Tag Archives: Helen Thomson

Ramachandran notes the connection between synaesthesia and embodied cognition

Just what I’ve been writing about for yonks now.

Thomson, Helen Synaesthetes who ‘see’ calendar hint how our brains handle time. New Scientist. November 16th 2016.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2113063-synaesthetes-who-see-calendar-hint-how-our-brains-handle-time/

 

There is a tiny little face inside your brain (or at least there should be one)

Linda Henriksson, Marieke Mur, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte Faciotopy—A face-feature map with face-like topology in the human occipital face area. Cortex. Volume 72, Pages e1-e2, 1-178 (November 2015) p.156-167.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945215002464

 

Thomson, Helen Your face is mapped on the surface of other people’s brains. New Scientist. January 19th 2016.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2073919-your-face-is-mapped-on-the-surface-of-other-peoples-brains/

 

Your face is mapped on the surface of other people’s brains. New Scientist. Issue 3057 23 January 2016.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2073682-your-face-is-mapped-on-the-surface-of-other-peoples-brains/

 

Cortex
Volume 72, Pages e1-e2, 1-178 (November 2015)
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts Distributed circuits in visual cognition
Edited by Paolo Bartolomeo, Patrik Vuilleumier and Marlene Behrmann

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452/72/supp/C

 

This week’s New Scientist has cover story about super-recognizers

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830484-800-super-recognisers-could-be-used-to-identify-strangers-in-cctv/

Eagleman always working on very interesting research

This article in the October 10th 2015 issue of New Scientist about David Eagleman by Helen Thomson is well worth a look, but unfortunately behind a paywall. Dr Eagleman is known to me as a leading synaesthesia researcher whose team developed the world’s best test of synaesthesia, which anyone can do online at no cost, and get the full results. The recent article is not about synaesthesia at all, but the research theme is very similar to synaesthesia in that it is about a device created by Eagleman and his team that can use one sensory modality to sense input that is completely different to what is normally sensed through that sense. The versatile extrasensory transducer (VEST) can convert non-sensory data streams or sensory information into touch sensory input, and apparently Eagleman’s team are trying to find out if it can be used to help the deaf to hear through the sensory mode of touch, which would be a clever feat on a par with blind people who can echolocate. Some of the other ideas about using the device to sense data streams fascinate me with the wide-open potential for this technology, but the idea of using this kind of technology to monitor one’s own blood glucose level seems redundant. Surely a more efficient way to acquire this skill would be through feedback training to boost a latent natural ability to sense this biological state? I am certain that I can sense my own blood pressure levels, and probably many other states.

Dr Eagleman has a new TV series airing in the USA and a book out that is a companion to the series. How long until we will see them here in Australia? I can only guess, and wait.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830420-500-my-smart-vest-will-offer-you-extra-senses/

Eagleman Laboratory

http://www.eaglemanlab.net/

The Brain with David Eagleman

http://www.pbs.org/the-brain-with-david-eagleman/home/

Is there a relationship between prosopagnosia and Capgras syndrome?

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429944.700-imposter-disorder-explains-how-mans-wife-was-stolen.html#.VGQ5rfmUd8E

Another fascinating addition to the Mindscapes series

Mindscapes is a series of articles by Helen Thomson at New Scientist magazine on neuro-psychological topics that often overlap with the kinds of things that I write about here. The latest in the series is an article about Sharon whose condition is developmental topographical disorientation (DTD). For a long time I’ve included within this blog’s large and useful link list a link to a useful researchers’ website about this type of disability or problem because it appears to coincide with prosopagnosia in some people, and extreme variation in face memory ability is one of the main themes of this blog. That researcher’s website is Getting Lost.ca and it is run by people at the NeuroLab which is directed by Dr. Giuseppe Iaria and is located in the Department of Psychology of the University of Calgary. Sharon in this article was diagnosed by Dr Iaria.

