Tag Archives: Grapheme-color synesthesia

Are you a synaesthete? There are tests

Recommended  –  The Synesthesia Battery from the laboratory of Dr David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine.     http://www.synesthete.org/     (you will need to set aside a bit of time for this, and it only identifies some types of synaesthesia)

A Spanish synaesthesia test? http://www.artecitta.es/ARTECITTA/sinestesia/test/index.html

A screensaver which causes motion to sound synesthesia in some people, from New Scientist magazine’s YouTube channel  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLhuRIeHj6Q

Revised Test of Genuineness (TOG-R) – 2006 journal paper about it  http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2006_Asher.pdf     http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(08)70337-X/abstract

A synaesthesia screening questionnaire used by researchers at the University of Cambridge  https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dDFwb0tWem5kYW9IOHE2RXMzNXpvV1E6MQ#gid=0

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Another interesting sculpture at Piney Lakes Sensory Playground

Can letters of the alphabet be people? This lower-case letter E has ears, so I guess it must be true! This is a photo of another sculpture at Piney Lakes which could be interpreted as an exploration of the experience of ordinal linguistic personification synaesthesia. I’d like to make it clear that these sculptures are not my work, and I have no idea whether the artist who created these delightful works was a synesthete. My photos are a few years old, so be advised that they might not reflect how things currently are at this location.

I haven’t been to the Piney Lakes Sensory Playground for a few years, but as I remember it, it was a delightful playground for kids of a range of ages, and quite unique among Perth playgrounds because of it’s striking and amusing top-quality sculptures in a range of styles, many of them usable as play props, and it was also outstanding for the way that the landscape of the area is interesting and an adventure for younger kids and a play element in it’s own right. There was one of those big climbing-net things in the inner area of the playground, and a sand area and a fairly limited range of moving play equipment. Beyond the playground were some fake lakes with frogs (they sounded like tiny crinias, heard but not seen), bike paths and a boardwalk, and beyond the grassed area there was natural bushland surrounding the actual swampy small lake, which had a variety of interesting sculptures around it. This whole area could have changed since then. I hope it hasn’t.

The set of sculptures depicting letters of the alphabet at the Pinely Lakes playground are there as a word puzzle for the children to search for, so I guess one can assume that this was the only inspiration for their creation, and personification synaesthesia might have had nothing to do with it. Whatever the case, as a synaesthete who involuntarily sees letters as personified with characteristics such as genders and personalities, and also displaying bodily orientations and sometimes facial expressions and also their own colours (grapheme colour synaesthesia), I am charmed by the way that many of the letter sculptures at Piney Lakes are congruent with my own synaesthesia. The ears on the silvery lower case letter E sculpture are placed in just the right spot for the letter to depict something like a smiling face facing toward what I see as the right side of the text. This is how I see the letter E personified, but the silver colour is not congruent with my colour for the letter E. The letter Y at the playground is completely congruent with my synaesthesia, being bright yellow and of an active and playful disposition. I very much enjoy that colourful sculpture. There are two letter Ss at the playground, one in a colour that is the same as my letter S, but written backwards, the other delightfully psychedelic and imposing. The giant O is also pretty-much “the right colour”. You can see why I like this place so much! I think of it as “Synaesthesia Park”, a playground of the mind.

A silvery letter E with ears

A sculpture that looks like synaesthesia at Piney Lakes Sensory Playground

This sculpture is oddly congruent with my ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia and my grapheme-colour synaesthesia, because in this sculpture the letter Y is yellow and also appears to have a playful temperament. It’s a rather odd and enjoyable experience to view a whimsical piece of art that is a reflection of the idiosyncrasies of my mind.

Sculpture in a public place that looks like synaesthesia

The letter Y frolics with two lavender-coloured dogs at Piney Lakes playground

Grapheme-colour synaesthesia and enhanced cortical excitability – I find this research quite exciting, but maybe that’s just me

“He found that neurons in the primary visual cortex were more active than expected.”

