Tag Archives: Movement Synaesthesia

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

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

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

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I can’t believe it’s not synaesthesia! – embodied cognition

Yes indeed, this is a fascinating article from New Scientist magazine. This is the article that made me feel incredulous the first time that I read it last year, that the word “synaesthesia” was not even once mentioned in it, because it seemed to be an article about a number of different types of synaesthesia. I could go into details about why I believe this, but I’d risk restating most of the text of this two-page article. Basically, this is an article about embodied cognition. It is clear to me that the researchers studying embodied cognition have a lot to gain from sharing ideas with synaesthesia researchers (and synaesthetes), and vice versa.

A study by Australian academic Tobias Loetscher that was published in the journal Current Biology and another study by Daniel Casasanto, an academic in the Netherlands, which was published in the journal Cognition are discussed in this article. The “metaphor theory” of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is discussed. Much of this article seems to be very relevant to the idea proposed by some synaesthesia researchers that synaesthesia is the origin of metaphorical language. Wouldn’t synaesthesia or some very similar mental process be the link between study subjects’ emotional feelings of being socially isolated and their reported physical sensations of feeling physically colder?

Other parts of this article seem to be very relevant to, or a description of, number form synaesthesia and other mental mappings of concepts onto “spatial schema”. The study by Casasanto is about a psychological process that is very similar to the forward and backward vection that was the subject of the study in PLoS ONE that I discussed in a previous blog posting, in that it shows an influence on abstract thought from performing a physical task that focused the mind on one or other spatial directions. The vection study that I previously discussed was about backward and forward motion influencing abstract thought. The Casasanto study was about moving something upwards and moving something downwards influencing abstract thought.

Many of the more general conclusions in this article, based on the study findings, also seemed to be very relevant to my experiences of fine motor performances determining the content of my thoughts, often involving links with conceptual thinking, by a process that I believe is synaesthesia. “The results also led to a deeper question: does physical movement have the power to change not just the speed at which people talk, but also what they choose to talk – or even think – about?” A study by Casasanto found this to be true. “Isn’t that somewhat scary?” Casasanto asked. Yes, I think it is scary, but it is only by being aware of the irrational and arbitrary things that can influence cognition that we can ever hope to detect, control and transcend such influences.

Ananthaswamy, Anil Let your body do the thinking. New Scientist. Number 2753 March 27th 2010 p.8-9.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527535.100-mind-over-matter-how-your-body-does-your-thinking.html

Two articles about embodied cognition from Miller-McCune:

Jacobs, Tom To feel good, reach for the sky. Miller-McCune. February 4th 2010. http://www.miller-mccune.com/health/to-feel-good-reach-for-the-sky-8445/

Hilo, Jessica Power poses really work. Miller-McCune. November 15th 2010. http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture-society/power-poses-really-work-25322/

Moving backward to re-read a science magazine article

I remembered that quite a while ago I read an article in New Scientist magazine which I thought at the time seemed to be describing stuff that could possibly be related to my synaesthesia-related experiences that involve a sense of place or a sense of space. I was also particularly impressed by that article because it was well written and the subject matter, embodied cognition, is simply fascinating regardless of any personal relevance. I’ve once again located a copy of that article, and when I find a spare moment I plan to check if it relates to the journal paper that I mentioned in my last post, and I will also check if it relates to any of the types of synaesthesia that I’ve documented in this blog.

Ananthaswamy, Anil Let your body do the thinking. New Scientist. Number 2753 March 27th 2010 p.8-9.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527535.100-mind-over-matter-how-your-body-does-your-thinking.html

Moving forward with PLoS ONE – further evidence of a connection between abstract thinking and visual processing of scenes

I’ve just discovered that a study that was published last year in a major peer-reviewed science journal appears to support a theory that I thought of a long time ago, and I have also discovered that an element of this phenomenon that I have observed has a proper scientific name; “vection”. I first learned of the concept of vection while reading an article by Roger Highfield in the February 19th 2011 edition of New Scientist magazine. I have already briefly mentioned the idea of mine in an earlier post in this blog. My theory is based on the observation that the moving scenery that I unavoidably see while I am driving a vehicle appears to free up my mind like some magical brand of mental lubricant, with the effect that novel and original ideas come to me at an extraordinary rate, and I see connections and possible connections between things that I don’t think I’d ever create or grasp while doing any other activity. My theory is that the moving scenery taken into my mind visually creates the subjective sensation of moving forward (forward vection), and the forward vection somehow brings about a change in the way my brain operates so that the existing abundance of connectivity in my synaesthete brain is opened up to an even greater degree. This opening up is not a free-for-all. It does not result in mental chaos with rampant synaesthesia such as an assault of noisy vision or brightly coloured sounds. This opening up specifically seems to involve conceptual and language-related thinking, thinking at a level of cognition that is more sophisticated and abstract than sensory stuff.

I love the choice of words for the title of the PLoS ONE paper: “The meandering mind”. Meandering is the perfect word to describe the way my mind behaves while I am driving, or travelling a passenger in a moving vehicle watching the scenery flowing past. It is a mind that is paradoxically free to wander but is also paying attention to the important task of driving safely. What did the study reported in this journal find? I quote from the abstract:

“Participants performed a mundane vigilance task, during which they were expected to daydream, while viewing a display that elicited an illusion of self-motion (i.e., vection). Afterwards, the contents of their mind wandering experiences were probed. The results revealed that the direction of apparent motion influenced the temporal focus of mental time travel. While backward vection prompted thinking about the past, forward vection triggered a preponderance of future-oriented thoughts.”

