Tag Archives: Oliver Sacks

Is there any particular reason why prosopagnosics are Australia’s favourite popularizers of science?

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is a prosopagnosic, and apparently so is Robyn Williams, who has been the hosting The Science Show on Australian public radio since the last ice age with intelligence and grace and a pleasantly smart but mild English accent. They both work for the ABC in both TV and radio. They have both written many popular science books. They both come across as likable and enthusiastic. Is this just coincidence? Looking overseas, other highly successful popularisers of science, such as Oliver Sacks and Jane Goodall have also been identified as prosopagnosics. In his role as host of QI, actor Stephen Fry has done a lot to educate and popularise science and other types of knowledge. He’s one too. Strange coincidence that this particular type of fame seems to go with a very particular inability to recognize or memorise faces more often that it should for a characteristic that affects around 1 in 50 people? Maybe it is just more likely that a person who is very interested in science is more likely to identify their self as a scientific curiosity? I could contrast this group of people with famous people who have identified as synaesthetes. Synaesthesia, like prosopagnosia is a psychological-neurological characteristic that is uncommon but not rare. and quite interesting but definitely not obvious. Unlike celebrity prosopagnosics, it seems as though famous figures who claim synaesthesia tend to be more into the arts than the sciences. So what gives?

I found out about Robyn Williams and prosopagnosia reading part of the transcript of an upcoming episode of the radio show Ockham’s Razor which is hosted by Williams. The guest of the show is scientist Len Fisher, and guess what? Another prosopagnosic. He’s made the claim that apophenia is the opposite of prosopagnosia. I can see the logic behind this claim but “No”. Super-recognition is the opposite of prosopagnosia, because face recognition is a type of memory ability, and it is also highly specific to visual memory of faces. The concept of super-recognition is a mirror-image of the concept of prosopagnosia, and both specifically relate to the visual memory of faces. In contrast, apophenia is a very loose and general concept; the tendency of humans to perceive meaningful patterns within stimuli or data that are actually random. Apophenia is not specific to faces or to visual stimuli, and it is a more general term than pareidolia, which I’ve previously written about at this blog. The concept of apophenia seems to me to be too vague a concept to have any scientific utility or meaning, rather like the concept of autism. That’s my opinion, but I’m open to good arguments against it.

Another objection that I have to the idea of apophenia as the opposite of prosopagnosia is the apparent assumption that nature cannot create a biological system of face recognition that is accurate and doesn’t have a tendency towards either false positives (type I error or identifying unfamiliar faces as familiar) or false negatives (type II error or identifying familiar faces as unfamiliar). The source of this type of erroneous thinking about face recognition is the common (among scientists and non-scientists) miscategorisation of face recognition as a form of sensory perception rather than a form of visual memory. As far as I know there’s not anything necessarily amiss about the way prosopagnosics see or perceive faces. They don’t see faces as blurs or blanks. They just don’t remember them. And there’s no reason to think that supers have anything super about the way we see faces. There’s nothing super-human about my eyesight acuity or my ability to identify facial expressions. There’s also nothing in my face recognition ability that looks like any trend towards false positives. As I’ve explained in the first post in this blog, I’m not prone to incorrectly identifying strangers as familiar people, as has been observed in some stroke patients. Very occasionally I’ve had interaction between synaesthesia and face recognition, but this doesn’t affect accuracy.

There’s no reason for skepticism of the proposition that evolution can design a visual memory system that is amazingly swift and accurate and operates unconsciously and automatically. This is simply how visual perception works, for humans and for animals that are seen as much less cerebral than humans. Apparently there’s evidence that the humble pigeon can recognize human faces, and other bird species appear to have evolved the ability to visually recognize the difference between the speckles of their own eggs and those of similar eggs laid by the parasitic cuckoo bird. Evolution can achieve accuracy in systems, if there is a need for such systems to evolve, but it is also plausible that such abilities might be uneven in levels within populations, as variation within populations is completely normal and necessary in biological systems.


Some links to old stuff about amusia, a disorder of the perception of music

Amusia. Frontiers. BBC Radio 4. December 13th 2006 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00j4814 I couldn’t get this to play, but you might have more luck.

