in appearance but my discrimination is highly specific, just as I can recognize that the green wall on the lower floor of a public library is close to but not quite the same colour as Tuesday.)

– both can have, but do not always have an actual face as an inducer (we can recognize the faces of celebrities in photos, caricatures and art, even seeing Marilyn Monroe’s face in a pattern of brown coffee cups stuck to the wall at the coffee shop at the art gallery.)

(below idea added February 17th 2014)

“My particular interest in personification is my own theory that personification synaesthesia (as experienced by myself) or something like it gives rise to superiority in face memory (or being a super-recognizer) by naturally making the faces of unknown people more memorable and interesting”

The above is a quote from an article that was published at the blog in October 2013.

(below ideas added February 19th 2014)

The idea that the synaesthesia brain is the result of the developmental influence or shaping from, or the adaptation to, the behavioural phenomenon of “flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The idea that synaesthesia, intellectual giftedness or high IQ and autism or Asperger syndrome seem to coincide more often than chance because gifted and autistic kids are more likely to experience “flow” and this in turn can influence the developing brain in a way that gives rise to synaesthesia.

(below ideas added February 20th 2014)

The idea that the genuine conscious awareness of synaesthesia is a threshold phenomenon that operates in conflict or competition with conscious thinking, meaning that consciously thinking about synaesthesia can inferfere with the perception of concurrents, and synaesthesia must reach a particular level of intensity before it interrupts the experience of consciousness and becomes itself the subject of conscious awareness. I think that the idea that thinking about synaesthesia can interfere with the perception of synaesthesia might be related to the “verbal overshadowing” effect which has been described and debated about by researchers. In fairness I should point out that Mark C. Price speculated in the recently published (2013) Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia that synaesthesia could be subject to the verbal overshadowing effect. My own ideas were arrived upon independently from Price’s writing or work.  I base the ideas of synaesthesia being a threshold phenomenon which can also be interfered with by conscious thinking on a number of my own observations. In direct contradiction to what I had expected to find, my scores for accuracy for individual letters and numbers in The Synesthesia Battery (a scientifically-validated online test of synaesthesia) were lower for the numbers and letters that have colours that I find beautiful and which I have thought about to some degree, while my best accuracy was for the numbers and letters that have the dull and ugly colours. It seems the less I think about the concurrents the more accurately I can percieve them when they are evoked. I have also noticed that most of the types of synaesthesia that I experience I was not consciously aware of before I started to think about and examine the idea of synaesthesia. I never realised that I had complete stability in the colours I associate with months and days of the week till I tested myself. While I had a dim awareness of colour colouring my thoughts, I’d not realised that this worked like synaesthesia till I went looking for a pattern using simple testing. My fine motor movement-visual memories of scenes synaesthesia evokes concurrents that are so fleetingly and subtly experienced that they just feel like random thoughts, and indeed I now believe it is possible that the random thoughts of many or even all people are in fact synaesthesia of various types. I have also observed that there are some very unsubtle and intrusive types of syn that I experience, and they are typically rarely experienced and are associated with people, emotions, faces, singing voices or music that I find striking or novel as inducers. Because of the circumstances of these examples of synaesthesia, I think some kind of threshold is being breached when these types of synaesthesia are experienced by me.

The idea that one of the established defining criteria for synaesthesia, that it gives rise to perceptions or concurrents which are “consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial)”, is wrong, and specific categories of memories of complex visual images such as faces and scenes, which are processed in the fusiform gyrus, can also be experienced as genuine synaesthesia concurrents. I base this assertion on the fact that I often involuntarily experience synesthesia concurrents of this type, and I have written about such experiences right from the first post in this blog which was published in 2010. I have also named types of synesthesia that have complex visual memories as concurrents: the strange phenomenon, fine motor task – visual place memory synaesthesia, involuntary method of loci memorization, etc. There are also many accounts or scientific observations of synaesthesia with complex visual concurrents in the scientific literature on synaesthesia.