So, this study’s finding appear to support the proposition that “higher cognitive activity can have a sensory-motor grounding”. This idea is completely in accord with many of the psychological/neurological experiences that I have reported in this blog, including the connections in my mind between concepts and visual scenes that act like illustrations for those concepts, and which can in some instances evoke thinking about its specific associated concept when viewed, and also including the apparent influence that forward vection has on certain characteristics of my thinking. I am amazed by the number of conceptual connections that I have discovered among my synaesthesia-related experiences, and also connections between these experiences and ideas and studies described in recently published journal papers. Connections everywhere! Just like my brain!

If you have been reading by blog posts about the links in my mind between concepts and scenes, you will not be surprised that my mind has a particular scene that is evoked in my mind’s eye when I think about the concept of forward vection freeing up the mind. It is a scene of a winding road that I often drive along, as seen from a driver’s seat. This particular stretch of road has a lot of shrubbery along the side of the road, which enhances the subjective visual sensation of moving forward.

I’ve got to wonder whether the Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have read this paper in PLoS ONE before she thought up her election catch-phrase “moving forward”. Perhaps she was hoping to evoke the sensation of forward vection by repeating her slogan over and over, unconsciously directing voters to consider the future rather than past deeds. Maybe in the next election we might see political advertisements utilizing scenes of travelling forward or backward in a moving vehicle, depending on whether the party wishes to direct the attention of voters to the future or the past. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

References

Highfield, Roger Days of wonder. New Scientist. February 19th 2011 Number 2800. p.34-41. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928001.400-your-kitchen-sink-and-16-other-wonders-of-the-cosmos.html

Miles LK, Karpinska K, Lumsden J, Macrae CN The Meandering Mind: Vection and Mental Time Travel. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010825 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0010825

Domino Effect Synaesthesia

Fine Motor Task -> Scene -> Semantically-related Concept

or

Fine Motor Task -> Scene and also a concept that is semantically related to the scene

Descriptions of my observations of this type

Lifting and straining pasta out of hot water in saucepan with a slotted spoon -> a scene of the east end of Perth Entertainment Centre as it was when it was operating (1980s?) -> the concept of the pop star Madonna during her pointy bra period and the concept of her fans at the time being unpleasantly obsessive, and what exactly is wrong with being obsessive anyway?

Scraping sticking skin of a roast chicken from the roasting pan with metal tongs -> a scene of Dumas House as viewed from Havelock Street in West Perth and the concept of computer geeks working in respectable jobs

Dumas House is or was I believe a place where public servants in the tax department work or worked, a place that I could imagine a computer geek working. It is also not too far from what used to be the location of a training college for computer programmers. I believe this is the semantic link between Dumas House and the concept of employed computer geeks.

Scraping the very last bits of peanut paste from the side of a plastic jar with a knife  -> a scene of Leighton Beach and the concept of “The Pushbike Song” which was an Australian hit in the 1970s when I was a young child.

Leighton Beach is a place that I’ve rarely swum at, but have ridden past on a bicycle a few times, in North Fremantle. The exact same chore trigger has also evoked a scene of an area of North Fremantle between Stirling Hwy and the limestone cliffs along the Swan River, an area which I once explored at least 20 years ago on a bicycle. There are obvious connections between the places evoked (both in North Freo) and the memory and the concept of riding a bicycle.

Picking out the darkest, crunchiest French fry from a pack from McDonalds -> a scene of the staircase in the home of our next-door neighbours from when I was a child, and the concept of deliberately offensive and confronting performance and conceptual art

Plucking carefully selected chips from a packet of potato crisps -> a scene of the staircase in the home of our next-door neighbours from when I was a child, and the concept of deliberately offensive and confronting performance and conceptual art

It is not obvious how the concept of the offensive art might be connected with the scene. Possibly the link is that I have always thought of our past next-door neighbours as the archetypal nice, respectable, middle-class, religious people who would be deeply offended by such art.

The Pushbike Song – unforgettable and unfortunately also quite unbearable

I have that many different types of synaesthesia that I’m not sure if I could give a definite count of all the types. I “see” colours and personalities in the letters of the alphabet. Some words never fail to make me think of a food, even though they aren’t words for foods. I sometimes “hear” sounds in response to watching motion and I’ve “seen” a coloured taste. All really good music has a colourful accompaniment, and a sense of direction and motion is an integral part of any worthwhile musical work. None of these experiences feel out of the ordinary for me, but I’ve got to admit that plain silly situations are a part of being a synaesthete, no more silly situation than involuntarily thinking about the concept of “The Pushbike Song” as sung in the 1970s by The Mixtures when I scrape out the last bits of peanut paste from the jar with a butter knife. Like many of the incongruous experiences triggered by synaesthesia, this is like something that has been recovered from a time-capsule. Shouldn’t such a cheesy tune be neurologically linked with a cheese-related activity?

The Pushbike Song by The Mixtures, a YouTube video clip featuring scenes from around Melbourne in the 1970s http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/XOMIJUwbGb8?fs=1&hl=en_US

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

Report on my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia

This report should also be read along with my earlier posting titled I’ve got my chits together published at https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/252/

This report revised on 23rd Feb 2011 to add another observation, with more comments added February 26th 2011

Total number of observations of experiences of automatically experienced visual memories (seen in my mind’s eye) of place scenes from my past evoked by doing learned fine-motor household and everyday chores with my hands70

Records of triggers only3

Records of place visual memories evoked only 2

Period of time in which I have been recording these experiencesyears, how many unknown. (I regret that I did not think to add dates of observations to my written records on chits of paper).

