Tag Archives: Savant syndrome

Faces, faces everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

Left anterior temporal lobe versus right anterior temporal lobe – does one really need to be autistic to have excellent visual memory?

I’m not a paid researcher and I don’t work in a university, so when I discover new things that help to make sense of my unusual visual processing experiences (various visual types of synaesthesia, IMLM, scene-concept synaesthesia, super-recognition, The Strange Phenomenon etc) it is often by accident as I go about my usual lifestyle. It was only an accident many years ago that I found out that synaesthesia is a neuropsychological phenomenon recognized by science, when I was reading about another subject that interested me at the time, and synaesthesia was mentioned in passing and described in a quaint footnote. The other day I was at my local library looking thru a pile of New Scientist magazines to select issues that I hadn’t read. I didn’t realise that I’d borrowed one from 2010, but when I opened it up at an article about research that has demonstrated how visual memory can be enhanced I wasn’t sorry that I took that old issue off the shelf.

This article, which sadly is behind a paywall, but can probably be easily accessed in hard-copy thru any good public library, is not about face memory or face recognition, but I think it is still an interesting clue about what might be different about my brain. As I’ve written before in articles that I’ve published here, it is my belief that there is a general enhancement in the functioning of the right temporal lobe areas of my brain, which includes the fusiform gyrus on the right, which includes the fusiform face area on the right. I guess my fusiform gyrus on the left is probably working well also. The thing that makes this article so interesting to me is that it seems to show that at least part of the left and right temporal lobes work in opposition to each other, and when the activity of the right is boosted while the activity of the left is inhibited the result is an enhancement of visual memory. Could a naturally-occuring skewed relationship between left and right in the temporal lobes be an explanation for my test scores consistent with me being a super-recognizer of faces? Has some bright-spark researcher at a uni somewhere done a version of the transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) study discussed in this article, exploring face memory? If I was a researcher that is what I’d be looking at.

The other aspect of this article that I find striking is the view of autism that it presents. Science magazines are full of stories about autism research, and as a reader of these publications I’ve read my fair share of such stories, but I’ve never before read an article depicting autism as a natural enhancement in visual memory. I guess such a benefit of autism might be implied in the many books and articles that have been published about autistic savants who create realistic art (Stephen Wiltshire and Gregory Blackstock would be some fine examples), and no doubt an enhanced visual memory could also be behind the many autistic people who have superior navigation ability, but what I’ve generally found is that most books and articles about autism don’t delve very far into brain-based explanations of autistic enhancement of visual memory. As I recall, behavioural explanations are far more common than neuropsychological explanations – autistic people’s special visual abilities are often dismissively described as being the result of obsessive, repetitive learning. Clearly there is more to it than that. In this article by Sujata Gupta in New Scientist autism is explicitly linked with enhancement in visual memory. So does one need to be autistic to have superior visual memory? And how does this all relate to face memory? What is the relationship between autism and super-recognition, if any? I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for researchers to tackle these questions.

Gupta, Sujata Little brain zap, big memory boost. New Scientist. August 14th 2010. Issue 2773 p.16.

Online reference: Skull electrodes give memory a boost. New Scientist. 13 August 2010 by Sujata Gupta Magazine issue 2773. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727733.900-skull-electrodes-give-memory-a-boost.html

It appears that the study described in the above article has not been published in a journal yet, but below is the details of a paper about a similar study co-authored by Richard Chi:

Paulo S. Boggio, Felipe Fregni, Claudia Valasek, Sophie Ellwood, Richard Chi, Jason Gallate, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, and Allan Snyder
Temporal Lobe Cortical Electrical Stimulation during the Encoding and Retrieval Phase Reduces False Memories.
PLoS ONE. 2009; 4(3): e4959. Published online 2009 March 25. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004959 PMCID: PMC2655647
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2655647/?tool=pubmed