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

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 is 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.

I am not sure if this visual-spatial-memory related experience, which I and at least two of my first-degree relatives experience often, has already been described publicly in an anecdote or in a more scientific or formal discourse. I only know that I have never read or heard a description of this experience that wasn’t first prompted by my explaining it to someone else. Maybe it is such a common thing that it isn’t thought worth mentioning. This is the attitude toward this experience that is held by one of my two relatives who has this experience. In light of the fact that these relatives and I are all synaesthetes, and synaesthetes are thought to have unusual memory abilities, and this experience appears to be an involuntary subtype of the method of loci memorization technique, an ancient memory technique that was thought to have been used by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria’s famous case “S”, who was described in Luria’s book The mind of a mnemonist , who was also a synaesthete and had arguably the most amazing memory known to science, I think this experience might be of some scientific interest, and I think it is worth spending some time describing it.

Before attempting to explain what involuntary method of loci memorization is, it makes sense to explain what the method of loci is. I’m happy to outsource this task to the Wikipedia:

“The method of loci…, also called the memory palace, is a general designation for mnemonic techniques that rely on memorised spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorial content…. The method of loci is also commonly called the mental walk. In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique in order to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning. Those parts of the brain that contribute most significantly to this technique include the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus.”

I have never deliberately tried to use this technique myself, but I believe it can be applied to the task of memorizing a set sequence of distinct items. I don’t think it is applied to complex concepts. One either imagines visually in the mind’s eye, or one visits and sees, a familiar walking route. One then imagines each item to be memorized, in order, at various landmarks and locations along the walk. If the items are not the type of thing normally visualised, they must be mentally converted into a visual form. For example, a name to be memorized could be converted into a visual image of a thing that the name brings to mind. To recall this list of items one needs to imagine walking along that route, and apparently in the mind’s eye each item will be encountered on the imaginary journey and recalled. I guess this might be the origin of the saying “a walk down memory lane”.

There are a number of ways in which involuntary method of loci memorization (IMLM) is different to method of loci, but I think the similarities are interesting and indicate the use of similar or the same neurological machinery. Rather than thinking of IMLM as an accidental version of method of loci memory technique, perhaps it is more suitable to regard the method of loci technique as a method of “taming” and using the process involved in IMLM. As is a familiar theme to anyone who has been interested enough to read my blog, I believe this is a type of synaesthesia or has central elements in common with synaesthesia.

How does IMLM work? The basis of this memory phenomenon is the long-term incidental/accidental formation of a stable neurological association between the visual image of the scene of the exact location where one is at and information absorbed through interested, attentive reading or through interested, attentive listening at a time when one was present at and looking at that exact location. If one revisits that exact location and looks at exactly the same scene, the memory of the information absorbed at that location is automatically and involuntarily recalled. There does not need to be any logical link between the place or scene and the concept. Recall of the concept can happen years later when the place is revisited. As I have not made any serious attempt to record this phenomenon I do not know exactly how long these associations can last. The form in which the information is recalled is in conceptual form – I do not “hear” in my mind’s ear the sound of the original radio broadcast, and I do not “read” in my mind’s eye information read at that location. I just remember the gist of what was learned at that location. This is one way in which this phenomenon is different from the method of loci. In the method of loci both the trigger (seeing or visualizing the scenery of the walk) and the experiences evoked (visualizing the items memorized) are visual. In the IMLM the trigger is visual (a scene) but the experience evoked is a concept, not visual, at least that has been the way I experience it.