Without knowing it, I have already written about the type of experience that Sharon feels when she becomes geographically disoriented (but this is possibly a piece of writing I never published). On the odd occasion I’ve had similar experiences while riding trains in low light conditions or on unfamiliar train lines. For a moment or two I will struggle to make sense of where I am in relation to Perth’s geography, nothing will feel familiar and will feel as though I might have mistakenly got on a train heading in the wrong direction. There is no sensory alteration associated with this kind of brief experience, just the loss of a sense of certainty and a feeling of familiarity. My theory is that this experience is caused by two different systems in the brain (visual and spatial) which both contribute towards navigation going out of sync, disconnecting or one operating in  the absence of the other. I believe the basic problem is a loss of a sense of the four directions, or in my case, more specifically a loss of the sense of where the sea is (west). Nothing in navigation makes sense if you don’t know the directions, which is why maps all have a north-pointing arrow (should point west in my opinion). I think Dr Iaria’s team’s  idea of a therapy using a belt with tactile stimulation to indicate north is a great idea, but they might want to consider if some “patients” might find some other direction more personally and emotionally  meaningful.

I think it is interesting that the researchers have found that people who experience DTD have “decreased communication between two brain areas”. You could call this hypoconnectivity, and this fact fits in neatly with the well-supported theory that prosopagnosia is characterized by hypoconnectivity. At this blog I have put forward the theory that super-recognition, which is elite ability in face memory and the opposite of prosopagnosia, is the result of hyperconnectivity, a theory that is supported by the fact that I’m a super-recognizer and I also experience many different varieties of synaesthesia, a harmless neuro-cognitive variation which a number of research studies have found to be associated with hyperconnectivity. At this blog I have also theorized that there are clusters of interesting neuro-cognitive conditions that could be seen as opposites because they are either characterized by high ability and hyperconnectivity or impaired ability and hypoconnectivity. In the “hyper” camp I place super-recognition, synaesthesia, precocious reading, a heightened visual and spatial sense of place (manifest by walking, outdoor photography and creating navigational computer simulations as favoured pastimes) and giftedness in literacy skills such as reading, spelling and writing (which runs in my family which has included a number of specialist English teachers, a librarian and a university student of literature). In the “hypo” camp I’d place DTD, dyslexia and poor reading fluency and prosopagnosia. My scheme of clusters raises a couple of interesting questions. Is there a condition that is the opposite of synaesthesia? How would it manifest in experiences or behaviour? Might it manifest as an inability to comprehend metaphorical speech or thinking, such as the statements “I’d like to try a sharp cheese” or “What a cheeky little car the Volkswagen Beetle was”. Might it manifest as a lived experience in which colours are not a big thing or a huge pleasure or a distraction? Might it manifest as a calm and logical disposition in which ideas are only thrown together after fully conscious and logical consideration? We must always take into consideration that synaesthesia appears to be a stable and ubiquitous feature of the human race, but synaesthetes are always naturally a minority group. If it is so fantastic being hyperconnected, with good reading skills and top face memory, why hasn’t evolution selected this trait for all or most of humanity? This brings us to the second question that follows from my cluster theory. If a group of disabilities is characterized by hypoconnectivity, and being a “hypo” runs in families (as it does), then why does nature keep giving us “hypo” people? My intuition about evolution and bell curves tells me that there must be either a negative side to being a “hyper” or a positive side to being a “hypo”. Being average and normal must have a lot going for it too I guess. Do “hypo” people have some special gift? Are they good at sport or perhaps unusually calm or focused? Some people believe dyslexia in some way promotes entrepreneurial ability, citing names like Sir Richard Branson and Kerry Packer as examples. More research needed!

An afterthought; synaesthete readers – do you have colours for the four directions? Are they based on the colours of the first letters of the names of the directions, or are they unique colours? Do you experience images for any of the directions?

