Tag Archives: Julia Simner

Amazed, not in a good way

The 2013 journal paper that ripped-off my excellent and original idea linking synaesthesia with specific elements of the immune system (published in this blog in 2012) has been reprinted as a chapter in a book that was published just a few months ago. One of the book’s authors is also one of the two authors of that paper, and another one of the book’s authors was an editor of that paper. Have these people no shame?

https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Tmy5CgAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

The offending paper has also been cited in a 2015 paper by two of the book’s authors

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4403345/

Also not nice to know that recent work of those researchers was scheduled to be presented by one of them at the Eleventh Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association at the University of Miami, Florida, held last month. This year’s conference was organized by the same academic who was the reviewer of the offending 2013 journal paper.

http://www.synesthesia.info/upcoming.html

http://www.as.miami.edu/media/college-of-arts-and-sciences/content-assets/philosophy/docs/October%202-4%202015_Synesthesia_Program-miamiflorida.pdf

And one of those researchers will be the supervisor of a PhD studentship beginning January 2016

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/study/money/scholarships/pgr2016/view/541

I’d like to invite those involved (so many of them) to individually or collectively go and dip their left eyes in hot cocky cack, to quote an Australian cinema classic

http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/adventures-barry-mckenzie/clip1/?nojs=Ver

 

 

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Have my ideas been plagiarized in a paper published in a neuroscience journal? I believe they have.

This post replaces a brief temporary posting which was previously published here, with the notice that it would be added to at a later date when I had more time. I’m a busy parent who gets paid nothing to write and I have struggled to find the time to give this important matter proper attention. Do not be surprised if you find this post edited or altered.

I’ll get to the point straight away. I believe that I am the victim of plagiarism. At the very least, I believe that I have scientific priority in regard to a group of related scientific ideas or hypotheses, and my priority in regard to two of those ideas has not been recognized, and as a result some ideas which I published at my blog in 2012 have been presented in a journal paper that was published this year as though those ideas were new. The two ideas which were re-published by others in 2013 as though they were their original ideas are the idea that synaesthesia could be caused by unusually low levels of complement (a group of immune system chemicals) and also the idea implied by that idea that synaesthesia could have as its origin some peculiarity in an element of the immune system which plays a dual role in the development of the brain. The complement chemicals are certainly not the only elements of the immune system which are thought to influence the brain. I am not alleging that plagiarism in the form of word-for-word copying of text has happened in regard to the documents cited below. I am alleging that plagiarism of ideas has happened, and even though this type of plagiarism is not easy to prove, I can prove that I published my blog article introducing my ideas over a year before the journal  paper by the others was even received as a manuscript by the journal which would eventually publish it.

Below are the details of my blog post published in June 2012 which contains the ideas which I believe have been plagiarized:

Wright, C. Is synaesthesia caused by low levels of complement? Is Benson’s syndrome (PCA) caused by too much complement C3? Could synesthesia and posterior cortical atrophy be considered in some way opposites? Am I a super-recognizer? June 7, 2012.

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/is-synaesthesia-caused-by-low-levels-of-complement-is-bensons-syndrome-caused-by-too-much-complement-c3/

and permanently archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine on June 21st 2012: http://web.archive.org/web/20120621071430/https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/

Below are the details of the published journal paper which includes what I believe is plagiarism of my ideas, or at the very least the re-publication of my ideas without any acknowledgement of me or my writing:

Carmichael, Duncan A. and Simner, Julia The immune hypothesis of synesthesia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 563.

Published online 2013 September 11. doi:  10.3389/fnhum.2013.00563

Received July 31, 2013; Accepted August 23, 2013.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3769635/?report=classic

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3769635/    (see the “article notes” at this version to view all the dates relevant to publication of this paper.)

http://www.frontiersin.org/human_neuroscience/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00563/full

https://pubpeer.com/publications/13259457EAEBF97186167E7BDFB6B3

Please note the dates cited relating to the process of getting this paper published. There is nothing in those dates that could serve as evidence that these authors independently thought of the ideas in the paper before I published my blog piece. I published my blog piece in June 2012 and the above paper was received by the above journal in July 2013. The authors could have been wildly plagiarizing during the thirteen months or so after I published my piece and before their paper reached the offices of the journal.