Number of sets of the same triggers and experiences that have been recorded more than once only 4 (these sets have only been recorded twice, none any more than twice)

Descriptions of these four confirmed sets

  1. Carefully patting the ends of softening uncooked spaghetti into a saucepan of boiling water to make sure it goes into the water and cooks evenly and separately –> a scene of a streetscape with specific buildings in a back-street part of Fremantle, visited once with a friend years ago (friend worked there once).
  2. Browning cubes of meat in hot oil in a saucepan using a wooden spoon to turn and brown the meat while making curry or stew –> the Ogden’s restaurant on Stirling Highway in Cottesloe that I visited with family many years ago, in which customers could cook their own thick steaks and meats and seafood on a hot grill. Interestingly, I also have records of this same cooking chore evoking visual memories of two other places – some back streets of Joondanna and a part of Stock Road near where the Stock Road markets used to be. These places have no obvious connection with cooking or beef.
  3. Turning bacon over in frypan which is sticking, using an egg flipper -> semi-rural residential street that led to some popular waterfall in the hills.
  4. Trimming nails with nail scissors -> the street where I lived in my childhood/the other end of the street where I lived as a child (not the end where we lived). This is another trigger that has evoked four different scenes, the other scenes being a bush scene of a scenic but isolated road route from Perth to the Wheatbelt, and a humped narrow wooden traffic bridge at the end of the main CBD of Mandurah as it was in the 1970s or maybe the 1980s. There is no apparent thematic connection between any of these places and the chore.

Number of close but inexact matches between sets of triggers and scenes3

Descriptions of inexact matches

  1. Scraping the very last bits of peanut paste from the side of a plastic jar with a knife -> an image of Leighton Beach and this chore also evoked thinking about the concept of “The Pushbike Song” which was an Australian hit in the 1970s when I was a young child. Leighton Beach is a place that I’ve rarely swum at, but have ridden past on a bicycle a few times, in North Fremantle. The exact same chore trigger has also evoked a scene of an area of North Fremantle between Stirling Hwy and the limestone cliffs along the Swan River, an area which I once explored at least 20 years ago on a bicycle. There are obvious connections between the places evoked (both in North Freo) and the memory and the concept of riding a bicycle. This is one of many observations that demonstrate that thinking about concepts and places are very much inter-connected in my brain.
  2. Picking out the darkest, crunchiest French fry from a pack from McDonalds -> the staircase in the home of our next-door neighbours from when I was a child. Plucking carefully selected chips from a packet of potato crisps -> scene of that same staircase, as it looked back in the 1970s. The fastidious chip selection also evokes thoughts of the concept of deliberately offensive and confronting performance and conceptual art. Obviously these two triggers are very similar, and the scenes evoked are the same, but there is no apparent link between the triggers and the scenes. It is also far from obvious how the offensive art might be connected with these other things. Maybe I have always thought of our past next-door neighbours as the archetypal nice, respectable, middle-class, religious people who would be deeply offended by such art. My family didn’t deserve to have such nice neighbours, and they certainly didn’t deserve to have us living next door.
  3. Peeling paper off of a 250g butter pat, as used in baking, and cutting up chunks of butter with a butter knife while weighing it for baking are two chores that both evoke a scene of the exact same area on the top floor of a shopping centre that I visited 30 or so years ago, at the top of the escalator near a Jeans West shop.

Many of these observed sets of triggers and scenes appear to be related within categories:

Buttering crumbly scones -> an ugly back street of Wanneroo near the Wanneroo Showgrounds

Buttering toast -> an old fuel station on Wanneroo Road, not far from above location

The wiping of a little baby’s bottom and the wiping of a toddler’s bigger bottom during nappy changing trigger scenes of two WA regional locations, at Geraldton and a camping spot between Lancelin and Jurien.

Hand-washing laundry chore movements such as scrubbing, swooshing water down the sink and turning on taps evoke a number of scenes around Fremantle and also two dreary regional cities (Bunbury WA and Mackay QLD).

Stirring saucepan chores evoke scenes of Armadale and Kelmscott, adjacent SE Perth suburbs that I’m not that keen on.

Number of identical chores evoking completely different scenes 1 (beating in sugar gradually while making a pavlova with a power mixer –> scene of the front of the kindergarten that I attended (but did not enjoy) and a scene of an area near a maternity hospital, these scenes are in two different suburbs.

Number of identical scenes evoked by different chores 1 (this scene also automatically triggered thinking about an outdated concept that is logically related to the scene of a now-derelict place as it looked when it operated in the 1970s)

Number of triggers that have evoked scenes and also thinking about specific concepts (Domino Effect Synaesthesia) – 4

Number of scenes evoked by chores that are also evoked by thinking about a specific concept 2 (I have a collection of observations of memories of scenes being triggered by thinking about specific concepts.)

Types of triggers include food preparation chores, laundry hand-washing, grooming, nappy change, hair, makeup. Only 1 trigger from a task performed outside the home – swiping a bank card through an EFTPOS machine.

Types of scenes evoked include many places from early childhood, but not all of the places from my childhood. A scene from our neighbours’ home is evoked, but no scenes of my own childhood home. The church attended sporadically during boring primary school religion classes (“scripture”) is “seen”, but there are no scenes of the church that I attended with my family regularly on Sundays. Areas in the vicinity of homes that I used to live in years ago are well represented, as are homes of friends and family visited now and then many years ago (people and places that in some cases no longer exist). Also places visited for fun long ago but not recently are well represented, such as Fremantle. Interstate and WA regional places that I have visited alone as an adult or with family as a child or teen are well represented, but places interstate that I visited with a boyfriend many years ago are noticeably not evoked by this synaesthesia.