Faces, faces everywhere

I’ve been following with great interest the Mindscapes series of articles in New Scientist magazine by Helen Thompson. This week is no less fascinating, maybe even more. It’s about a man whose personality changed following two strokes, paradoxically transforming from criminality to sensitivity, with the strokes also triggering an unstoppable surge of artistic creativity. The artist’s name was Tommy McHugh. He passed away last year. Such artists by virtue of brain transformation are sometimes labelled as acquired savants, and the interesting thing is that they often seem to experience synaesthesia, which raises the question of whether they were always synaesthetes or perhaps synaesthesia is latent in all people, and can be uncovered by changes in brain functioning. What especially interests me about McHugh’s art is the extraordinary focus on faces in his paintings and also sculptures, many of them having such subtle depictions of multiple faces that they could be described as a celebration of pareidolia. Colour is also clearly an aspect of visual experience that McHugh enjoyed experimenting with. I was also struck by McHugh’s description of what it was like to have the first stroke; when he woke up in hospital he saw a tree sprouting numbers. That sounds like just the type of non-psychotic hallucination that Oliver Sacks described in his recent book Hallucinations. It is my understanding that faces, colour and graphemes including numbers are all processed in the fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is also believed to be involved in at least some types of synaesthesia. I know about this stuff because I have experienced synaesthesia involving faces, graphemes, colours and just about everything that goes on in the fusiform gyrus, and I’m apparently naturally gifted in face memory ability. It looks as though McHugh could also have experienced synaesthesia, judging by the title of one painting “Feeling the Feelings Tasting Emotions”. Yes, I’ve experienced that too. A few years ago I speculated that the famous synaesthete Bauhaus artist Kandinsky showed a focus on the things processed in the fusiform gyrus in one of his paintings (Upward), including a face that could be missed by viewers not gifted with a goodly dose of pareidolia.  This might be what happens when your fusiform gyrus gets off it’s leash, and McHugh insisted that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23523-mindscapes-stroke-turned-excon-into-rhyming-painter.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/ex_pictures_gallery/index.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/ex_sculptures_gallery/es_index.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/index.html

Oh look! Article in fascinating “Mindscapes” series in New Scientist about prosopagnosia

Autobiographer Heather Sellers is profiled, prosopagnosia is described, leading face memory researcher Brad Duchaine is interviewed and a brain scan study of his is described, an interesting study by Italian researcher Zaira Cattaneo using transcranial magnetic stimulation is outlined. Nice work, Helen Thomson! I wonder whether a super-recognizer might in the future be featured in this series? I can only guess.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23482-mindscapes-the-woman-who-cant-recognise-her-face.html

Links to research papers:

Martin Eimer, Angela Gosling and Bradley Duchaine Electrophysiological markers of covert face recognition in developmental prosopagnosia. Brain (2012) 135(2): 542-554 first published online January 23, 2012 doi:10.1093/brain/awr347  http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/135/2/542

Chiara Renzi, Susanna Schiavi, Claus-Christian Carbon, Tomaso Vecchi, Juha Silvanto, Zaira Cattaneo Processing of featural and configural aspects of faces is lateralized in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: A TMS study. NeuroImage. July 2013.   http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811913001420

 

Evocative images?

I was reading this fascinating article about Depersonalisation disorder in a science magazine, and my curiosity was sparked by this “These people also show unusual autonomic physical responses to external stimuli, such as evocative images (Emotion Review, DOI: 10.1177/1754073911430135).” Unfortunately I probably can’t access the paper referred to thru our inadequate library system. I was curious because based on that short quote is sounds something like synaesthesia, which wouldn’t seem to fit into the story about the neurological basis of this disorder.

Another thing that made me wonder was why this neurological condition is being described as a mental illness, both in the way the magazine categorized the article under “mental health” and also in the paper cited, which clearly describes DPD as a psychiatric condition and the author of the paper is a professor of psychiatry. A case which had an onset triggered by a migraine is described in the article, and it says that the condition responds to an epilepsy drug. Isn’t that a clear enough indication that it’s neurological not psychiatric? There are some important differences to patients between being diagnosed as mentally ill or having a neurological condition. People with epilepsy, stuttering, autism and Tourettes fought to be liberated from labeling as psychiatric cases, because of all of the legal and social negatives that go with such labeling. I hope people with DPD are able to do the same, and avoid any unjustified use of psychiatry drugs.

Mindscapes: The woman who was dropped into her body. by Helen Thomson New Scientist. 25 April 2013   http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23445-mindscapes-the-woman-who-was-dropped-into-her-body.html

P. S. May 2nd 2013

Oh, what a stupid mistake! Either I’ve misread the New Scientist article or the author has written it in a way that is unclear, and it appears that the people with DPD don’t experience evocative images, they were shown emotionally evocative images during studies. I guess that is the type of mistake that only a weird old synaesthete would make.