McBurney, Gerard The sounds of music. New Statesman. October 25th 2007. http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2007/10/oliver-sacks-brain-music-tales

Faces, faces everywhere

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





Once again, super-recognizers to be found in comments

There are comments from people who claim to have super-recognizer ability at the below-linked article about prosopagnosia at the Australian online magazine for an educated readership The Conversation. One of the super-recognizers is apparently an inherited case with a parent who had the same level of ability.

The Australian Prosopagnosia Register or Australian Prosopagnosia Participant Register was mentioned in the article, which is a register for people who wish to participate in research and also suspect that they are inborn cases of prosopagnosia. This register appears to be maintained by Macquarie University.

The English celebrity Stephen Fry was identified as one of a number of famous prosopagnosics, based in a Tweet that he wrote, claiming to be a “mild” case. This is interesting because there is some indication that Fry also experiences colours for the days of the week which is a type of synaesthesia, and the gay actor has also been diagnosed with one of the milder categories of bipolar, following a bad reaction to some quite severe bullying. I would want to be more certain of all of these diagnoses before speculating about any possible causal link between them.

I should know you: ‘face blindness’ and the problem of identifying others. by Romina Palermo The Conversation. August 16th 2012. https://theconversation.com/i-should-know-you-face-blindness-and-the-problem-of-identifying-others-8884

Australian Prosopagnosia Participant Register  https://www.maccs.mq.edu.au/research/projects/prosopagnosia/register/

Excellent CBS 60 Minutes story on prosopagnosia finally makes it to Aussie TV, but without super-recognizers

The excellent story about prosopagnosia from the team at the American 60 Minutes current affairs TV show at CBS has tonight been re-broadcast on the Australian version of 60 Minutes. It was good judgement that the Australian 60 Minutes didn’t do their own version of the story with video borrowed from the US show, because I doubt that they could have added much to the well-done American story, which featured prosopagnosia and super-recognition researcher Dr Brad Duchaine, the famous author, neurologist and prosopagnosic Oliver Sacks, the artist and prosopagnosic Chuck Close and a number of other prosopagnosics who generously discussed their experiences. A couple of things are disappointing about the Australian recycling of the story. One is how long it took for the story to make it onto Australian TV screens. The story was originally broadcast on US TV in March 2012. The other disappointment was the cutting out of all of the material about super-recognizers for the Australian recycling of the story. I guess Australian 60 Minutes viewers still don’t know what a super-recogniser is, and I think that is a pity.

The Australian story:

Face blind. (Australian) 60 Minutes. Reporter: Lesley Stahl, CBS 60 Minutes Producer: Shari Finkelstein Broadcast January 25th 2013.    http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8599151

The original American story:

Face Blindness. Reporter – Lesley Stahl, Producer – Shari Finkelstein, 60 Minutes, CBS News, Broadcast March 18th 2012.

SpaceX, Face Blindness.  (This is a link to the whole 60 Minutes episode, with the whole story “Face Blindness” and another story preceding it. Other links can be found to the story in 2 parts and lots of web extras.)   http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7402640n&tag=cbsnewsMainColumnArea.6

Just noticed article about prosopagnosia and face space in special edition of Discover magazine

At the newsagent the other day I noticed a special edition of Discover magazine “The Brain” with the date of Spring 2012. Inside it was an article about face recognition research done by Professor Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University. I am pretty sure that it is the same interesting article that was first published in the January-February 2011 special issue of Discover. The article author Carl Zimmer explained the concept of the face space model of face memory and described a research study which found an interesting difference between an acquired prosopagnosic and some developmental cases and normal control subjects. The article can be read at the website of Discover magazine and can also be found in full-text through at least one of the press and magazine article online services that are offered through public libraries.

Carl Zimmer The brain: seeing the person behind the face. Discover. Jan-Feb 2011 special issue published online January 19, 2011. http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jan-feb/19-brain-seeing-person-behind-the-face

here’s another interesting article at Discover about face recognition

John Horgan Can a single cell recognize your face? Discover. June 2005 edition published online June  5, 2005.  http://discovermagazine.com/2005/jun/single-brain-cell

and here’s a YouTube video in which Dr Marlene Behrmann talks in a  interview about prosopagnosia and gives an authoritative explanationa of what it is. She seems to have a slight South African accent.