I think it is important to point out that I had no contact or communication with either of the authors of the above journal paper about my ideas about synaesthesia and the immune system during the period before their paper was published. I did not inform them about or discuss my ideas on this subject privately and I did not privately grant them permission to use or publish my ideas, and I am not one of the “anonymous reviewers” who made “helpful comments” on the manuscript of the above paper, who were mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the above paper. Shortly before I published my ideas about synaesthesia and the immune system I did have a short and one-sided email correspondence about some of my ideas with a microglia researcher and I also sent a non-specific email off to a local medical specialist. The authors of the above journal paper did not privately inform me about any ideas or theories linking the immune system with synaesthesia before the publication of my blog post on that subject. It is my sincere belief that my ideas in that post were new and original and had not previously been published. I also did not receive any information or “leaks” about the work of the authors of the journal paper from any third party.

If you take a careful look at the details of my blog post you might notice that one of my scientific hypotheses is presented within the internet address of that posting and also within the title of the posting, and the internet address also contains details of the date of publication. Like all of the internet addresses of the posts at this blog, it was automatically generated by WordPress when I published the post. The date of publication is also automatically added to the blog post during publication, as is the name of the author. Unfortunately, the date of blog posts can be altered post-publication, with this alteration reflected in the web address of the post and the situation of the post in the chronological sequence of the blog. While the blog can be altered, one cannot alter blog readers’ memories of my blog posts and any records that they might have kept of them, and this blog has a diverse and steady readership. In situations demanding proof of the date and also the content of a document published on the internet, one free resource on the internet is invaluable; the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. This internet archiving service archived my June 7th 2012 blog article on two different dates in two different forms. The earlier archived record was recorded on June the 21st 2012 with the blog post included in a record of the whole home page of my blog on that date.

http://web.archive.org/web/20120621071430/https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/

This date was only a fortnight after the post was first published and over a year and a month before the others’ journal paper was received as a manuscript by the journal that would later publish it. This proves that my blog post was published on the internet at least before June 21st 2012, a long time before the journal paper was published online or in hardcopy, or was even received by the journal publisher. The content of my blog post as was published then is also documented and can be checked. The blog post was also archived in November 2013 within an archive of a month’s blog posts.

In addition to citing the archived old record of my blog post as evidence, there is other evidence that I can cite to show a long history of me expressing ideas such as those in my blog post, ideas that overlap with ideas presented in the journal paper, and many more novel, original and inter-related ideas besides. The origin and development of the ideas in my blog piece can be traced back a long way in time within my own writing at my blog. I theorized not only that synaesthesia could be caused by low levels of the immune chemical complement, I also theorized that a form of dementia, which to my knowledge has never by anyone else been linked to or contrasted with synaesthesia in scientific discussion, could be caused by excessively high levels of complement. I also theorized that this type of dementia, Benson’s syndrome or PCA, could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia or at least the opposite of the cluster of unusual functional characteristics of my own brain. Implied within this theory is the idea that there is some kind of network within the brain of parts that are especially sensitive to some factor that influences growth or pruning or cell death, because the same mental functions appear to be boosted at least since early childhood in the brains of me and some of my first-degree relatives which decline in Benson’s syndrome. I have no reason to believe that the early specific cognitive enhancements are some unknown facet of Benson’s, because there is no particular history of dementia in my family. I still see the two conditions as opposites, potentially with one common factor (extreme levels of some influential chemical) unlocking the mystery of both. My post published in June 2102 was not the first place where I published my own ideas about Benson’s syndrome being the opposite of synaesthesia. I had first written about this apparently original and new idea in a blog post published in January 2011:

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/the-opposite-of-bensons-syndrome/

This blog article was archived and recorded by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine in March of 2011:

http://web.archive.org/web/20120308215442/https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/the-opposite-of-bensons-syndrome/

It is clear that my ideas in my June 2012 blog post were a development of ideas that I had already published at this blog in January 2011, indeed I quoted from my earlier blog post in my latter blog post. My earlier blog post has been archived by a third party and stands with other related blog posts as a record of the direction and date of the development of my ideas, which are very congruent with the many ideas expressed in my June 2012 blog post. In contrast, it appears to me that that the authors of the journal paper which I believe is a plagiarism of ideas in my blog post cannot demonstrate any published and/or archived set of documents that show the development of their ideas towards any theory linking synaesthesia with any element of the immune system. I believe this because I have done a quick check of the lists of past publications of both authors. I have not been able to trace any development of theories about synaesthesia in their work or academic collaboration that might lead them to look at the immune system, and I was not able to find any hint or explanation in the journal paper itself about why these researchers arrived at a theory about the immune system. In my opinion, their theory linking synaesthesia with the immune system appeared “out of the blue” within the context of their own published research and published papers. If anyone can identify any dateable and/or archived document by either of the authors of the journal paper that shows an early development of the idea of linking synaesthesia with the immune system then I would be very interested to see that document, and I request that a comment detailing such document be left at this blog. The apparent absence of evidence of a theoretical progression or development towards “the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia” in the published work of the two authors of the journal paper is one reason why I cannot believe that they conceived of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia independently as a team or as individuals.

The immune hypothesis of synaesthesia would not have been proposed had it not been for the work of researchers who investigate the dual roles of elements of the immune system which also play a role in brain development and neuroplasticity. The authors of the journal paper have primarily cited the work of Assistant Professor Lisa Boulanger who studies MHC Class 1 proteins, while in my blog post I concentrated on the work of Assistant Professor Beth Stevens who studies microglia and complement. It appears to me as though the authors of the journal paper have made a deliberate decision to anchor their theoretical ideas onto a different existing body of research in molecular biology than the body of research that inspired my theories. I believe they had the aim of distancing or differentiating the content of their paper from the content of my blog post. I first learned about the work of Beth Stevens from reading a June 2012 article in New Scientist magazine. Although the authors of the journal paper evidently at some point in time developed an interest in the work of Boulanger and consulted her during the writing of the paper, it is not clear why in 2013 they should be publishing a paper at least in part inspired by her work, because the papers of hers cited were published in the years 2004, 2009 and 2010, hardly the latest news in neuroscience. The most recent items in the journal paper’s references list relating to the immune system and the brain are a 2012 paper by Elmer and McAllister and a 2012 paper by Beth Stevens and two other authors. Boulanger does molecular biology at Princeton University in the United States while the authors of the journal paper do psychology and psychiatry at Edinburgh University in the UK, so it seems unlikely that the three by chance swapped ideas over lunch.

I have noticed an absence of mention of or enthusiasm for the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia in 2012 and 2013 media coverage and conference presentations featuring either of the authors of the journal paper, and I find this curious. It appears that they deliberately kept quiet about the hypothesis before it made it into publication. Why?

One of the authors, Duncan Carmichael, was interviewed for the British radio show The Naked Scientists on October 7th 2012, and his research on synaesthesia was the subject of the discussion:

http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/interviews/interview/2269/

Even though this interview was conducted roughly nine months before Carmichael’s and Simner’s journal paper about synaesthesia was received by the journal as a manuscript, no evidence of a conception of the idea of an immune hypothesis of synaesthesia can be found within Carmichael’s answers in this interview. He spoke about a genetic study, but said not a thing about the immune system. I find it hard to believe that a researcher who gave such an ordinary account of the contemporary state of knowledge and research on synaesthesia was a member of the team who generated one of the most original ideas in synaesthesia research for a long time. Wouldn’t he have been barely able to contain his excitement about the novel scientific theory? I know that is how I felt about it when I thought of it.