Anyway, thanks to Dr Nick Medford for sharing his most interesting study with me. It’s interesting that DPD might be triggered by disturbance in sensory systems, which seems in some way similar or related to embodied cognition. At this blog I’ve written about relationships between embodied cognition, conceptual thinking and synaesthesia in my own case and I very much like the idea of embodied cognition. There seems to be a growing understanding that embodied perception and sensory experiences rather than language are the stuff of thought, as can be seen in some writing by philosopher Jesse Prinz and a new book by cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen who has argued that “When we hear words and sentences we engage the parts of our brain that we use for perception and action, repurposing these evolutionarily older networks to create simulations in our minds” and thus create meaning. Here’s some links if you are interested in chasing up books by Bergen and Prinz:  http://www.amazon.com/Louder-Than-Words-Science-Meaning/dp/0465028292  and  http://subcortex.com/

Other cases of synaesthesia involving face perception – I’m certainly not the only one

“In short, for our person–colour synaesthetes the inducer can be sensorial, semantic or a motor one: An emotion, an action, an attitude, facial recognition or sense of familiarity. Then we can speak of synaesthesia, ideaesthesia (Nikolic, 2009) and kinetoesthesia.”

That is a quote from a very interesting paper by Spanish psychology researchers that was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition in March of this year. So we have a case of synaesthesia involving facial recognition described in a science journal. So I’m not the only one in the world. I never thought I was the only one, in fact I think I might have predicted that other cases must exist, somewhere in this blog, based on the observation that functions of the fusiform gyrus are so often involved in the various types of synesthesia (colour perception, letter recognition, word recognition) and face recognition is another function of the fusiform gyrus. I have given a special name to my own experience of facial recognition synaesthesia – “The Strange Phenomenon”, and I described it in great detail in the very first post in this blog. This blog was created as a record of my search to find a scientific explanation for The Strange Phenomenon. The authors of the March 2012 paper also found action-related synaesthesia, which is another unusual type of synaesthesia that I experience which I have also described in detail in this blog. I often experience images in my mind’s eye of sometimes very old memories of landscape scenes from my past triggered by doing fine-motor household chores with my hands.

The question needs to be asked – why have Spanish researchers been able to discover and describe such interesting and complex cases of synaesthesia, while there don’t seem to be comparable case studies from the UK or the US? I’ve never seen people -> animal synaesthesia described or even mentioned as a possibility before reading the fascinating paper that was published in March in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Perhaps the apparently negative attitude of V. S. Ramachandran towards synaesthete subjects of study gives a clue as to why more interesting synaesthesia case studies seem to be missing from research from English-speaking countries. The famous Rama’s habit of describing synesthesia as a scrambling of the brain grates the first time one reads it and gets very, very old once I’ve seen it in print a few times. On the other hand, perhaps there is nothing wrong with Anglophone synaesthesia researchers, and it is simply the case that the Spanish have more interesting minds, including Spanish synaesthetes. Having viewed paintings by Dali and photos of buildings by Gaudi and witnessed a strikingly original and often quite dangerous performance by La Fura Dels Baus at the Perth International Arts Festival a couple of years ago, I could believe that.

E.G. Milán, O. Iborra, M. Hochel, M.A. Rodríguez Artacho, L.C. Delgado-Pastor, E. Salazar, A. González-Hernández Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison. Consciousness and Cognition.  Volume 21 Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 258–268. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810011002868  (This paper is clearly a translation and difficult reading in parts)

Synesthesia May Explain Healers Claims of Seeing People’s ‘Aura’. ScienceDaily. May 4th 2012http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120504110024.htm

Ramachandran VS, Miller L, Livingstone MS, Brang D. Colored halos around faces and emotion-evoked colors: A new form of synesthesia. Neurocase. Available online: 25 Nov 2011.  DOI:10.1080/13554794.2011.608366. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13554794.2011.608366   http://psy2.ucsd.edu/~dbrang/images/Ramachandran_NNCS_InPress.pdf

Ramachandran VS The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011http://www.amazon.com/The-Tell-Tale-Brain-Neuroscientists-Quest/dp/0393077829  http://books.google.com.au/books/about/The_Tell_Tale_Brain.html?id=Y5vLDglww74C&redir_esc=y (Robert with coloured face aura synaesthesia indicating emotions percieved in others and also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome described on pages 101-102.)

Thomson, Helen Is this proof that spooky auras are real? Short Sharp Science (blog at New Scientist) 14 November 2010. http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/34lNK2/www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2010/11/auras.html?utm_source=KurzweilAI+Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=0ab5dd44ff-UA-946742-1&utm_medium=email/r:t