Peng, Cynthia Marlene Behrmann – prosopagnosia. goCognitive. uploaded Sep 25, 2011.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z9PGrgPlYw&feature=related

Story about prosopagnosia and super-recognizers on US 60 Minutes

March 26th 2012 – Many thanks to Associate Professor Brad Duchaine for letting me know about the recent story on the US version of 60 Minutes about prosopagnosia and super-recognizers.

April 1st 2012 – I’ve just had the chance in my busy week to sit down and watch the whole story in a video from the CBC 60 Minutes website (no joke). It is really interesting and well worth a look. Another story about space travel comes up first and you need to sit through some advertisements as well, but it’s worth the wait. Many interviews with interesting people are included. I hope that the Australian 60 Minutes show will re-use the story on our local current affairs TV show, without the usual delay of two years or so.

April 29th 2012 – There are many different ways to watch this story from the CBS 60 minutes website, with video extras and comments and useful links in various places. Good work!

Face Blindness. Reporter – Lesley Stahl, Producer – Shari Finkelstein, 60 Minutes, CBS News, Broadcast March 18th 2012.

SpaceX, Face Blindness.  (This is a link to the whole 60 Minutes episode, with the whole story “Face Blindness” and another story preceding it)  http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7402640n&tag=cbsnewsMainColumnArea.6

Face Blindness: When everyone is a stranger. (This link takes you to a transcript of the story, links to two parts of the story on video, a link to a video about a prosopagnosia test, a link to the website of prosopagnosic Dr Oliver Sacks, a link to a photo gallery of protraits by prosopagnosic artist Chuck Close, and other links and over 50 comments.)  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57399118/face-blindness-when-everyone-is-a-stranger/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

Face Blindness, part 1.  (This link takes you to part one of the story and also a number of “Web extras” video clips)  http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7402685n&tag=cbsnewsMainColumnArea.8

Are you a “super-recognizer”? Take a test. by 60 Minutes Overtime Staff  (video of super-recognizer Jennifer Jarett doing the test with Lesley Stahl interviewing, also over 150 interesting comments)  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57399111-10391709/are-you-a-super-recognizer-take-a-test/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

I’ve just discovered a resource for people who have an isolated problem of getting lost or inability to orient in their physical environment

While I was looking at online resources for people who have prosopagnosia, or a disability in recognizing faces, I came across what looks like an important resource for people who have another isolated disability which is sometimes associated with prosopagnosia,  an inability to orient in a physical environment. The title of this website is “Developmental topographical disorientation: a lifelong condition”. The term “developmental” denotes that this is a condition that those affected naturally and probably genetically are destined to develop. Most developmental brain-based conditions manifest in early childhood. Prosopagnosia, synaesthesia and autism are some examples of neurodevelopmental conditions. I guess there is probably an acquired, non-developmental version of this disorientation condition that can be caused by brain damage or stroke. I also guess that developmental topographical disorientation would be a different condition to the type of disorientation that results from altered states of consciousness or from an acquired type of visual agnosia that results from dementia or Benson’s syndrome. The website that I’ve discovered appears to be run by two highly qualified academics and researchers who work in universities in Canada who appear to be experts in this condition: Assistant Professor Giuseppe Iaria and Professor Jason J S Barton.

I think developmental topographical disorientation would have to be the same type of problem that the famous neurologist, writer and prosopagnosic Dr Oliver Sacks experiences and has written about in his book The Mind’s Eye and in his interesting article about prosopagnosia which was published in the New Yorker magazine. The scientific study of this type of problem is clearly in it’s infancy, and one problem that is often a feature of new areas of academic inquiry is a lack of standardization of the terminology. I’m really not sure which is the proper term for this orientation problem, or whether there are genuinely different varieties of this problem which have their own terms. Iaria and Barton use the term “developmental topographical disorientation”, Sacks used the term “topographical agnosia” and Sacks wrote that Dr D. Frank Benson, who was the first person to formally describe Benson’s syndrome or posterior cortical atrophy used the term “environmental agnosia” to describe patients who get lost in their own neighbourhoods or homes, and I’ve come across the term “agnosia for scenes” which seems to be the same type of thing. I’ve read about people who can’t recognize landcapes or scenes, and also people who can’t recognize specific landmarks, which seem to be different visual disabilities. It’s all very confusing, and I hope some clarity and standardization in this area of research will become clear, for the sake of the people who experience these issues.