One could simply call this scene->concept synaesthesia, and interestingly, I have described at this blog concept->scene synaesthesia, and unusual variations, which I also experience, and at this blog other people from around the world have described similar concept->scene synaesthesia experiences. Clearly, at least in some brains, there are very active physical connections between the part of the brain that “does” visualisation of memories of scenes (fusiform gyrus?) and the part of the brain that “does” abstract conceptual thinking, whatever that part might be. I have never before read of any such thing being described in the literature on synaesthesia. I choose to not simply call the IMLM phenonenon “scene->concept synaesthesia” because this differs from classic synaesthesia in a number of important ways. Unlike other known types of synaesthesia, the events that formed the synaesthesia-like connections can be remembered by me and they are similar scenarios. Unlike the apparent origins of many well-studied types of synaesthesia (such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, which I and relatives also experience), the events that formed these connection did not happen in early childhood, and new instances of this type of synaesthesia could easily be deliberately created, and possibly exploited as a mnemonic device. To contrast IMLM and my synaesthesias that connect scenes and concepts with the more classic forms of synaesthesia such as number form synaesthesia and grapheme->colour synaesthesia, the classic types could be described as “developmental” because they form in early childhood, most likely as the result of natural but atypical brain maturation processes, and they are permanent, but my IMLM and related synaesthesias can form in adulthood, can be manipulated and created, and while these connections are generally very long-lasting, I’m not completely sure that they are as unchanging as the classic synaesthesias. IMLM is not a type of “developmental” synaesthesia – I would instead describe it as an unusual ability that the synaesthete brain is possibly especially capable at doing at any age. It could very well be useful if one wanted to learn some type of savant memory party trick.

I can’t be completely sure that my experiences are identical to those of my synaesthete close relatives. I am trying to clarify with one of my close relatives whether the evoked experience is for them always conceptual. This relative has described an instance of this phenomenon in which a specific scene of some very large, shady trees at Liddell Park at Girrawheen on Wanneroo Road involuntarily evokes the memory of the song “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. We are not sure if it is the sound or the concept of this song that is evoked. A characteristic of this phenomenon is that, unless one thinks about specific instances a lot, it happens unexpectedly and is easily forgotten. It is like a thought that flashes through the mind and vanishes as fast as it appeared. This is why it can be tricky to record and easy to overlook.

I believe that IMLM and my other synaesthesia and synaesthesia-like experiences that involve concepts, faces and scenes, experiences such as my concept->scene synaesthesia, fine motor task->scene synaesthesia, The Strange Phenomenon and IMLM, are especially interesting because they are essentially synaesthesia, but they also appear to violate one of the basic criteria for identifying synaesthesia in a set of criteria that has had a lot of scientific influence for many years. The pioneer of 20th century synaesthesia research in the US, Dr Richard Cytowic, formulated a set of criteria for synaesthesia during his pioneering investigations into the neurological phenomenon. I believe that a driving motivation of Cytowic’s at the time might have been to outline the many differences between synaesthesia and psychosis-type experiences. Cytowic’s criteria number three for synaesthesia is thus: “Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).” The faces, scenes and abstract concepts that I experience during some types of synaesthesia are most definitely not generic and simple rather than pictorial. I believe it was years after Cytowic’s work that the UK synaesthesia researcher Dr Julia Simner wrote a paper or papers arguing for the conceptual nature of some types of synaesthesia, and arguing against the notion that synaesthesia is a purely simple and sensory experience (“mixed-up senses”). She was focusing on types of synaesthesia that involve simple learned concepts, such as numbers and letters and months of the year, in types of synaesthesia such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, number form synaesthesia and sequence-space synaesthesia. The history of synaesthesia research goes back centuries, and the definition of synaesthesia is still evolving. I believe that my experiences, and those of oher people that are described at this blog, should be taken into account in the ongoing scientific exploration of synaesthesia.

Back to the subject at hand! How does the IMLM phenomenon typically happen? A common scenario that brings about this phenomenon is me sitting in a parked car while listening to an informational radio show, news radio broadcasts and Radio National being favourite listening of mine. Sometimes this happens when I am waiting for others to run some errand, and sometimes I’m sitting in the car listening to the end of some radio item that has caught my interest, before getting out and going shopping or whatever. I have considered naming this phenomenon car-park -> Radio National synaesthesia, but I think to call it just another type of synaesthesia is an oversimplification, and it also happens in slightly different scenarios. As with all types of synesthesia, the trigger and the evoked experience are both very specific. It is so specific that it can be localised to within just a couple of car-park spaces. In the car-park of one shopping centre that I often visit, many different areas of that car-park evoke their own specific memories of the thing that I learned about while parked at that space.  This same car-park phenomenon can happen when I sit in a parked car reading a book while stopping to gaze at the surrounds. I will recall what I read about in the book when I was parked there if I return to that parking space, or a space no more than a few spaces away, again years later and look at the scene.