This is a university web page outlining the work of Duncan Carmichael:

http://www.anc.ed.ac.uk/dtc/index.php?option=com_people&func=showall&userid=387

I cannot find evidence of a lot of originality in thinking or the development of ideas about the immune system in the work detailed at this page. It looks like some standard ideas about synaesthesia explored by a PhD student whose background in psychology and psychiatry is pretty standard for synaesthesia researchers.

An abstract of a conference presentation delivered and co-authored by Duncan Carmichael can be found at the below link and a link to what appears to be the slide images used in that talk can also be accessed at the below link:

http://www.synesthesia.info/recent.html

This conference was the Tenth Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association held in Canada May 31 through June 2, 2013, roughly two months before the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia paper was received by the journal as a manuscript. I looked at the abstract and also the slide show and I found a spelling error and some questionable unexplained assumptions in the slide presentation but I found no hint of the development of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. I find it remarkable that Carmichael could have co-written and submitted a publishable a paper containing some highly original and paradigm-shifting ideas barely a couple of months after giving talks at a conference about the same general area of research which gave no clue about the intellectual development of the novel ideas. When I look at the highly conventional and ideas about synaesthesia in Carmichael’s written work, media appearance and May-June 2013 conference presentation I find it impossible to believe that he is a part of the team that theoretically wed synaesthesia with the immune system for the first time based on their own ideas. One could argue that Carmichael was deliberately keeping the new theory a secret, but what can account for the contrast between the conventionality of his other work and the originality of the immune theory?

Perhaps the originality of the novel idea was the contribution of the other author? I’ll happily admit that Dr Julia Simner’s work on synaesthesia has consistently been interesting and she has made important and fairly novel contributions, but I could likewise find nothing in her work or in her academic background to indicate a curiosity about or knowledge of the immune system. Dr Simner categorizes herself as a cognitive neuropsychologist, and her academic background is in “psychology, languages and linguistics”.

This is a link to her university web page in which Carmichael is listed as a student supervised by Simner:

http://www.ppls.ed.ac.uk/people/julia-simner

Two 2013 media appearances are listed at the above page. One was at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. These are pages related to an August 2013 talk by Dr Simner at that festival:

http://www.audionetwork.com/content/whats-new/events/geitf/julia-simner-q-and-a

http://www.audionetwork.com/blog/author/dr-julia-simner/2013/8/27/synaesthesia—a-merging-of-the-senses.aspx

http://www.audionetwork.com/show-article.aspx?id=386

Unfortunately a recording of that talk appears to be no longer available. The talk was presented while the immune theory paper was in the process of being published but I found no hint of the paper’s theme in the page about Dr Simner’s talk.

This is the page about an appearance that Dr Simner made at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on April 1st 2013:

http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/whats-on/categories/activity/sensory-dining-1404

A PDF of the festival’s 2013 programme can be accessed here:

http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/uploads/EventImages2013/Edinburgh%20Science%20Festival%202013%20brochure.pdf

There’s nothing related to the immune system to be found in info about that appearance.

A Word document of Dr Simner’s CV can be downloaded from Simner’s university page:

http://www.psy.ed.ac.uk/people/view.php?name=julia-simner

Simner’s CV includes a quite up-to-date list of the publications. I searched her CV and found only one mention of any word that I can think of that is related to the immune system, and it was in the title of the paper under dispute. I couldn’t even find one example of use of the words “synapse”, “synaptic”, “plasticity”, “pruning” or “neuronal” in Simner’s CV, which I take as an indication that Simner’s research on synaesthesia could hardly be described as “biomedical”, except for that one paper which stands out like dog’s balls within the contexts of the other work by Simner and by Carmichael. I invite you to check for yourself and let me know if I have missed something.