This is a quote about a study of some grapheme-colour synaesthetes. I’m a grapheme-colour synaesthete, and I’m wondering if this enhanced cortical excitability in the primary visual cortex which they wrote about in New Scientist last November is also an explanation for my superior face memory and the many other atypical visual perception experiences that I’ve had, and have described in this blog. It’s exciting research.

Hyperactive neurons build brains in synaesthesia. New Scientist. 23 November 2011 Issue 2840 p. 18.  http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228405.400-hyperactive-neurons-build-brains-in-synaesthesia.html

Thomson, Helen Hyperactive neurons build brains in synaesthesia. New Scientist. 17 November 2011  http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21183-hyperactive-neurons-build-brains-in-synaesthesia.html

Enhanced Cortical Excitability in Grapheme-Color Synesthesia and Its Modulation. Current Biology. Vol 21 Issue 23 2006-2009, 17 November 2011. 10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.032 http://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S0960982211011936

Have you seen this interesting study of personification synaesthesia and empathy?

I experience personified numbers and letters of the alphabet, involving genders, ages and personalities. Although this experience does not fit into the popular definition of synaesthesia as a mixing up of the senses, it is considered to be a type of synaesthesia and it often coincides with another type of synaesthesia, grapheme->colour synaesthesia, in which numbers and letters are experienced as having their own particular colours. The proper term for this personification of written symbols is Ordinal linguistic personification, and in a recent journal paper it was described as a “benign form of hyper-mentalizing” (Amin et al 2011).

In this blog I’ve argued a number of times that there is a causal relationship between synaesthesia and enhanced face recognition ability, and I believe that whatever parts of my brain give rise to my very good face recognition ability are also the parts of my brain that are responsible for my ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) and my grapheme->color synesthesia. I explained some of this in my post lengthily titled “Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper”.

Here’s some quotes from a journal paper about grapheme personification synesthesia which was published this year in the Journal of Neuropsychology:

“From this mixed pattern of results, we cannot conclude that as a group, personifying synaesthetes exhibit heightened empathy.”

“We suggest that grapheme personification, rather than a peculiar set of claims to be dismissed, is a goldmine for social cognitive neuroscientists and cognitive neuropsychologists alike.”

I certainly agree with that!

Maina Amin, Olufemi Olu-Lafe, Loes E. Claessen, Monika Sobczak-Edmans, Jamie Ward, Adrian L. Williams, and Noam Sagiv
Understanding grapheme personification: A social synaesthesia?
Journal of Neuropsychology. (2011), 5, 255–282.
http://people.brunel.ac.uk/~hsstnns/reprints/2011_Amin_et_al__personification.pdf

Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper.
https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/reflections-on-the-strange-phenomenon-gunning-the-cfmt-letter-personification-in-advertising-and-clue-to-a-possible-cure-for-some-cases-of-prosopagnosia-after-reading-an-old-journal-paper/

News Flash!

I just discovered that I have a close blood relative who experiences mirror-touch synaesthesia. It’s amazing the things that you can discover when you take the time to talk to people. This rellie also shares my grapheme->colour synaesthesia and we also both have colours for days of the week etc and some words, including geographical names. I’d say we have the same gene for sure. I don’t think my rellie is a personifier like me, as I tend to get an amused reaction when I describe the personalities of my letters of the alphabet.

I plan to write a lot more about this, including some of the popular scientific theories to do with empathy and mirror-touch synesthesia. You’ll find it here, if I ever find the time to put my thoughts into type.

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?

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.

References

A brief report on my synaesthesia experiences that involve concepts as triggers or evoked experiences https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/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 http://psych.annualreviews.org
This article’s doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190143
http://psychology.stanford.edu/~jlm/pdfs/MartinAnnRevPsych07.pdf

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

A very brief comment on my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia

The last time that I did a heap of hand-washing in the laundry wash-trough, when I was swooshing dirty water down the drain of the trough that is poorly designed and doesn’t drain quickly I noticed that I very fleetingly “saw” in my mind’s eye scenes of a number of different places from my past, and they weren’t the places that I’ve previously noted have been evoked by this particular fine-motor task. It appears that the brain connections between learned hand movements and visual memories of scenes are more changeable or more random than in other types of synaesthesia that I also experience, like coloured letters (grapheme->colour synaesthesia). I think the interesting thing is that I do “see” visions of scenes when I do household chores with my hands. Why does this happen?