Tammet edited out

This is just a short note to let my readers know that I have edited my first ever post in this blog to remove references to the famous writer of biographies, celebrity savant, language genius and neurological curiousity Daniel Tammet. I had been comparing my own unsual experience with The Strange Phenomenon and synaesthesia and other characteristics with Mr Tammet’s documented characteristics, not least because he and I are both synaesthetes and apparently in possession of some unusual abilities, but after doing some reading of the book Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer and related online dicussions, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t trust any aspect of the Tammet legend, regardless of what some researchers might claim. There are just so many different aspects of his own story that have been called into question, by so many different people, that I have a strong feeling that something just isn’t right, so it’s adios, auf Wiedersehen, gxis revido, au revoir and hasta la vista baby to Mr Daniel Tammet!

For me one of the most intriguing areas of inconsistency in the many reports about Daniel Tammet (born Daniel Corney) are the conflicting reports about his ability to recognize faces, with one British researcher identifying Tammet as impaired in this respect, but two old reports in tabloid British newspapers which appear to have been based on the same sensationalist press release claiming that Tammet never forgets a face! To add to the mystery, Tammet was once a competitior in the World Memory Championships in London, and apparently did extremely well in a memory competition that involves putting names to faces. Commonsense tells me that one can easily simulate having a disability when tested, but performing at a superior level is not such an easy thing to pretend to do.

Links to sources of information about Daniel Tammet:

http://myreckonings.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/LightningCalculators/lightningcalculators

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Brain+Man!%3A+Fit+at+age3+turns+Dan+into+whiz+who+can+add+like+a…-a0127912950

http://www.kbcmedia.com/

http://www.pi-world-ranking-list.com/lists/details/tammet.html

http://www.worldmemorychampionship.com/world_rankings.asp

http://www.uni.edu/gabriele/page4/files/maguire002820020029brains-behind-superior-memorizers.pdf

http://postcog.ucd.ie/files/Azoulai_CNS05.pdf

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13554790701844945

http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2007_BC_Savant_J%20Consc%20St.pdf

http://www.scribd.com/doc/54687635/Moon-Walking-With-Einstein-Foer-Joshua

New study with scientifically sound test finds people with Asperger syndrome vary greatly in face recognition ability – can face recognition be a savant ability?

Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test.
Darren Hedley, Neil Brewer, Robyn Young
Autism Research.
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011
DOI: 10.1002/aur.214    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

This article is still in press, but was published online last month. This study had 34 subjects with Asperger syndrome and 42 nonautistic controls. It appears that while around a quarter of the study subjects with Asperger syndrome in this study have prosopagnosia (as defined by a test score from 2 to 3 SD’s below normal or mean), Asperger syndrome (a type of autism) is also not inconsistent with superior performance on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which is the best test of face recognition that I know of. Some features of the study that perhaps distinguish it from other studies of face recognition in autism are the use of a reliable and valid test of face recognition (Duchaine & Nakayama 2006), the study of face recognition in adults, not children, which is really important because face learning ability appears to be a skill that peaks at a surprisingly late stage in the life-span, into the third decade (Germine, Duchaine & Nakayama 2011), and if autistic people have a delay in development that could potentially affect or bias the results of studies of children and youths.

I was particularly interested in looking at the data for individual study subjects, but for some reason, in journal papers this seems to always be included in a miniature table that is either unreadable or unprintable, or both, or is absent altogether. Persevering, I was interested to find that none of the non-autistic study participants got a score in the prosopagnosia range, while eight out of 34 of the Asperger participants did, so there seems to be a definite association between having prosopagnosia and having a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (AS). But at the other end of the spectrum of ability, the top score of the whole study, which I think must have been close to the super-recognizer range at 1.75, was achieved by a participant with AS, and there were two other with AS who got great scores. It appears that a fair proportion of those with AS got close to average scores. To the naked eye, it appears that there is a greater variation in face recognition ability in those with AS than in the normal adults tested. Why? Should we just accept this as a brute fact about AS, or should we look for special explanations for the top or bottom achievers in the AS group?