Here are some other links to information about Dr Simner:

http://www.biomedexperts.com/Profile.bme/1310901/Julia_Simner

http://www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/julia-simner(616de62b-07c6-430d-b217-d18880744549).html

http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199603329.do

http://community.frontiersin.org/people/u/68706

I have argued that the originality of the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia stands in contrast with the conventionality of Carmichael’s other work and also stands in contrast with the lack of medical or molecular biology focus in Simner’s other work. I could also argue that the originality and the molecular biology of the immune hypothesis stands in contrast with synaesthesia research in general. Stale old models of synaesthesia proposing hyper-connectivity in the brain, inhibition of the process of neuronal pruning or disinhibited or hyper-excitable neurons have been doing the rounds forever. Researchers seem to be satisfied with explaining the biological basis of these theorized neurological peculiarities by suggesting that there are genes for these features, as though that is any explanation at all. The traditional models of synaesthesia seem to owe a lot to a layman’s understanding of simplistic models of psychiatric illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders (endless guff about neurotransmitters and brain “wiring”) or owe a lot to a superficial resemblance between synaesthesia and hallucinogenic drugged states of mind. There have been genetic studies of synaesthesia and there have been brain scan studies as well, but I don’t think you will find a lot of molecular biology in pre-2013 synaesthesia research.

If the authors of a journal paper read my blog post and took my ideas in that post and used them in their journal paper without acknowledging me, could they have any possible excuse? It is perhaps worth noting that at my blog my name as the author of the posts (my blog is not a collaborative one and only has one author) is not shown on posts at the main page of the blog, but the author’s name in blog posts is displayed when individual posts are selected for viewing, along with any comments about the post. There is no information about me (the author) at the main page of my blog, so I guess it is not inconceivable that a reader might assume my blog is an anonymous publication. Nevertheless, if one wanted to properly cite any of the posts at my blog or the blog itself the title of the blog could be cited. It is a standard practice to cite the first few words in the title of a book or other type of document instead of the author’s name if the author is unknown, and if the author is known to be anonymous they should be cited as “Anonymous”. There is no technical or formal reason why any of the pieces of writing at my blog can’t or could not have been cited.

I can see one possible objection to my claim of having scientific priority regarding the idea of linking synaesthesia with complement and the immune system. It could be argued that my idea was never properly published as my idea, because it was published at a blog and was not published as my idea in a paper or some other document in a scientific journal. Such an objection would be based on the assumption that scientific publication can only happen within a select and specialized type of publication that is widely recognized as a scientific publication, and cannot legitimately be self-published or published in a print publication or internet web site which is not specifically devoted to the publication of scientific research and scientific theories. My answer to this objection is that it is snobbery and it is also at odds with the current realities of our online world. Such an idea seems to be based on the belief that science is an enterprise that legitimately operates like a closed society in which membership is only open to those who have particular credentials or those who have jobs in particular types of institutions (universities or research institutes for example) or those who have the resources and social connections to be able to successfully submit a full-length paper for publication in a peer-reviewed science journal. But the history of science is peppered with examples of scientists who done important work outside of universities, of amateur scientists and gentlemen scientists who have made very important contributions, and of scientists who have offered interesting and respected theories outside of the fields in which they are qualified. There are also plenty of examples of crackpots who present themselves as legitimate scientists and of researchers who have made laughable blunders while straying outside of their areas of specialization. There are also too many examples of scientists who have made serious blunders because they apparently did not know about important and relevant facts or knowledge from areas of science beyond their limited field or from beyond the world of academia. I can also think of some great examples of scientists who have only been able to make important discoveries once they have had the courage to question accepted scientific or medical knowledge. My point is that science is not a neat, closed and orderly enterprise. It can and it should be informed by non-scientists who have specialized expertise and amateur scientists. Science can be seriously failed by academics who are blinkered or who over-reach the limits of their knowledge or who engage in scientific misconduct. If science was a perfect and orderly enterprise we would call it The Church of Science and lecture theatres would be places of worship. Science belongs to everyone; everyone benefits from it and anyone who has good ideas and a respect for evidence can play a part, and should be given due credit.