Memories in the vicinity of both of the Perth area showgrounds that I have ever visited are evoked – the Claremont and the Wanneroo Showgrounds. Showgrounds are a peculiar type of place, I visit them occasionally and unpredictably but not regularly, and they don’t change much (the neglect of these places is obvious), so memorizing them well at each visit is useful. When I last visited the Claremont Showgrounds during a music festival I could not resist the urge to walk about in the summer heat and crowds, looking at all of the areas that were open to the public.

Three dull regional WA locations are among scenes evoked by this synaesthesia , as are two interstate dull regional places (Bowen and Mackay). A good proportion of the places evoked are places that I have visited only once. All of the scenes evoked are very specific, scenes that one could see by looking in one direction while standing in one place. These are not the concepts of places or street names, they are actual visual scenes. The places evoked are not as uniformly dull or depressing as I had expected them to be. Some quite pleasant locations in Fremantle are evoked.

Scenes that are NOT evoked include my own past or present homes, shopping centres that I currently shop at, homes of close family members that I have visited regularly, the high schools that I attended (my high school years were a stressful time in my life), any of the past or present homes of my best friend (who I have been in contact with since early childhood), or the best places in WA, Perth or interstate that I have visited. Clearly there is a pattern in the type of places that are and are not evoked by this phenomenon. This phenomenon does not evoke visual memories of places that I am or have been keen to revisit, or places that I have revisited frequently, or places that I presently anticipate revisiting often. Clearly there is an important area of the brain that encodes these place memories that is not connected at all with this phenomenon. Clearly I have place memories stored in two different and separate parts of the brain, one operating like the stack of a library, the other operating like the main lending shelves of a library. Clearly there is some process by which my visual memories of places are sorted into two different categories. A recently published journal paper titled Sleep selectively enhances memory expected to be of future relevance indicates that a person’s expectations about memories can affect the way those memories are stored in the brain (Wilhelm et al 2011). It appears that sleep selectively enhances some other specific types of memories, so clearly “memories aint memories”.

Interstate places that I visited when I was touring with a boyfriend many years ago are not evoked by this synaesthesia, while some interstate places that I visited alone during that same period are evoked. Why the difference? Perhaps my BF at the time was a distraction from properly looking at and encoding visual memories of these places in the Eastern States. I tend to think the reason why these memories are absent is the same reason why my memories of high school are not evoked by this synaesthesia.

Discussion

I believe that the total number of observed pairings (sixty-nine) shows that this is a real phenomenon. I know that I am not intentionally thinking of places while I do household chores, and this automatic visualizing of scenes appears to be not driven by any logical train of thought, because for most pairings there is no logical link. For a couple of pairs of chores and scenes there are apparent conceptual links, but for most there is no apparent logical or temporal link between the chore trigger and the visual scene.

I have not observed any habit of thinking about things that are not scenes of places while I do household chores. I don’t recall seeing involuntarily in my mind’s eye to any unusual degree faces or colours or scenes of people or abstract images, but I do recall seeing many scenes of many places. This thing with seeing scenes is not just random thoughts. Visual memories of faces are not mixed up with this phenomenon, a fact which supports the idea that the processing of faces and scenes do not take place in exactly the same part of the brain (as some scientists have suggested), but the fact that the strange phenomenon, in which I involuntarily “saw” in my mind’s eye a memory of a face, is the only other type of phenomenon besides this one that I have ever experienced in which I have received an involuntary visual memory, in an experience that has characteristics of synaesthesia, suggests that the processing of faces and scenes are linked, similar and special in the way they operate in my brain.

It is clear that thinking about concepts is to a degree mixed up with this type of synaesthesia. I am not aware of any published account of any other type of synaesthesia in which three (rather than two) different types of thinking are atypically interconnected. It is important to bear in mind that I experience another type of synaesthesia or synaesthesia-like phenomenon in which concepts are reliably associated with specific places. In some examples, being at the place triggers thinking about the concept associated with it, and in some examples thinking about the concept triggers a visual memory of the place, and in some examples it goes both ways.  I have recorded over twenty examples of this synaesthesia over the years. This type of synaesthesia appears to be the result of the involuntary “method of loci” memorization that I and two first-degree synaesthete relatives experience. I hope to sometime find the time to type up a report about this. All of this inter-connection of different types of cognition, including thinking about concepts, indicates that it is impossible to identify a point of demarcation between synaesthesia and normal, functional thinking. Synesthesia gives rise to examples of cognition that seem senseless and random, but it also most likely helps to form and enhance brain structures that give rise to useful, sensible and accurate thinking. One should not automatically dismiss any synaesthesia association as random nonsense.

The fact that the scenes “seen” in my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia are exclusively obsolete, ugly or dreary suggests that this is a real phenomenon – why would I intentionally create such an unappealing experience? The patterns observed also suggest that this experience is based on real connections within my brain. Many patterns and some confirmed identical matches (four) between separately observed sets of synaesthesia experiences have been found, indicating that this is based on neural structures that have some stability, but I do not believe that the pairings between chores and scenes are permanent. I believe they fade and possibly change and are created in time. I believe this is the best explanation for the small number of repeated observations of identical pairings.

