A Swiss psychiatrist made to look an ass by synaesthete kids. I love it.
A. Reichard, G., Jakobson, R., & Werth, E. (1949). Language and synesthesia. Word, 5(2), 224-233.
A Swiss psychiatrist made to look an ass by synaesthete kids. I love it.
A. Reichard, G., Jakobson, R., & Werth, E. (1949). Language and synesthesia. Word, 5(2), 224-233.
Whenever I see the colours chocolate brown and forest green together, in any context, that makes me think of the taste and mouth-feel of chocolate with mint brittle or mint cracknel, as exemplified by the Peppermint Crisp bar:
Whenever I see the colours forest green and white together, in any context, I think of Kool Mints which I believe were produced in those colours when I was a child. I can even get this effect through grapheme-colour synaesthesia triggered by numbers. For example, the street number of a house that I once lived in evokes the concept of Kool Mints.
Whenever is see one of those cute, rounded, new but retro-styled cars with perfect glossy paint in a brownish tint, it makes me think of flavoured rice-cream or some other flavoured milky desert in the applicable flavour for the colour, such as caramel ricecream, coffee cream desert, chocolate ricecream etc.
On the odd occasion when I’m near a helicopter and hear its engine at close range, or hear one operating under a load, that sound makes me think of the uniquely wonderful smell of a steak and onion pie.
Forget colour overlays – dyslexia is not a vision problem. by Clare Wilson
New Scientist. 25 May 2015.
Do you want to know my theory about dyslexia? I think dyslexia is a lack of synaesthesia, for two very good reasons. Firstly, if you break the act of reading down into its most basic element (phonics or translating graphemes into phonemes), it is basically synaesthesia in which visual symbols as a visual stimuli evoke an experience of language sounds. Reading is basically hearing symbols, and that experience of language sounds further triggers the experience of concepts being triggered by language sounds. I know that things as complex as concepts can be synaesthesia concurrents because I myself experience a number of varieties of synaesthesia in which quite sophisticated concepts are the concurrents. I think the reason why some people are poor at reading or slower to pick up the skill is identical with the normal genetic variation in the degree which people are more or less syanesthete. There is debate about how much evidence has been found by researchers about brain structure and syanesthesia, but I still think it likely that syanesthesia is the result of a hyper-connected brain, and I think the opposite is true of dyslexics, and I believe the theory of dyslexia and hypoconnectivity is nothing new in dyslexia research.
The second reason why I think dyslexia can be regarded as the opposite of synaesthesia (even though I’m open to the possibility that there could be some individuals who have both conditions for reasons unknown) is that in my family of blood relatives we have a pedigree of generations who have a profession that primarily deals with the written word or have scored in academic selection tests in the highest levels of percentiles in reading, writing and general literacy skills, even though their results in other academic areas are above average but not exceptional, and most of these people appear to be grapheme-colour synaesthetes. I believe this association is not random, but such a relationship can only be proven by studies done by researchers on large numbers of people, and if any researcher would like to put my theory to the test and publish the results I would expect that I would be appropriately credited in their research paper.
Some bold and persistent researchers have rediscovered an unusual bundle of nerve fibres or a “major white-matter fascicle” in the human brain. Nice work! It is now called the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF). This discovery could be an important new piece in the puzzle in researching and exploring ideas that I’m looking at in this blog, such as the relationship between the many different varieties of synaesthesia and face recognition or face memory and also reading ability. I think this discovery could be highly relevant because the rediscovered structure is a pathway of white matter that connects the occipital lobe at the rear of the brain, where visual processing happens, to other areas of the brain, and there is speculation that information carried by this pathway could play a role in face recognition and reading. I have proposed that synaesthesia might be linked to superiority in face recognition (super-recognition) and superiority in reading, citing myself and close kin as examples. I have also described and written about types of synaesthesia that involve faces or other complex memories of images as the concurrent or the inducer or both. Researchers have found that grapheme-colour synaesthesia is characterized by greater coherence in the white matter network in the brain, and that would presumably include the rediscovered VOF. I have identified the rear of the brain, the right hemisphere of the brain and the fusiform gyrus as the parts of my brain that are most likely be the locations of the events that give rise to my super-recognition and synaesthesia and related interesting goings-on, so this white matter highway at the back of the brain is very likely involved in these processes.
I’m amazed by the story of how this brain pathway came to be forgotten or discredited by science. Apparently because it was unusual in it’s orientation its very existence conflicted with established thinking at the time, so it became non-existent in the eyes of science. I’m sure that many scientists and neuroscience enthusiasts will be surprised that dogmatic thinking in science can create an important “blind spot” in scientific knowledge, but I’m not one of those people. I’ve seen too much misbehaviour, bias and simple ignorance in neuroscience to believe that the fairy-tale accounts of science as an automatically self-correcting enterprise apply to this corner of the world of science.