Even if there were no plagiarism in the journal paper by Simner and Carmichael there are still plenty of things in that paper which I find objectionable. As a synaesthete I am personally offended by the frequent use of negative language in reference to synaesthesia in the paper. Here’s a list of words and phrases from the paper: “neurological condition”, “excess cortical connectivity”, “excess connectivity”, “excessive connectivity is indeed a feature of the synesthetic brain”, “failing to supress non-relevant activation”, “excessive activity of excitatory neurons”, “aberrant connectivity”, and ”misregulated feedback mechanisms”. This repeated use of terminology with negative connotations regarding synaesthesia is certainly not typical of scientific or popular literature on the subject. It is rather amusing when one reflects that these authors are being so negative about the type of mind which I believe provided them with the central idea of their journal paper. Talk about biting the hand that feeds! Even more offensive and stupid is the authors’ described quest to find a link between developmental synaesthesia and the degenerative nervous system disease multiple sclerosis (MS). They aren’t even being as bold as researching a link between diagnosed cases of MS and synaesthesia, they are only looking at “people with the radiological profile of multiple sclerosis”, whatever that means. Developmental synaesthesia is a generally stable inherited neuropsychological variation characterized by white matter in the brain that has been described as having greater volume, greater connectivity or being “more coherent”. It is not considered to be an illness or a disorder, and it appears to be associated with superiority in memory. Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease typically with an onset in adulthood which damages the myelin covers of nerves in the brain and in the spinal cord. While there are some genetic risk factors it is not considered to be a hereditary disease. Vitamin D deficiency and infectious agents have been suggested as causes or triggers. MS causes a wide range of mental and physical problems and disability and substantially reduces life expectancy. It is not known whether is caused by an autoimmune process or a failure of the myelin-producing cells. The only apparent commonality between MS and synaesthesia appears to be that they both feature white matter that differs from the average state, but those differences could be characterized as opposite states, not similar. Simner and Carmichael’s idea that synaesthesia might be more common in those who look like MS cases strikes me as at best bizarre, but apparently they have submitted a paper on this subject. I think I know where that paper might belong.

To offend in so many ways certainly takes some doing, and I do acknowledge that there is a large difference between the amount of effort that went into the writing of my blog post and the amount of work that would have gone into writing and obtaining publication of the journal paper, but I believe that it is also true that the guts of that paper was an idea of mine, and I believe there would have been no paper to work on without my idea.

If I accept the proposition that this apparent case of plagiarism was really a case of two different parties reaching the same conclusion independently and within a year or so of each other, with the others being unaware of the existence of my prior publication, and then they innocently published their own paper as the first to introduce these ideas to the world, then I must ask why they were not aware of the existence of my blog post. Did they think they only had to search the traditional scientific literature to check whether their ideas were truly novel and original? I find that hard to believe, in this online, open-access world. Before I published these ideas at my blog I searched the internet and bibliographic databases to check whether my ideas were really as novel as I thought they were. I found nothing comparable. I am completely sure that my blog post would have been retrieved within the first page of a results display from a simple Google search on the terms “immune” and “synaesthesia” or “synaesthesia” performed in the months and year after I published my blog post. My blog has always done very well in Google searches.

I believe that the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia is the product of a synaesthete brain, my synaesthete brain. If anyone can show evidence that counters this, please let me know by leaving a comment. I have demonstrated that I was the first to publish the immune hypothesis of synaesthesia. I believe that I should have been acknowledged as the creator of this idea by the authors of the journal paper. I’m not pleased with what has happened. I do want my ideas which I have published at my blog to be read, considered and developed by other people. I am not a hoarder of ideas and I’m not out to make trouble. I just want to be contacted, asked and acknowledged, and properly acknowledged in print in the conventional manner if my original ideas are used or referred to in someone else’s work.  I don’t think that is too much to ask.