Report on my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia  https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/report-on-my-fine-motor-task-visual-place-memory-synaesthesia/

Not just any colour

I have grapheme->colour synaesthesia, which means in everyday terms that I associate the individual letters of the alphabet, numbers up to around 12, days of the week, months of the year and other things with their own colours, and those colour associations are pretty much permanent, and have not changed since I was about five years old. You can find many descriptions of colour synaesthesia on the internet that glamourize the experience, making it sound like a psychedelic rainbow riot. The reality is a bit different. My colours do not impose themselves upon my consciousness – I do not automatically “see” colours when I see text, but if I look at the letter for a while and think about it I can “see” it’s colour in my mind’s eye. This is not mere imagination. Scientists know this because synaesthesia associations are extremely precise, reliable and stable over long periods, while trying to recall associations such as these between letters and colours using imagination combined with memory alone does not give anything like the same reliability and precision in recall.

Real grapheme->colour synaesthesia is a bit less exciting than you might imagine in another way. The colours involved often aren’t terribly inspiring, but they can be fairly interesting. A lot of the colours in my alphabet are quite dull, and I can’t find any decent, strong blue colour in the whole sequence. I do have a blue that is pale and dirty-looking, like the noon-time sky in a polluted city. Given the fact that scientists believe that grapheme->colour synaesthesia associations develop at around the age of five years, a scatological age for sure, I’m rather suspicious about why I have so many colours fixed in my mind that are the colours of bodily wastes.

Another disappointing feature of my synaesthesia is that numerals and letters that have a similar shape often have the same or very similar colours. This is a bit of a bummer because these are the instances in which it would be most useful to have the numbers or letters in very different colours, to help differentiate them, but my synaesthesia doesn’t work that way. It would be nice to look down at the shifter stick on an automatic car and see the letters “R” and “P” and “N” and “D” in very different and vibrant, saturated, inspiring colours, but no. Obviously the shapes of graphemes are an important influence in the development of synaesthesia. This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, as apparently the ability to tell the difference between mirror-image or rotated shapes develops rather late in children. Maybe there is similar late development in telling the difference between similar-looking graphemes. Maybe kids who have a genetic potential to develop grapheme-colour synaesthesia who are at the age at which they are developing their associations between colours and letters and numbers could also be at an age when they are still not clear about the difference between a “P” and a “D” or a “b” and a “d”.

So, my alphabet and number-line aren’t really rainbows of joy, and they contain some rather annoying and potentially misleading duplications, but I guess it has still got to be more fun than no colours at all. There are some lovely colours in my mind, and I enjoy the way the way these colours are so very specific and unique. The colours do not come from any stereotyped culturally given ideas of typical colours, but synaesthesia researchers have found that the more common letters of the alphabet tend to have colours that are primary colours and are more simple to describe. Some of the colours seem to come straight from heaven, or some random colour-generator. I was most astonished when I visited the lower floor of a fairly new library to find that it had a wall in the exact colour of Tuesday. It made my day – the exact colour! And such a cheerful, but not excessively saturated colour. The most inspiring colour in my alphabet is a colour that is hard to describe. It is a deep colour that is both warm and pink, which seems to be a contradiction. It does not seem to have a label in the English language. Today I was shopping at a Target store, and I noticed that the new season’s lady’s clothing had a few items in that exact lovely colour. Out of curiosity I checked the labels to see what colour name was used to describe these garments. The name of the colour is apparently “Luxor”. So there you have it – I have a luxor-coloured letter in my alphabet. How crazy does that sound?