Scenes can change, and I guess this would nullify this phenomenon, but I’m not sure. Perhaps the sense of one’s geographical place rather than vision of scenery can act as a trigger. I’m not sure. This phenomenon can form while one is travelling as a passenger gazing out the window of a vehicle that has stopped temporarily at lights or a traffic jam, while listening to the radio. The concept memorized needs to be reasonably interesting to the listener. It can be something shocking like a fictional description of sexual abuse, or news of a deadly natural disaster happening, but it doesn’t have to evoke extreme emotions. Odd, obscure ideas and facts can be memorized, but it must hold some interest to the person.

I am sure that weak, fuzzy and common forms of this phenomenon are commonplace. We all recall memories of times past when we revisit places where scenes of our lives have taken place, don’t we? I often like to revisit places that hold happy memories from my past, so that in going there I can gain good access to those memories. I guess other people do the same? We all habitually return to places that we have previously enjoyed being at, and avoid places that were the setting of unpleasant times. This makes sense psychologically, and this type of behaviour makes sense within the context of evolutionary adaptations.

I guess there are some people who have little opportunity to experience IMLM. If a person doesn’t ever listen to talk radio while in a vehicle or never reads information in places where they can also see scenery, they may never have the chance to experience it. Perhaps IMLM is a very common experience for people who habitually listen to talk radio or spoken books on long road or rail journeys, or while working as a long distance truck driver. In fact I know a long-distance truck driver who has described to me privately an experience that sounds a lot like IMLM.

Many questions are raised during consideration of IMLM and the method of loci. An obvious one is whether people who have agnosia for scenes completely miss out on this phenomenon. Perhaps it depends on the exact nature of the cause of their agnosia (damage or disconnection?) What is the relationship between synaesthesia and method of loci? Do synaesthetes have some type of natural advantage in using it? Any particular type of synaesthetes? Luria’s “S”, a multi-synaesthete and a grapheme -> colour synaesthete, reportedly used the method of loci (Wilding & Valentine 1997), and three grapheme -> colour synaesthetes (my family members and I) experience IMLM, a phenomenon which appears to be closely related to the method of loci.

Which parts of the brain are involved in IMLM? Visual memories of scenes are an essential element of both the method of loci and IMLM. Visual memories of scenes are also a recurring theme within the descriptions of my unusual neurological experiences that I have written at my blog. I believe the fusiform gyrus is the part of the brain that processes this type of information. I have given many arguments in my blog, regarding different types of synaesthesia that I experience, asserting that my fusiform gyrus is unusual and in some ways superior in function. This all appears to suggest that the fusiform gyrus is involved in the method of loci.

How can knowledge of these memory phenomena and techniques be applied to improving learning and the use of memory? Could a regime of listening to sound recordings of information to be absorbed while travelling along a route be an effective learning technique? How could this memorized information be later recalled? Could there an advantage to travelling to school, university or work in a long journey with lots of opportunities for viewing scenes? There is no end to the neurological phenomena that I hope to find the time to describe, and one of those phenomena is the one in which driving or travelling in a vehicle appears to unlock my memory, my ability to link concepts and to generate new ideas like nothing else can.