A very interesting idea from Dr Simner but I’ve got my doubts

This is a quote from Dr Julia Simner’s thought-provoking paper in the British Journal of Psychology about defining synaesthesia:

“To avoid this circular evidence of what synaesthesia is and is not, we might instead define synaesthesia in terms of it neurological basis, and then allow ourselves to consider what types of variants this synaesthesia might then include. If indeed the condition were defined by inherited atypical cross-talk, we might find synaesthesiae in unexpected places. For example, if an inherited predisposition for neurological hyper-association manifested itself, say, in the fronto-temporal language regions that mediate semantics, lexical-forms, and syntax (e.g., see Tyler & Marslen-Wilson, 2008, for review) what would this mean? It might mean we could find ‘synaesthetic’ individuals with unusually strengthened connections in spoken language processing.”

I happened across this picture that is apparently from The Human Connectome Project, or at least from a paper by Liza Gross that was published in PLoS Biology in 2008: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/the-human-connectome/3706910  I’m guessing that the coloured larger blobs represent the most connected hubs in the brain, and I’m guessing these bits would be made of white matter? I know that there is one type of synaesthesia that is associated with some kind of functional enhancement of white matter, and in general, synaesthesia is thought to be due to hyperconnectivity in the brain, which I guess might mean that it operates the most in regions of the brain that are the most connected? Well, looking at the picture with the red and pink blobs, it seems as though the parts of the brain that are the most connected are towards the rear of the brain, maybe the parietal, occipital and part of the temporal lobes, with most of the frontal lobe and Broca’s area (important in language processing)  left pretty much out of the loop. So I’ve got to wonder how realistic is Dr Simner’s theoretical idea of a type of person who is especially articulate due to a hidden type of synaesthesia based in the “fronto-temporal language regions”. I certainly do think it is probable that there are non-obvious and undiscovered types of synaesthesia linking brain functions that researchers haven’t already known to be hyperconnected, but I suspect that researchers will also find that synaesthesia is more likely in some regions of the brain than others. I’ve long ago noticed that most types of synaesthesia that are known to science (and to me) involve the sense of sight in one way or another (scenes, colours, shapes, faces, visual-spatial landscapes etc), and where is vision processed in the brain? At the rear, where so many of those red blobs are found.

Simner, J. (2012), Defining synaesthesia. British Journal of Psychology, 103: 1–15. doi: 10.1348/000712610X528305  Article first published online: 11 MAR 2011 DOI: 10.1348/000712610X528305 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/000712610X528305/full

Gross L (2008) From Structure to Function: Mapping the Connection Matrix of the Human Brain. PLoS Biol 6(7): e164. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060164  http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0060164

Human Connectome Project  http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/

Free full-text journal papers about defining and redefining synaesthesia!

Thank you British Journal of Psychology. I find this stuff interesting. I hope my horribly neglected readers will also find the February 2012 issue interesting. It has Dr Julia Simner’s most interesting paper and two papers in response to it, one by the leading US synesthesia researcher David Eagleman and and another by synaesthesia researchers Cohen Kadosh and Terhune, plus Simner’s response to the responses. So if you still think synaesthesia is just crossed senses, do take a look.

For those of us with an interest in face recognition as well as synaesthesia, there is also a free paper titled “Integration of faces and voices, but not faces and names, in person recognition”. Happy reading!

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjop.2011.103.issue-1/issuetoc

Why the big deal? Redefining synaesthesia.

You might be wondering why I am so interested in documenting and naming the various types of synaesthesia that I experience which appear to have never been reported scientifically or anecdotally before, experiences such as concept -> scene synaesthesia, fine motor task -> scene synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon. You might also be wondering why I’m so excited to find that there are other people who report experiences that seem to fall into the category of concept -> scene synesthesia. These three types of synaesthesia are, I believe, of scientific importance because they are indeed synaesthesia, but they also violate the third criteria for identifying synaesthesia that was stated years ago by the US neurologist and pioneer of synesthesia science, Richard Cytowic. Cytowic’s list of synaesthesia criteria can be seen at the Wikipedia’s article about synaesthesia. Criteria number three is thus:

3. Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).