This is a phenomenon in which a large set of examples of one type of neurological event (learned tasks done by the hand) have triggered individually a large set of examples of another type of neurological event (visualizing memories of scenes of places). This is a pattern that is typical of synaesthesia. In this respect, this phenomenon very much resembles synaesthesia, but this phenomenon does not very adequately match some other characteristics of synaesthesia that have been cited by researchers. This seems to be a changeable and not reliable phenomenon, and it often appears to lack a rigid relationship between one specific trigger and one specific experience. This phenomenon appears to be more branched, more changeable and more inter-connected than synaesthesia as it is typically described, with some apparent connections to neural structures that are involved with conceptual thinking. I guess neural plasticity could be an explanation for why this type of synaesthesia seems to be more chaotic and changeable than other well-known types of synaesthesia. Perhaps this is a type of synaesthesia that involves more changeable parts of the brain than do other types of synaesthesia. I guess one would expect to find neural plasticity in parts of the brain that are responsible for learning about new concepts and learned motor skills, as humans are capable of learning new tricks and new ideas at any stage of the lifespan. In general, the picure that seems to have emerged from the data that I have collected is of a number of multi-branched hubs connecting chores, scenes and sometimes concepts in a way that is not very predictable. This is quite different from the conventional idea of synaesthesia as orderly groups of individual, one-way and reliable connections between two and only two things that are not usually connected.

In my opinion, synaesthesia researchers should consider whether some of the characteristics that have been accepted as defining features of synaesthesia are only a reflection of characteristics of the specific parts of the brain in which the well-recognized forms of synaesthesia take place. Synaesthesia will be a purely sensory experience when it happens between two parts of the brain that process sensory functions. Synaesthesia will be obvious, easy to describe, easy to verify and easy to study when it reliably and discretely triggers very specific colours in situations in which experiences of colours are not normally evoked. What could be more clear and obvious than atypical experiences that are helpfully colour-coded? One wouldn’t need to be Einstein to identify such a phenomenon. Synaesthesia will be a spatial experience when it involves a part of the brain that processes spatial thinking. Synaesthesia will be an emotional experience when it involves the temporal lobe(s). Synaesthesia will be a rigid, discrete and fixed phenomenon when it involves a part of the brain that processes thinking about learning about things that are discrete and do not change over time, things such as alphabets, numbers, days of the week and any of the many other learned sequences of stable knowledge that are typically learned very early in one’s education and early in one’s life. Synaesthesia might involve personal and social considerations when it involves a part of the brain that processes faces, considering the wealth of highly personal information that can be read in a face. Synaesthesia might superficially resemble the symptoms of visual disorders or psychosis when it involves parts of the brain that process vision or hearing or conceptual thinking or socially important cognitive functions such as processing faces or voices. Such forms of synaesthesia might routinely be kept secret by those who experience them (for obvious reasons), or could conceivably be misdiagnosed, and might thus remain unknown to synaesthesia researchers. Synaesthesia might resemble nostalgia, normal remembering or daydreaming when it involves parts of the brain that process memories, and thus might not be identified as synaesthesia by the person experiencing it. Synaesthesia might be highly changeable and fluid when it involves a part or parts of the brain that are used for learning new skills and learning skills that can fall into disuse, or parts of the brain that are used for the highly unstable experience of performing. Synaesthesia researchers need to consider whether they have been studying only the lowest-hanging fruit during the very long period of time that synaesthesia has been studied.

I believe the biggest barrier to having my hand chore-visual scene memory experience recognized as a type of synaesthesia might be demonstrating that it is atypical, because I believe it is an experience so subtle and hard to distinguish from apparently random “wandering” of the mind that it could be tricky to demonstrate its presence or absence in most people.

References

Ines Wilhelm, Susanne Diekelmann, Ina Molzow, Amr Ayoub, Matthias Mölle, and Jan Born Sleep Selectively Enhances Memory Expected to Be of Future Relevance. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1563-1569; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3575-10.2011. http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/short/31/5/1563

I’ve got my chits together: gathering up my collection of records of my fine-motor movement -> visual memories of places synaesthesia

Over a period of a year or two I have been keeping a record of my fine motor movements -> visual memories of places synaesthesia. This is a type of synaesthesia that I have never seen described in anecdotes or in the scientific literature. This synaesthesia is relevant to the strange phenomenon that I described in my first post in this blog because the strange phenomenon involves face recognition, and there seems to be some type of scientific consensus that there is a close association in the brain between face recognition and scene recognition, and there are only two types of things that I see in my mind’s eye as visualised memories triggered by synaesthesia – one person’s face (in the strange phenomenon), and scenes of places that I have visited in the past. Face and place recognition are both thought to be both done in the same part of the brain or adjacent parts of the brain (Sacks 2010 p. 102), most likely in the fusiform gyrus, so I have good reasons to believe there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus, or in the structure of the nerves that connect it to the rest of the brain. The fact that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, a type of synaesthesia associated associated with extra activation in the fusiform gyrus (Rouw and Scholte 2007) and greater volume in the grey matter of the right fusiform gyrus (Weiss and Fink 2008) only adds to the certainty that my fusiform gyrus is not your average fusiform gyrus. Face recognition appears to generally rely on the fusiform gyrus in the right side of the brain, which is exactly the part of my brain that should have an unusually great volume of grey matter, given that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Anyone who has an keen interest in evolutionary psychology should have noticed here an important hint as to why grapheme-colour synaesthetes have evolved. Perhaps as a group our face recognition abilities are enhanced? Someone should do a study. So, my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia, my fine-motor chore -> scene memory synaesthesia and my strange phenomenon, in which the sight of a face is a synaesthesia trigger for a visual memory of another face, are three unusual neurological oddities of mine that are clearly inter-connected. This is why me seeing visual memories of places that I’ve been to in past while cooking or washing things is an important piece of the puzzle in my investigation of the strange phenomenon, though it isn’t completely clear what we are to conclude from this information. I explained how learned fine-motor movements fit into this puzzle in my post The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome? which can be found by clicking on the tag for “Benson’s syndrome”, so I won’t repeat that part of the story here.