Blair, Jenny Lost and Found: How a pair of scientists rediscovered a part of the human brain. Discover. October 1, 2015.
A closely related family member of mine recently scored a perfect mark on an adult literacy test geared to normal adults (which was true to form) , and another closely related family member in mid-childhood recently explained that they perceive motor vehicles as having faces and they categorize cars, utes and 4WDs into genders, square old 4WDs being male. I can see how that makes sense, but all the same I’ve never been that much of a car personifier. Ever since I was a child I’ve personified numbers and alphabet letters in great detail, along with perceiving them as essentially associated with very specific colours, and the shapes and motions of cars often make me think of hunting animals in some deeply instinctive way, but unlike my young relative and the many Australians who decorate their own motor vehicles with oversized curly eyelashes or giant imitation testes, I don’t see motor vehicles as male or female.
On the surface most people seem pretty-much normal and average, but if you make the most superficial investigation by testing or speaking with people about their thoughts and perceptions, you might find that there is an interesting and sometimes significant range of differences in the way our minds work. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, personifying synaesthesia and elite and precocious levels of ability in reading, spelling and general literacy are just some of the interesting things that run in my family and are also experienced by me, and I am also a super-recognizer. A super-recognizer is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces or face memory, and typically can achieve perfect or near-perfect scores on tests of face memory. I believe that this co-occurrence of synaesthesia and elite abilities in face memory and literacy are no coincidence. I believe all of these things are based on hyper-connectivity or hyper-development in the rear parts of the brain including the fusiform gyrus, and also in the right hemisphere of the brain. I believe the genetic basis of this development might be linked to genes that code for particular variations in the functioning of the immune system, possibly involving the complement chemicals, microglia and synaptic pruning. I’m fascinated by the possibility that research work that has been done in the last decade linking immunology and neuropsychology can inform us about the origins of synaesthesia and also specific gifts and deficits in memory and cognition, and maybe also inform us about some types of dementia. In 2012 at this blog I explicitly identified research on the immune system, complement, microglia and synaptic pruning done by Dr Beth Stevens as a possible explanation for the origins of developmental synaesthesia, an idea that was so good that some synaesthesia researchers made it the basis of a speculative paper that was published in a peer-reviewed journal last year (they forgot to acknowledge me as the first to publish this idea). Work done on MHC1 (part of the immune system) and the brain by Carla Shatz is another area of scientific research that I find tremendously exciting, and I believe that the general area of research on the relationships between brain structure and the immune system is of such originality and importance that it should attract one or more Nobel Prizes.
I wonder where they got the idea for these studies:
Jamie Ward, Peter Hovard, Alicia Jones, and Nicolas Rothen Enhanced recognition memory in grapheme-color synaesthesia for different categories of visual stimuli. Frontiers in Psychology. 2013 Oct 24;4:762. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00762. eCollection 2013.
I guess it’s nice to see ideas that I have been exploring for years at this blog supported by research. Did you notice that this paper has the same publisher and the same month of publication as that paper, and one of the authors of this paper was an editor of that paper? I think I recognize a pattern.
You think you’re good at recognizing faces? Then tell me please, what is the most famous acting role of the actor who plays the grandmother in the TV show episode linked to below? I’ll give you a hint – in her most famous role her facial features were modified and she wore some pretty noticeable makeup. And here’s another hint – her real name is a red-coloured first name with a surname that tastes of caramel ricecream (which you can’t buy in the shops any more).
Someone shared a photo of those colored wooden rods which were used to teach maths in primary schools in WA in the 1970s on Facebook. These ones had colours that were faded and drab compared to most photos of Cuisenaire Rods which can be found on the internet. Perhaps the rods that they provided for young students in WA schools faded with age or after being washed. I was quite amazed to see that six out of the ten digits represented by the rods in the WA photo were in colours that roughly correspond to my colour-grapheme synaesthesia for numbers. One of the rod colours was pretty close. I don’t think this is a coincidence. One of the numbers that was not a match for the rods in colour was indeed a match for the old Australian paper dollar note for that number.
Does finding a learned origin for my synaesthesia associations show that my synaesthesia is not “biological” or genuine? No it doesn’t. Synaesthesia researchers know that syn is a thing that develops at around the age when kids are being educated with tools such as these rods, and it is known that there are cultural/linguistic influences on grapheme-color synesthesia.