Is there something special about the top performers in the AS group? Given that there appears to be a link between autism and synaesthesia, and synaesthesia appears to be sometimes associated with savant-like superior ability in specific sensory or cognitive tasks (Banissy et al 2011) (Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009) (Baron-Cohen et al 2007) (Simner, Mayo & Spiller 2009), and the association between savantism and autism is generally accepted, should we then ask if the three top-performing participants with AS might be synaesthetes who also have AS? If these connections are found in reality, should we then include superior face recognition (“super-recognizers”) among the many varied areas of mental performance that are regarded as savant skills and abilities? I have already discovered in a 2010 study of face recognition in the broader autism phenotype (BAP) one CFMT score from a father of an autistic child that appears to be close to a super-recognizer level of performance (Wilson et al 2010), as defined as two or more SD’s above the mean. I would have thought that this isn’t what researchers would expect to find in studies of autism or the BAP which use study participants who aren’t selected for any particular level of face recognition ability.

I’ve got to wonder whether people (children?) whose main social disability is prosopagnosia have been clumsily lumped into the category of autism. It appears that over three-quarters of the autistic subjects did not have a “severe face recognition impairment”, so we certainly can’t say that a severe impairment is typical of the group of people who have Asperger syndrome (AS) in this study, and my reading of the “enhanced perceptual functioning model” of autism seems to suggest that autistic people should have an advantage at visual tasks (Samson et al 2011). We know that prosopagnosia is a fairly common but not well recognized disability, and that the diagnosis rates for things like AS and autism have been climbing steadily for a long time. The question of why this has happened is one that has provoked huge controversy – is there a genuine increase in autism rates, or are more and more people being placed into the category, due to lower thresholds of “severity” required for a diagnosis, or the category of autism indiscriminately devouring other categories of people, such as the intellectually disabled and other uncommon or rare disabilities?

The possibility that prosopagnosics can be (incorrectly?) identified as cases of autism was demonstrated in a story about prosopagnosia from the Australian science television series Catalyst which was broadcast in 2007 (see link below). An anecdote about two children in a family which was later found to have members with developmental prosopagnosia, who had previously been diagnosed with autism, was recounted by a prosopagnosia researcher from Macquarie University and dramatized on the show. I should point out that neither of the face perception tests shown in this story are the CFMT. One face recognition test shown in the Catalyst story uses the faces of famous people and it relies upon the person being tested already knowing about the famous person and being able to give a name for the famous face, two tasks which are not face recognition, so as a test of face recognition it is far from pure and perfect.

References

Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent and Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011  http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/papers/Banissy11JN.pdf       http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

Baron-Cohen S, Bor D, Billington J, Asher JE, Wheelwright S and Ashwin C. Savant memory in a man with colour form-number synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Consciousness Studies. volume 14, number 9-10, September-October 2007, p. 237-251.  http://www.imprint.co.uk/jcs_14_9-10.html

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585.
http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf

Face blindness. Catalyst. ABC. broadcast 19/07/2007  http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1982889.htm  (This story showed face recognition testing at Macquarie University and includes a small sample of the tests which viewers can try)

Germine, Laura T., Duchaine, Bradley, Nakayama, Ken Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, Volume 118, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 201-210http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002611

Hedley, Darren, Brewer, Neil, Young, Robyn Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test. Autism Research. Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011         DOI: 10.1002/aur.214    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

Samson, Fabienne, Mottron, Laurent, Soulieres, Isabelle & Zeffiro, Thomas A. Enhanced visual functioning in autism: an ALE meta-analysis. Human Brain Mapping. Article first published online: 4 APR 2011 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.21307/abstract

Simner, Julia, Mayo, Neil, Spiller, Mary-Jane A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex. Volume 45, issue 10, November-December 2009, Pages 1246-1260.
http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00221-4/abstract

Wilson CE, Freeman P, Brock J, Burton AM, Palermo R Facial Identity Recognition in the Broader Autism Phenotype. PLoS ONE 2010 5(9): e12876. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012876
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012876

Anything interesting in upcoming academic book about face processing?