What are the limitations and the advantages of the use of the method of loci and IMLM memory phenomena? The method of loci has the disadvantage that the retrieval of information encoded using the method is inflexible. It relies on being at a specific geographical location or imagining a specific location for it to work. IMLM is just as specific and inflexible, and is also very fast and fickle, but it can be “tamed” by consciously reflecting on it, in a similar way as the application of the method of loci technique. I have found that once one is aware of the associations between scenes and concepts, one can think of the scene and then recall the concept. I have found that there are instances in which this works in reverse – thinking about a concept evokes a memory of a scene. It is far from clear how the conscious manipulation of IMLM might provide any advantage over simply reading stuff and thinking about stuff. Figuring out how to exploit this thing is probably a job for someone else. The first step is describing the phenomenon, which is what I’ve done here.

Some examples of spontaneous IMLM experiences that have happened:

-being at a specific place in a carpark at Warwick Shopping Centre evoking a memory of a rather hard-to-believe description of a sexually exploitative situation in the book Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, which I read months before when waiting in a parked car in that specific area

-the example given in the text of this article experienced by a close relative of mine involving a park in Girrawheen

-the concept of The Book Depository and the decline of non-internet book retailers evoked when parking at a particular spot at the Dog Swamp Shopping Centre, where I was parked months before when I listened to a story on The Book Show on Radio National about The Book Depository, and it was the first time I’d heard of the business.

-the concept of raising a transgender child in a genuinely sympathetic manner in spite of ignorant people evoked by parking in a particular spot next to a kindergarten, where months before I’d listened to an interesting story on this subject on the car radio after droppng young child off.

-there are many more examples, most involving carpark spaces and talk radio shows

References

Cytowic, Richard E. Synesthesia: a union of the senses. Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Luria, Alexander The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Penguin, 1975. http://www.scribd.com/doc/12983496/Alexander-Luria-The-Mind-of-a-Mnemonist

Simner, Julia Beyond perception: synaesthesia as a psycholinguistic phenomenon. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(1), 23-29.

Wikipedia contributors Method of loci. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Method_of_loci&oldid=416232189

Wilding, John M. and Valentine, Elizabeth R. Superior memory. Psychology Press, 1997. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=lBHYHgpxDEkC&dq=wilding+valentine+1997&source=gbs_navlinks_s

A sense of place on steroids

A sense of place and a memory for scenes are aspects of thinking that have always had an unusual prominence in my thoughts. I have types of synaesthesia which appear to be caused by brain connections that link thinking about concepts with visual memories of places, and other brain connections linking learned motor skills involving the hands with visual memories of places. Some of my synaesthete relatives and I experience an involuntary form of the “method of loci” memorization method in which memories of information read or heard on the radio become linked with visual memories of the exact locations where we were when these pieces of information were learned. Revisiting these exact locations will automatically retrieve explicit memories of the information that was learned at that place, even years later. Some cognitive peculiarity involving a sense of place also appears to be involved in a thing that I have noticed when I drive a vehicle or go walking. The experience of seeing a changing vista or sensing a changing geographical location as I travel through space when I am driving or going for a walk out doors appears to free up my thoughts, and there is no place or time in which I have as many novel ideas and insights. Something inside the mind appears to be a reflection of the changing landscape. There is movement and action. Connections are seen and made when travelling that simply don’t happen when I am settled. I am sure that at least some of my experiences involving a sense of place are unusual.

I have been trying to find a sensible scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon which I described in the first post in this blog. I believe the strange phenomenon is a most unusual hybrid of face recognition and synaesthesia. I believe that gaining an understanding of why and how scenes and places are a recurrent theme in my mental life will be an essential part of finding an explanation for the strange phenomenon, because both types of cognitive processes appear to take place in the same part of the brain. Apparently recognizing faces and a memory for scenes both are functions of a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus.

I believe the strange phenomenon is an example of an unconscious mental process breaking through into conscious awareness. I believe the scientific term for this is a “threshold phenomenon”. In addition to the strange phenomenon I have also experienced an odd but subtle feeling associated with seeing John’s face. It’s hard to describe, something like mild wonderment or an inexplicable type of familiarity that seems to suggest that one is looking at a mystery that could be solved, if only one was able to understand what that mystery is. I’d be thinking “What is it about this man’s face? What is it about this bloke?” I believe this odd feeling is the result of some cognitive process that happens below the level of conscious awareness nudging that threshold.