I’m interested in this stuff not because I have any problems in orienting, but because I experience one type of synaesthesia in which visual memories of scenes of landscapes, some of them very old memories, are the “concurrents” or additional synaesthesia experiences triggered by thinking about specific concepts or performing very specific fine-motor household chores. I have fully described these types of synaesthesia experiences, which to my knowledge have never before been scientifically described, in a number of different posts at this blog (click on the applicable tags to find them). My guess is that my ability to orient using memories of scenes should be superior, or the opposite of topographical disorientation for a number of reasons. There seems to be a link between prosopagnosia and topographical disorientation, and I’m the opposite of a prosopagnosic in that I’ve attained some perfect scores in some tests of face recognition and thus could be a super-recognizer, and so if face and scene recognition are linked I should also have great scene recognition. I also have synaesthesia that involves visual memories of scenes, and according to research about syneasthesia, superior ability is often found in synaesthetes in the cognitive functions which are involved with their synesthesia. I also believe that an awareness of scenes and a sense of place has an unusual prominence in the way that I think and experience life. This website that I’ve just discovered links to some tests of orientation ability, so I hope I will be able to find some more spare time to have a go at these tests to see whether my prediction about my ability in this area might be true.

One last comment about the Developmental topographical disorientation website; I wonder if it is only a coincidence that two of the artworks displayed at this website, which both illustrate the concept of spatial landscapes and orienting, are the creations of two synaesthete artists – David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh? I wonder, do synaesthete artists display a more developed sense of space and place? How could one research this question in an objective manner? And what kind of art would people who have topographical disorientation create? Could this condition be diagnosed through art or drawing tests?

Developmental topographical disorientation: a lifelong condition    http://www.gettinglost.ca/Home.html

Just found interesting paper about Williams syndrome and the fusiform face area

It appears that having a fusiform face area (FFA) that is twice the normal size does not give people with Williams syndrome (WS) super powers of face recognition or expression recognition, but I’m not sure we can be completely sure that people with Williams do not have any special gift in reading faces, as other researchers have found fault with the test that was used in this study to measure face recognition ability. Williams syndrome is a genetic syndrome that is associated with  intellectual deficits, “heightened emotionality”, “hypersociability” and a special love of music. Dr Oliver Sacks wrote an interesting chapter about Williams syndrome in his book Musicophilia. I do not have Williams syndrome, and this syndrome does not run in my family. One thing that I do believe that I and some family members share in common with people who have Williams syndrome is our great love of music, despite a lack of musical education or training.

“The atypically large FFA volume that we found in WS was positively correlated with apparently normal performance levels on a standardized face-identity recognition task (Benton test) in the same participants. This finding is analogous to electrophysiological reports of atypically large N200 in WS, which is correlated with performance on the Benton test (Mills et al., 2000). However, in our experiments, the correlation between rFFA size and Benton scores reached statistical significance only after excluding two WS participants with the noisiest BOLD signals. The similarity in the mean performance across TD and WS in the Benton test may be due to insufficient sensitivity of the Benton test in detecting subtle variations in face-recognition proficiency (Duchaine and Nakayama, 2004).”

Has anyone ever done a study in which people who have Williams syndrome have been given the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT)? I’d love to read that.

Golijeh Golarai, Sungjin Hong, Brian W. Haas, Albert M. Galaburda, Debra L. Mills, Ursula Bellugi, Kalanit Grill-Spector & Allan L. Reiss The Fusiform Face Area is Enlarged in Williams Syndrome. Journal of Neuroscience. 12 May 2010, 30(19): 6700-6712; doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.4268-09.2010

Duchaine, Bradley & Nakayama, Ken Developmental prosopagnosia and the Benton Facial Recognition Test. Neurology. April 13, 2004 vol. 62 no. 7 1219-1220. doi: 10.1212/01.WNL.0000118297.03161.B3 http://www.neurology.org/content/62/7/1219.abstract

“The Benton Facial Recognition Test is used for clinical and research purposes, but evidence suggests that it is possible to pass the test with impaired face discrimination abilities.”

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.


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