I’ve had a quick look at an upcoming large academic book about face perception that is currently listed and searchable at the Amazon.com website. The title is Oxford Handbook of Face Perception and it is due for publication this October. For a book of this size and price it looks like there will be surprisingly little in it of interest to me, despite my interest in face recognition and other neuroscience subjects.

It looks like there will be little or no discussion of the subject of synaesthesia in the book, which would be something of an oversight considering that there appears to be a fair amount of evidence supporting the idea that under-connectivity in the brain could be cause of serious deficits in face recognition (prosopagnosia) in at least some cases of prosopagnosia, and under-connectivity could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, a harmless neurological condition of which some varieties are associated with increased connectivity in the brain’s white matter. The upcoming book does appear to have some discussion of under-connectivity and prosopagnosia, but it appears nothing much about conditions that can be found the opposite end of the spectrum of face processing ability, things such as super-recognizers and synaesthesia. There is a whole section of the book devoted to disorders including prosopagnosia, while I can find no indication from the contents or searching the text of the book that there will be any coverage of superiority in face recognition. It also appears that there is no coverage of superiority in facial emotion perception. I was recently fascinated to learn that a number of studies have found that superior identification of emotional expressions is associated with some disorders, including borderline personality disorder. As far as I can tell there’s nothing about this in this book. This lack of coverage of superior face perception doesn’t surprise me. I believe that, unless confronted with contrary evidence, most people, including academics and teachers, assume that the clever end of the bell curve is just the result of normal brains that are just lucky enough to have missed out on the types of problems that might impair cognitive performance. If this were true, there wouldn’t be anything terribly interesting to find in studying people who have very high IQs or people who have specific areas of high intellectual ability such as superior interpersonal skills, musical gifts, ease in language learning, impressive calculation abilities or an unusual facility in recognizing faces. If these talents and abilities were just the result of lots of practice and/or a super-normal brain, then these abilities would hardly be worth studying. Of course, we all know that there are some most unusual people who have special gifts, the male autistic or disabled savants that we read about in books by Oliver Sacks, but such people are thought to be rare as hen’s teeth, and kept hidden away.

Everyone knows what a savant is, but no one expects to ever meet one. I think this could be one reason why the teachers from the gifted and talented program that is run through our local government school district thought it was necessary to conduct a talk a few years ago for the parents of gifted students, to explain how these students are often quite different from bright but not gifted students. The teachers introduced us to the concept of asychronous development in gifted children. Gifted children often develop on a schedule that is unique to them and may develop in different domains on very different timetables. We were told that gifted kids can have intellectual, social and emotional development that are at very different stages, and such kids can have uneven levels of achievement across the range of school subjects. There is an obvious similarity between the concepts of asynchronous development in the gifted and the concept of the savant, which is generally thought of as a disabled or autistic person who has one area of cognitive brilliance that contrasts with overall poor performance (the reality of savantism isn’t really this simple). A clear point of distinction between the savant and the gifted child with uneven development is a hard thing to find. Another thing that the parents of the gifted were told that night is that the group of kids who passed the testing to get into the gifted program included some children who were already diagnosed with something from a range of psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder or Autistic Disorder. The gifted aren’t just super-normals. The gifted are unique. The gifted are often different, not just in level of achievement, but in type. Are there more or less synaesthetes among the gifted than we would expect to find, given what we know about the commonality of this interesting neurological condition? I don’t think this has been researched yet. The gifted are different. This is why I believe that there could be a lot of interesting things to find if scientists would study the gifted with as much enthusiasm as they target the deficient. This is why I think it is a pity that in this day and age we have textbooks about reading that have a chapter about dyslexia but nothing about advanced or precocious readers, and door-stopper texts about face perception that appear to ignore super-recognizers and expert emotion-readers. Maybe next decade.