My experiences of concept -> scene synaesthesia, fine motor task -> scene synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon range from very consistent to fairly consistent, but the visual synaesthesia experiences triggered in these types of synaesthesia are most certainly not “generic” or simple. These are most certainly pictorial experiences, they are visual memories of landscape scenes and of one particular face.

I’m not too alarmed that I have synaesthesia experiences that don’t appear to conform to some rules of synaesthesia definition, because as I’ve seen during the years that I’ve been reading about this fascinating neurological condition, the definition of synaesthesia has been changing a lot over the years, and is still in the process of evolution and scientific development, as is abundantly clear from Dr Julia Simner’s recent journal paper about defining synaesthesia. I hope you find this as interesting as I do!

 

External references

Simner, Julia Defining synaesthesia. British Journal of Psychology. 2010 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 20939943 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20939943

Wikipedia contributors Synesthesia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Synesthesia&oldid=439113699

 

Dr Kevin Mitchell has a blog

I’ve just discovered that Dr Kevin Mitchell from Trinity College in Dublin has a blog and also a lab website. If you asked me to cite the synaesthesia researchers whose work most interests me, for sure Dr Mitchell and also Dr Julia Simner from the University of Edinburgh would be on that list. If you’ve found stuff that I’ve written here about synaesthesia interesting, I think there’s a fair chance that you’d also find Dr Mitchell’s blog of interest.

Wiring the Brain

http://wiringthebrain.blogspot.com/

Developmental Neurogenetics – Dr Kevin Mitchell

http://www.gen.tcd.ie/mitchell/

 

Invitation for comments

People do read this blog, in fits and bursts, but I’ve not been exactly overwhelmed by comments. I would like to know about experiences that others might have that are to do with concepts being associated with visual experiences of scenery, or concepts associated with the performance of movements, or concepts associated with any kind of visual or spatial experience. Does physical movement or any particular type of visual input influence your thoughts in a way that is not easy to explain? Are concepts that you think about “illustrated” with pictures that are visual memories of things previously seen by yourself? Or is your conceptual thinking “illustrated” with images in your mind’s eye that are the product of your imagination? Is your conceptual thinking unillustrated? Do you never “see” images in your mind’s eye? Do you experience the phenomenon that I named Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization (IMLM)? Do you think this phenomenon is synaesthesia? Do you think it is completely normal and everyone has it? Do you think it is completely abnormal? Do you think everyone experiences it? Where do you think we should draw the line between the normal evoking of memories from visual stimuli, and synesthesia? Have you ever used the “method of loci” AKA the “memory palace”? Did it seem to be different from normal memory experiences? Do you experience interesting interactions between music and conceptual thinking? Are you a synaesthete? Do you believe that synaesthetes are more visual thinkers than non-synaesthetes? I’d love to know what is going on inside your head.

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

What is, and what is not, synaesthesia?

Even though scientists have been studying synaesthesia for well over a century, the world of science still has not settled on a consensus on a scientific definition of synaesthesia. This does not reflect poorly on science or on synaesthesia research, in fact it shows that science is operating in the way that it is supposed to operate, with theoretical frameworks in place that order, drive and inform investigations, but also taking into account new information and reviewing these theoretical frameworks when necessary. I hope to find the time to finish a piece that I am writing about my own ideas on this subject.

Some recent journal papers about the definition of synaesthesia:

Cohen Kadosh, Roi and Terhune, Devin B. Redefining synaesthesia? British Journal of Psychology. Article first published online: 24 FEB 2011. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2010.02003.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2044-8295.2010.02003.x/full

Simner, Julia Defining synaesthesia. British Journal of Psychology. 2010 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 20939943 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20939943