This fine-motor movement-triggered synaesthesia typically happens when I am doing very mundane household chores. When I do one very specific movement with my hands and arms (housework), it will trigger in my mind’s eye a vivid visual memory of one very specific scene of a place that I have visited some time in my past. Another very specific chore will trigger a visual memory of some other very specific place, and there are many different examples of this effect. The funny thing about this type of synaesthesia is that it never seems to trigger a memory of a place that I visit often or keenly anticipate revisiting – the places that I get to revisit via memory are places that I no longer have a connection to, such as homes that relatives moved out of decades ago or beaches that I no longer live near, or places that I wasn’t much impressed with, such as dreary regional cities like Bunbury and Mackay, miserable public places or ugly streetscapes in working-class suburbs. This is why I sometimes call this my dragged down memory lane synaesthesia. It helps to make the drudgery of housework doubly uninspiring.

This memory-related synaesthesia is like being bored in two places at once. It’s like being in two places at once while not wishing to be in either. In fact, I have in the past wondered if the emotion of boredom could play a part in this phenomenon. This thing is a bit of a bummer, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is disturbing. If this synaesthesia was just a bit different it could give rise to some enjoyable daydreams. It could take me back to the home that I grew up in, or a return visit to the top of Uluru, or to a vibrant playground teeming with happy children, but it doesn’t. I don’t have such luck, but then again, maybe this is a good thing. I can imagine that if this type of synaesthesia took me back in time to places that are more desirable than my present environment, I might just be tempted to live in the past in a world of memories. I have wondered if the people who do seem to enjoy living in the past have a type of synaesthesia like the one that I experience, but which brings back more positive memories. I think this could be quite insidious, but this is all just speculation.

Over a long time I have been trying to document this synaesthesia by writing down what the trigger and the visualized memory was whenever I experience this effect. As the details are eminently forgettable, they are usually forgotten a moment after they are experienced, so I make an effort to stop my chores and find a chit of paper and jot down this information. I have planned to collect all these bits of paper and the idea is that I should find that over time that I’ve recorded exactly the same sets of motor triggers and visualised places more than once, confirming that this is a reliable and repeatable phenomenon, and not just random thoughts while doing chores. If this happens it will look like genuine synaesthesia.

This week I was cooking a béchamel sauce, and I found that when I scraped the thick sauce from the sides of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, I automatically saw in my mind’s eye a streetscape somewhere in North Fremantle that I visited once on a bicycle about a quarter of a century ago. I went looking for a chit of paper, but couldn’t see any handy. Then I forgot what the place was that had just flashed through my memory. Then I stirred the sauce again as I didn’t want it to burn, and again I saw in my memory that empty carpark at the back of some large old two-storey  public or business building with reddish bricks somewhere in North Freo. Then I forgot the place again. It was only after three stirs of the pot that I managed to scribble a record of what I had seen and forgotten. That carpark is a very unmemorable carpark, if it still exists at all. Not all of the places that this synaesthesia evokes are old and only visited long ago. When I cut up and tear apart chicken thigh fillets while preparing dinner I will receive a visual memory of an alleyway and a carpark close to a Nando’s chicken-based fast-food outlet in a fairly new suburb of Perth. Sometimes there seems to be a conceptual link between the chore and the place, a chicken chore evoking a streetscape beside a Nando’s, squeezing lemon juice evoking a scene of a garden where a game of “oranges and lemons” was played at a children’s party that I attended as a young child, crushing passionfruit pulp against a strainer with the back of a spoon evoking an ancient memory of an aunt’s garden which probably had a passionfruit vine in it.

For many examples of this synaesthesia no conceptual link between the trigger chore and the evoked scene is apparent, but I have reason to believe that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with conceptual thinking. Another type of synaesthesia that I experience is thoughts about particular concepts triggering visualised memories of places that I have visited in the past.  As far as I know this is another type of synaesthesia that I have that hasn’t been described by scientists. I know that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with the type triggered by fine-motor tasks, because some visualised scenes are involved with both types. This type of messy complexity is not characteristic of descriptions of synaesthesia that are typically found in the scientific literature. I believe this difference between reality and literature is due to the methods of science imposing an over-simplified framework of neatly separated types of synaesthesia which does not really reflect the organic and complex structure of real synesthete brains. Would you really expect that a neurological condition that has been described as “crossed wires” or “mixed senses” would fit neatly within a set of sharply delineated categories?

One thing that I’ve noticed with this synaesthesia is that the memories can be evoked in the same way as normal memories, but are not evoked like memories by the synaesthesia. I can remember that I remember a back street of central Fremantle when I gently push the hard ends of softening spaghetti into a pot of boiling water with my hands, but unless I have made the effort to remember that this happens, I will not be able to just summon up the correct memory that goes with the task unless I actually do it and make the synaesthesia happen. I can also simply try to recall what that part of Freo looks like for navigational reasons, but I suspect that the visual memory that I retrieve in that way will not be as clear or as specific as the spontaneous vision in my mind’s eye that I get from the synaesthesia.

I think it is interesting that my fine-motor triggered synaesthesia seems to indicate that, at least in my brain, memories of places that one does not anticipate revisiting are stored in a separate place than visual memories of places that I visit often or that I would really love to visit again one day. By what mechanism are these memories sorted into separate places, and when during the forming of these memories does this sorting happen? I don’t know if this is stuff that is already known to neuroscientists. Perhaps I unconsciously take more effort in attending to places that I don’t foresee returning to soon, so that a better memory of the place is formed for long-term storage, and for some reason these superior-quality place memories are the only ones triggered by this synaesthesia.