References

Andy Calder, Gillian Rhodes, Mark Johnson, Jim Haxby Oxford Handbook of Face Perception (Oxford Handbook Series) Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (October 1, 2011) http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Handbook-Face-Perception/dp/0199559058/ref=sr_1_43?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310687539&sr=1-43

Tolan, Stephanie Giftedness As Asynchronous Development.  http://www.stephanietolan.com/gt_as_asynch.htm

Domes G, Czieschnek D, Weidler F, Berger C, Fast K, Herpertz SC. Recognition of facial affect in Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders. 2008 Apr;22(2):135-47. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18419234

Fertuck EA, Jekal A, Song I, Wyman B, Morris MC, Wilson ST, Brodsky BS, Stanley B Enhanced ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ in borderline personality disorder compared to healthy controls. Psychological Medicine. 2009 Dec;39(12):1979-88. Epub 2009 May 22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19460187

Wagner AW, Linehan MM. Facial expression recognition ability among women with borderline personality disorder: implications for emotion regulation? Journal of Personality Disorders. 1999 Winter;13(4):329-44.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10633314

Local brain hyperconnectivity, synaesthesia, autism, music, the temporal lobes and perfect pitch: some interesting reading

Douglas, Ed Perfect pitch. New Scientist Issue 2801 Feb 26th 2011 p. 46-49.

Online title of the article: Finely tuned minds: the secret of perfect pitch. http://www.newscientist.com/issue/2801

This is a most interesting science magazine article about perfect pitch, otherwise known as absolute pitch, the “ability to name or sing any note on demand”, written by someone who himself has perfect pitch. Ed Douglas reports on the findings of studies that have been published in six different science journals, and research scientists mentioned include Daniel Levitin, Sarah Wilson, Elizabeth Theusch, Analabha Basu, Jane Gitschier, Maria Teresa Moreno Sala, Eugenia Costa-Giomi, Patrick Bermudez, Psyche Loui, Diana Deutsch, Luca Tommasi and researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

Douglas explicitly speculates that there could be an association between synaesthesia, autism, and perfect pitch ability, caused by an “excess of wiring in the brain” or hyperconnection. Douglas cites as evidence the study by Psyche Loui and colleagues listed above, and another New Scientist article that reported the interesting “intense world” theory of autism in 2008.

In this article the names of four famous musicians who either had perfect pitch or possibly had it, Beethoven, Ella Fitzgerald, Mozart and Jimi Hendrix are mentioned. The author Ed Douglas does not mention that two of these musicians also experienced coloured music synaesthesia (drug use could have been the cause of Hendrix’s colours). We do not know if Mozart had synaesthesia (my intuition tells me he did), but there has been much speculation over the years that Mozart might have had a range of different neurological peculiarities or disorders. Douglas mentions that Hendrix and Mozart both had an extraordinary savant-like memory for music. Hendrix, Mozart and possibly also Beethoven were left-handed.

Enhanced Cortical Connectivity in Absolute Pitch Musicians: A Model for Local Hyperconnectivity. Psyche Loui, H. Charles Li, Anja Hohmann and Gottfried Schlaug Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. April 2011, Vol. 23, No. 4, Pages 1015-1026.
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21500) http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2010.21500

This is one of the studies discussed in the above New Scientist article. Don’t ask me how a journal paper dated “April 2011” can be cited in a science magazine dated “Feb 26th 2011”. The world of science journals is a futuristic world.

Twelve musicians with absolute pitch (AP)/perfect pitch and a matched control group of twelve musicians without perfect pitch were studied. Volume and fibre numbers in some tracts in the left and right hemispheres of the brain were found to be significantly higher in the study subjects who had perfect pitch, but hyperconnectivity was not found all over the place; “Heightened connectivity among AP musicians appears to affect local structures specific to the temporal lobe.” Figure 4 in this paper strikingly shows the difference between the tracts of three groups of study subjects. This paper shows that people with perfect pitch appear to have greater connectivity in the white matter of parts of the temporal lobes that associate and perceive pitch. It looks to me as though greater connectivity in the left hemisphere might be more important regarding perfect pitch. I am not pretending to be a qualified scientist in interpreting this paper.