This is a link to some Cuisenaire Rods for sale. The colours are a bit different to the ones I used as a kid:
In this interesting post from last November at her blog, Debbie Pullinger, postgraduate university student and synaesthete, has described her experiences of what is apparently the involuntary retrieval of visual memories of a very specific scene triggered by reading a particular book, and how such apparently randomly retrieved visual memories can then become the setting for her visualization of the plot or the recounted events in the narrative of the book. Thank you Debbie for sharing your interesting observations! I have many times experienced the same type of experiences, and I am also a synaesthete. If I am re-reading a book that I have previously read while at an outdoor location, I will generally involuntarily experience a visual memory of the scene that I saw at the same time that I first read that book. Two of our synaesthete kids and I also experience a similar memory phenomenon which involuntarily links concepts with visual memories of scenes. I believe it is an interesting and scientifically undiscovered hybrid of synaesthesia and the memory technique known as the method of loci or the memory palace. I wrote about this phenomenon in this blog, naming it Involuntary Method of of Loci Memorization (IMLM). Debbie’s experiences of the involuntary visualization of memories of real scenes while visualizing scenes in fiction and non-fiction books is I think the same phenomenon which I described at this blog on April 26th of this year in my post about Heather Sellers’ autobiography. I find it quite fascinating the Debbie described her own visual experiences while reading a particular passage in an Oliver Sacks book in which Sacks visits a musician study subject at the person’s home and listens to the subject playing piano. Debbie inexplicably visualized this scene played out in an outdoor setting. When I read a similar scene in another Oliver Sacks book I involuntarily visualized it set in the small living room of the home unit of an long-dead aunt, the way it looked decades ago when she lived there. One point of difference between Debbie and myself is her assertion that Wednesday if a mottled, mossy green. I literally can’t see how this could be true, when the word Wednesday starts with a letter that is a yellowy-tan colour, and also has a dreary but sensible adult female personality.
There’s a great big unanswered question about the experiences that Ms Pullinger has described, and the many similar types of experiences that I have described, which appear to be types of synaesthesia in which visual memories of scenes are synaesthesia concurrents or inducers. Are these experiences peculiar to synaesthetes? Do “normal” people experience IMLM or similar experiences? Are these rare or atypical experiences? If only a minority of people have experiences such as involuntary visualization of memories of real or past scenes while reading books, what is the size of that minority? Have we described perfectly “normal” and commonplace experiences, or have we described something interesting and novel to science? I’ve been waiting in vain for an answer to this question from any scientist for a couple of years now. I’m not holding my breath.
If you have been reading this blog for a long time you’d know I’ve been trying to figure out which parts of my brain are responsible for my synaesthesia and related experiences. I’ve found that the right fusiform gyrus is a part of the brain that comes up over and over again, in relation to synaesthesia and also face recognition I experience many types of synaesthesia and also have achieved scores in face recognition tests consistent with being a super-recognizer, so this combination seems significant, and despite a lack of any evidence from other case studies linking synaesthesia with superior ability in face recognition, I still think it is a possible relationship that should be scientifically investigated, especially in light of a pattern of associations which I believe suggests that synaesthesia might be a neuropsychological condition that could be seen as the opposite of Benson’s syndrome, which is a type of dementia that involves a loss of visual perception, apparently including a loss of face recognition ability. While synesthesia is generally an inborn developmental condition, and Benson’s or PCA a neurodegenerative condition with a typical onset late in life, I’ve still got to wonder whether inborn factors contribute towards Benson’s. While Benson’s is considered to be a variant of Alzheimer’s, I don’t think anyone knows why it causes deterioration in different areas of the brain as are affected by Alzheimer’s, apparently the same parts of the brain (at the rear) that appear to be enhanced or hyperactive in my brain, and I also doubt that anyone knows why Benson’s has an onset earlier than Alzheimer’s disease. I’m sceptical of the idea that Benson’s is just Alzheimer’s of the back-end of the brain. I suspect that immune system elements microglia and complement might be central to an explanation for Benson’s syndrome. Reading Dr B. Croisile’s paper about Benson’s I’m struck by the many very strange effects of Benson’s on perception, and I wonder at the ways in which a study of it might inform science about the workings of the brain. I think it is at least as interesting as synaesthesia, which attracts a lot of attention from researchers. Apparently people with Benson’s cannot imitate movements. Does this mean that the mirror-neuron system which so many neuroscientists have gotten so excited about is located at the rear of the brain? I note that the inferior parietal cortex is one of the parts of the brain that are thought to house mirror neurons.