Another thing that is interesting about this synaesthesia is that it is almost indistinguishable from my normal stream of consciousness when my conscious mind is pretty much idle and undistracted while I’m doing tasks that are so well learned that they are done almost automatically. If I didn’t have a keen interest in synaesthesia I would never have identified this seeing of scenes in my mind’s eye as synaesthesia or anything out of the ordinary. Before I figured out that synaesthesia is involved, I had thought that the reason why I often thought of the same places when doing particular chores was possibly because a random neurological paring of task and memory was reinforcing itself each time I did that chore, and two unrelated things were by accident becoming wedded in my mind. Later I realised that there was a set of fine-motor movements which were individually and fixedly paired with another set of visual memories of scenes, and then I realised that this was synaesthesia, because this type of situation is typical of synaesthesia, where you can get a set of letters of the alphabet paired individually and permanently with  a set of colours. The fact that synaesthesia can be so subtle raises a number of questions. How many subtle types of synaesthesia have not yet been identified and studied by science? How many people are synesthetes but don’t realise? How much do my synaesthesia and other neurological oddities influence my idle thoughts and daydreams? Does this matter? How much does synaesthesia influence the way all synaesthetes think? Are the idle thoughts of “normal” non-synaesthete people influenced by subtle and undetected synaesthesias? Is there an interesting diversity in the subject matter of people’s idle thoughts and daydreams which is attributable to neurological differences? Does this matter? All of this seems like small potatoes when one compares this synaesthesia stuff with the influnce that things like sex, worries, enthusiasm and mental illnesses can have on people’s everyday thoughts, but still, I have to wonder, are there people out there who think about faces, voices, objects or text as much as I automatically tend to think about places and scenes?

I decided that this week was the week for gathering up the chits of paper and notes at the bottom of shopping lists that I’ve been collecting for I don’t know how long, stuffed into a file, typed on a sheet and sitting in a heap next to my computer, and sort through what I have recorded. Is this how science is conducted? It doesn’t seem terribly scientific. I have counted my chits and records of this synaesthesia, and I’ve laid them out on the bed and looked at all of the connections. The patterns I have found are much more chaotic but interesting and connected than I had expected. A brief report is in the works.

References

Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia. Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302164

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf

Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010.

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome?

 

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.

 

Today I had a look through someone else’s copy of today’s West during an idle moment. It’s not much of a newspaper, but one never knows what one might discover in a paper.  On page three I saw a sad but interesting story about the retired principal of a top private school in Perth who has had to cut short her career due to a rare type of dementia, early onset Benson’s syndrome. This is like Alzheimer’s except that it affects specific parts of the brain, and it takes away the ability of the brain to process visual information, among other things. Some of the first symptoms of this disease noticed by Dr Glenda Parkin were an inability to play a card game, an inability to spell and an inability to write notes. This terrible disease robs people of basic visual, literacy and numeracy skills such as reading, spelling, handling money and recognizing familiar objects. Why did I find this particularly interesting, aside from the sadness and the personal courage in the story? Because this disease seemed to be the opposite of the special intellectual gifts that run in our family. We have kids who were early and advanced readers, consistently testing as years ahead of their age peers in reading ability. One of our kids spells effortlessly, tackling long foreign words in their junior primary school years, and picking up a bit of Polish just for fun. I am able to write pieces like this without needing to use a spellchecker. I suspect that this ease in literacy skills is linked with our shared and obviously inherited grapheme-colour synaesthesia, the same variety of synaesthesia that ran in the family of the respected novelist Vladimir Nabokov. I suspect that, like some other synaesthetes, I have a memory for colour that is above average. I can recall the exact colours and the names of the colours of a watercolour set that I was given as a young child. I am also often puzzled by the labels that other people give to colours, which don’t seem even vaguely accurate to me. I know that I have unusually good face recognition abilities because I got a perfect score in the short form of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which is I believe the state-of-the-art in facial recognition tests. The natural reading skill in our family could be seen as the opposite of the loss of ability to read which is an early symptom of Bensons syndrome or PCA.

Although the story in The West Australian about Dr Glenda Parkin’s battle with Benson’s syndrome did not mention anything about recognizing faces or body language, I was willing to bet that prosopagnosia is one of the symptoms of Benson’s that wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper article. I was curious to find out more about Benson’s syndrome for two reasons – to check if face recognition is indeed affected by it as I predicted, and to also find out which specific parts of the brain are affected by Benson’s, because I thought this would be a good clue about which parts of my brain, and the brains of my blood relatives, are naturally enhanced or over-developed or hyper-connected. I would also discover another fact that shows how different elements of different types of synaesthesia that I experience are connected. I find that if you follow the clues far enough, you will often find that things are connected, especially when you are investigating synaesthesia. I already had a few clues about which parts of my brain are different and give rise to my face recognition abilities and The Strange Phenomenon. The fusiform face area, within the fusiform gyrus were two obvious likely choices. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which I have, and which runs in my family, is associated with extra activation in the fusiform gyrus (Rouw and Scholte 2007) and greater volume in the grey matter of the right fusiform gyrus (Weiss and Fink 2008), so I figure this part of my brain has got to be doing strange things. I believe the fusiform gyrus is in the temporal lobe, and the temporal lobe is associated with a love of music, and we do appear to have an emotional connection with music that is above the ordinary in our family, so the temporal lobe in general seems like a likely prospect. I had also formed the opinion that the right side of the brain is likely to be hyper-developed or hyper-connected in me or in our family, based on my reading about face recognition face processing and colour-grapheme synaesthesia.

I did the obvious, I looked up the Wikipedia page for Benson’s syndrome, and from there I clicked on a link that looked like to might be something detailed and professional-level. I found a short paper by a Dr Bernard Croisile, outlining the basics of Benson’s. Indeed prosopagnosia is one of the symptoms of Benson’s, as I predicted. I found a fairly general description of the damage to the brain associated with Benson’s “bilateral parieto-occipital aptrophy, more frequently in the right hemisphere”, and “bilateral atrophy in the parieto- and temporo-occipital areas that is more severe in the right hemisphere.” My prediction about the right hemisphere was on the money, and there seemed to be overlap between my prediction and the reported areas affected by Benson’s, but I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’m not sure about the relationship between the areas affected by Benson’s and the areas of my brain that should be expected to be unusual.