I can only think of one other time when I’ve had that same feeling of looking at a mystery that is itself a mystery to me. As you might expect, this feeling was evoked by viewing scenes of a place. An entire suburb used to give me the same type of “mystery” feeling that John’s face has evoked. When I looked at scenes of this suburb I felt that there was something interesting about the place but I did not consciously understand what it was. I would gaze at vistas and wonder “What is it about this place? What am I looking at here?” I noticed the suburb’s soil and the rocks. I noted the limited amount of information available about the geography, native plants and history of the local area. I looked at the lay of the land, and I noticed that instead of hills like those found in some surrounding suburbs (built on stabilized sand dunes), this place was the shape of two oval shaped shallow bowls, one twice the size of the other. I thought about the names of the streets. Did they have any significance? The few old trees left by developers were in situations that reminded me of sinkholes and cave entrances. I enquired and found that they were tuart trees. I had read that tuarts are associated with caves. I knew that caves were common in this area, and I enjoy finding caves in bushland (but I don’t enjoy the bush ticks that I find later). It didn’t take me long to spot small sinkholes in remnant bushland in an elevated part of this suburb. I read about a controversy about land developers destroying a beautiful cave while developing land in the same general geological region as this suburb. My husband chatted once with a man in the real estate business, who said that the land developer which developed this residential area from bushland made no money from the project, which seems odd to me.

I felt there must be a cave at the centre of the mystery that I sensed but did not understand. The penny finally dropped while I was reading an interpretive sign during a bushwalk. The gorge I was walking through had not been created from the erosion of rocks from a river or a creek as is often the case with gorges (I had been wondering where the water course was). The sign informed me that I was walking through a large collapsed cave. I later found out that the nearby large lake was also thought to have possibly been formed from a collapsed cave. I was happy with this explanation as a solution to my sense of mystery, but I’ve never found official confirmation that this suburb was once collapsed caves. I no longer have that funny feeling of a mystery nagging me to solve it when I view this suburb.

Maybe you are thinking this is a story of little consequence, but try to imagine this same story played out in the time of our pre-civilization ancestors. The genetics that gives rise to human capabilities such as recognizing and understanding scenes and faces are genetics that evolved a very long time ago when humans were still living off the land. This was a time when lakes would have been useful for drinking water and aquatic foods, and caves would have been useful as shelter, protection and sacred places. What would a giant collapsed cave have meant to our ancient ancestors? It would have provided not just one but probably a ring of caves in the elevated rocky rim that open at the side. Such caves could possibly be walked into or climbed up into and might also be in elevated positions, making them accessible but also defendable. Excellent views would be another desirable feature of these places of residence. A pond might be found in the centre of this ring of caves, and perhaps animals could be trapped using the naturally enclosed geography of this place. I think the suburb which looks like a pair of collapsed caves might have been a more valuable bit of real estate in the Paleolithic Age than it is today.

The era of our prehistoric ancestors was a time when a memory for scenes and routes and landmarks would have been essential in a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life. It is not an exaggeration to assert that one of the types of ability that seem to have an unusual prominence in my mind, an ability to remember scenes, would have been not only very useful to our distant ancestors, but would most likely have been an essential element of the mental toolkit for every member of the tribe. Perhaps I am some type of genetic atavism. I don’t mind that idea – our immediate hominid ancestors actually had much larger brains than modern humans.

An instinctive awareness of my geological and geographical surroundings gave me a vague feeling of curiosity during one period of my adult life, but it was not that big a deal. It was a niggling feeling, not an obsession, but there once was a time when my interest in the natural environment could have been described as an obsession. When I was a girl my family lived in a coastal suburb, and when I look back at my childhood my fascination with the sea and swimming overshadows just about everything else, but that is another story for another day….

Method of Loci at Wikipedia

Wikipedia contributors Method of loci. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Method_of_loci&oldid=413248520