When I set out to write this post I had actually planned to write about a fairly recent review journal paper focusing on recent research about the most common and well-known types of synaesthesia: coloured hearing, coloured graphemes and time units in space synaesthesia. I really like the paper cited below by Professor Karsten Specht from the University of Bergen in Norway, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the latest knowledge about synaesthesia from just one paper. I only have a couple of gripes about he paper. I wouldn’t describe synaesthesia as “rare” as Specht does. Ward, Sagiv and Butterworth wrote in 2009 that around 12% of the population have number forms, and that estimate doesn’t surprise me. Synaesthesia in general can’t be rare if it includes one type that isn’t rare. Time-space synaesthesia or number forms is one type of synaesthesia which the synaesthete can have but not suspect that it is synesthesia, or anything out of the ordinary, so I’d guess it could be very much under-reported and under-estimated. My other gripe with Professor Specht’s paper is this bit; “In recent years, several studies have attempted to investigate whether synaesthesia is primarily a perceptual or conceptual phenomenon.” I think Specht is here presenting the reader with a false dichotomy. In some of the types of synaesthesia and related phenomena which I experience sensory perception, memory and conceptual thinking are connected with synaesthesthetic linkages, so I doubt that there is much point in trying to characterise synaesthesia as one or another type of phenomenon. I was very excited when I read the book Beyond Human Nature by philosopher Jesse Prinz. Professor Prinz argued that we think in mental images rather than in language. He wrote that “It used to be thought that the back part of the brain is used for perceiving and the front is used for thinking. But we now know that the back part of the brain, where most of the senses are located, is very active when people think. Moreover, we know that the front part of the brain does not work on its own, but rather coordinates and reactivates sensory patterns in the back. Recent evidence from Linda Chao and Alex Martin has shown that reading activates the same areas as looking at pictures, suggesting that we visualize what we read.” In a post that I wrote a while ago I described involuntarily “seeing” in my mind’s eye visual images of landscapes and building interiors from imagination and memory while listening to an autobiographical audio-book. I thought it was probably related to synaesthesia, but it appears that everyone’s brain illustrates text with images when reading. Perhaps synaesthetes do this to a greater degree or in a way that is more available to conscious awareness.
Anyway, back to Specht’s paper. Having read it I now suspect that the parts of my brain that are bigger or better connected or more active or something are: the right fusiform gyrus (including the FFA), the left parietal lobe including the left intraparietal sulcus, the right inferior parietal lobe, the hippocampus (I’m sure is involved with IMLM) and the parahippocampal gyrus. I’d guess that these are the places where interesting things are happening. It appears that the role of the parietal lobe in synaesthesia has been understated in the past. It is now thought that synaesthesia does not solely involve the cross-activation of two different sensory areas (as if it was ever that simple!), but it also requires a “binding” process to happen in the parietal lobe. There is no underestimating the importance of this binding.
If you are as interested in synaesthesia and bits of the brain as I am, you might also like to read a much longer journal paper by Rouw, Scholte and Colizoli that was published last year. It is available in full text at no cost, but I don’t think it covers non-colour types of synaesthesia. Details can be found below. One part of the parietal lobe mentioned in that paper, which is cited by a few studies as involved with synaesthesia is the inferior parietal lobule (IPL, Brodmann areas 39 and 40). It is also known as Geschwind’s territory because the neurologist Geschwind predicted in the 1960s that the parietal lobe played a role in language, and was proven right when the IPL was found to include a second connection between Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which are of central importance in language. The IPL is very interesting as a part of the brain involved in synaesthesia because according to a 2004 article in New Scientist magazine the IPL matures at a late age, between the ages of five and seven years, which just happens to be time in life when children typically learn the ability to read and write, and it is also the age range in which some children develop grapheme-colour synaesthesia. I find this very interesting because in my family we have at least three closely related grapheme-colour synaesthetes who are unusually high achievers in reading and writing in testing and academic achievement. Two of these synaesthetes were early readers and also talented at language learning. What’s the betting that some gene that alters the development of the IPL is behind this? The author of the most interesting little science magazine article that brought me this news, Alison Motluk, is herself a synaesthete. Is it just a coincidence that a journalist with a well-connected brain has pointed out a number of interestingly related facts that are connected around the conceptual hub of the inferior parietal lobule?
Specht, Karsten Synaesthesia: cross activations, high interconnectivity, and a parietal hub. Translational Neuroscience. Volume 3 Number 1 (2012), 15-21, DOI: 10.2478/s13380-012-0007-z
Croisile, Bernard Benson’s syndrome or Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Orphanet. September 2004. http://www.orpha.net/data/patho/GB/uk-Benson.pdf
Ward, Jamie, Sagiv, Noam and Butterworth, Brian The impact of visuo-spatial number forms on simple arithmetic. Cortex. Volume 45 Issue 10Pages 1261-1265 (November 2009). http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00213-5/abstract
Rouw, Romke, Scholte, H. Steven, Colizoli, Olympia Brain areas involved in synaesthesia: A review. Journal of Neuropsychology. Special Issue: Synaesthesia. September 2011 Volume 5 Issue 2 p.214-242. Article first published online: 16 SEP 2011 DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-6653.2011.02006.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1748-6653.2011.02006.x/full
Motluk, Alison Two links good for kids’ language comphrehension. New Scientist. Issue 2478. December 18th 2004. p.12. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18424784.300-second-link-discovered-in-human-language-circuit.html