I discovered one thing of interest in Dr Crosisile’s paper that hasn’t apparent in the newspaper report – that Benson’s has two major types of symptoms, the visual agnosia described in the newspaper report, and also apraxia. Apraxia is the loss of the ability to execute or carry out learned purposeful movements despite having the desire and the physical ability to perform the movements. By one account it is caused by damage to specific areas of the cerebrum, and another account states that it is caused by damage to specific areas in the parietal lobes. I’m not sure what to make of this. Why is apraxia of interest to me? Because this seems to be a link between the use of hand movements in the performance of chores and one of the types of synaesthesia that I discussed in my first post, my description of “the strange phenomenon”. I don’t have apraxia, but I do get a type of visual synaesthesia triggered by the types of tasks that are impaired in apraxia. When I perform very specific household chores I experience automatic and involuntary very specific visual memories of places that I have visited in the past. For example, when I squeeze a half a lemon on a citrus squeezer with a twisting action of the wrist, I will invariably experience a vision in my mind’s eye of the backyard of the home of my Godparents, just as it was when I visited the place when I attended a birthday party and child-minding there in my preschool years, around four decades ago. No, I’m not making this up – I travel all around Australia while I do household chores, and usually to places that I don’t much desire to revisit. How is this all connected to face recognition? Please follow me as I take you on a tour of the connections.

The Strange Phenomenon (my strange phenomenon) is a type of synaesthesia that I experience which is associated with face recognition – it is triggered by seeing a specific face under very specific conditions and the experience triggered is the quite old visual memory of another specific face that looks very similar. I only experience two types of synaesthesia that evoke visual memories – The Strange Phenomenon with visual memories of faces and my fine motor chore synaesthesia triggering visual memories of places. Faces and places are linked because they are both things that prosopagnosics are reported to have trouble recognizing. It is reasonable to assume that whatever part of the brain is malfunctioning in prosopagnosics (people who are bad at recognizing faces) should be involved with visual processing of both faces and places. It makes sense to expect that super-recognizers, the opposite of prosopagnosics, might also have unusual visual processing of faces and also of places. This is true of me – my visual memories of places and faces can both also be synaesthesia concurrents (the experience triggered in synaesthesia). I also score like a super-recognizer in tests – further evidence linking me with unusual face processing. So the link between the faces and the places seems clear enough, with a face acting as the inducer / trigger of my synesthesia and another face and scenes of places acting as the synesthesia concurrents. This  leaves only one synaesthesia trigger unexplained – how do fine-motor chores as synesthesia triggers fit into this picture? It now appears that whatever is up with my brain could in some way resemble the opposite of Benson’s syndrome, and Benson’s involves degeneration of whatever part of the brain does skilled familiar movements such as using a key, a pencil or a razor. Synaesthesia is caused by hyper-connections in the brain, and it seems reasonable to predict a high degree of overlap between the parts of my brain that are hyper-connected and the parts of the brain that degenerate in Benson’s syndrome. So it appears that the bits of my brain that are responsible for dreary household tasks such as squeezing lemon juice or scrubbing clean the rounded end of a wooden spoon are hyper-connected, so when I do some of these tasks, the thoughts associated with my movements trigger synaesthesia in which the part of my brain that recognizes faces and also places is activated by some “weird wiring”, resulting in me seeing dated vistas in my mind’s eye.

The idea that I have something like the opposite of Benson’s syndrome would neatly draw together all the elements of some odd phenomena that I have observed over a number of years – it would at least partly explain The Strange Phenomenon and confirm that it is indeed a type of synaesthesia because it is based on hyperconnection in the fusiform gyrus, and the idea of the opposite of Benson’s would also explain my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia as one of only two types of synaesthesia that I have that are the result of hyperconnection between the fusiform gyrus and other parts of the brain that fall within the range of areas affected by Benson’s syndrome. I guess the million-dollar question is  – why does Benson’s syndrome affect only some specific parts of the brain? What is it about a certain group of areas of the brain that appear to make these areas prone to hyperconnectivity in some families, and vulnerable to dysfunction in Benson’s syndrome? Is there some magic chemical or process that regulates growth in these areas of the brain? I doubt that the answer could be so simple.

From this complicated story I have arrived at three conclusions – that one should never pass up the opportunity to read a newspaper, however uninspiring the paper might be, that one should count one’s blessings, and that dementia patients and research into dementia should be supported.

Do you think I’m brainy enough to figure out how my own brain works? I dunno, but it’s sure fun.

Hiatt, Bethany Penrhos principal’s hardest battle.  The West Australian January 3, 2011. http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/mp/8588194/glenda-parkin/

Croisile, Bernard Benson’s syndrome or Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Orphanet. September 2004. http://www.orpha.net/data/patho/Pro/en/PosteriorCorticalAtrophy-FRenPro10748.pdf

Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf

Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full

Postscript February 2013

I’ve got two things to point out. Firstly, if you found the above article interesting, you should read this:

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?

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

Secondly, if you look carefully at the above article I think you can see hints that Benson’s syndrome or PCA affects the parietal lobe. This would very much fit in with my theory that synaesthesia is like the opposite of Benson’s, because it is becoming clear that the parietal lobe plays a major role in synaesthesia. See these papers:

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
http://www.springerlink.com/content/512306132j162437/

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