I believe that greater connectivity in the white matter has been found in grapheme-> colour synaesthetes, in other parts of the brain, so I would not be surprised if music-related synaesthesia might be particularly common in musicians who have perfect pitch. It is no surprise that this paper mentions synaesthesia and has two studies of a synaesthete musician with perfect pitch among its references (see below). Unfortunately synaesthesia is discussed with some negative language in this April 2011 paper; “these disorders” and “abnormal white matter connectivity”. In the discussion of this paper the case is argued that perfect pitch has hyperconnectivity in common with conditions such as synaesthesia, autism and heightened creativity, and the authors identify “increased local connectivity in temporal regions” as a feature that perfect pitch, synesthesia and autism share.

Hänggi Jürgen; Beeli Gian; Oechslin Mathias S; Jäncke Lutz The multiple synaesthete E.S.: neuroanatomical basis of interval-taste and tone-colour synaesthesia. NeuroImage. 2008;43(2):192-203. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18692578

This is a journal paper that was mentioned in the 2011 journal paper above. A brain scan study was done comparing E. S., who has perfect pitch and some musical tone-related types of synaesthesia, with other professional musicians and with normal controls. Bilateral areas of hyperconnectivity in the temporal lobes of E. S. were found.

Synaesthesia: when coloured sounds taste sweet. Beeli G, Esslen M, Jäncke L. Nature. 434, 38 (3 March 2005) doi:10.1038/434038a Published online 2 March 2005. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7029/abs/434038a.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15744291

Another journal article that was mentioned in the 2011 journal paper. Female synaesthete musician E.S. is compared with five non-synaesthete musicians. E.S. experiences flavoured musical tone intervals, which she uses to identify these intervals. It appears that this paper is about the same musician synaesthete with perfect pitch as the one described in the 2008 NeuroImage paper above.

I’m satisfied that there is a real association between synaesthesia and perfect pitch, based on what I have read in the above article and papers, and also based on the fact that perfect pitch seems to be unusually common among musicians who have or had synaesthesia. I believe this association between synaesthesia and perfect pitch is a direct effect of the physical localised hyperconnection within the synesthete brain that gives rise to the synaesthesia and also the increased perception ability, even though I do acknowledge that a type of synaesthesia that gives musical sounds individual colours or flavours could obviously aid in the identification of individual sounds. The question remains though – by what mechanism are the individual sounds identified then each given an identifying taste or colour? Surely a conscious or an unconscious identification of the sounds must precede the allocation of colours to the musical notes.

There is plenty of scientific evidence that various types of synaesthesia give rise to various types of superiority in perception, and it appears that perfect pitch is another example. I do not know if I have any capacity for perfect pitch as I had only the most rudimentary musical education (the same true of my synaesthete close relatives). I’m happy to conclude that simply being synaesthetes makes us especially “at risk” for possessing special powers of perception, including perfect pitch, being a super-recognizer or a superior reader, but it is also clear that specific types of special abilities and specific types of synaesthesia are associated with higher connectivity in specific parts of the brain. So far, my inquiries appear to suggest that the hyperconnectivity in the brains of my kin and I could be limited to the right hemisphere, while perfect pitch might well have as its physical basis higher connectivity in the left, so I guess we could dip out on perfect pitch. If there exists any cost-free test of the capacity for perfect pitch that can be taken by people who do not have musical training, I would love to have a crack at it.

I don’t know about perfect pitch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is something a bit atypical about the way our brains process sounds. The enjoyment of music is very important to a number of people in our family, which I’m sure has something to do with the temporal lobes. A lot of the music that we enjoy is sung in non-English languages, languages from all corners of the world. I’m not sure how unusual our taste in music is, but there does seem to be a hunger in our family for listening to exotic phonemes. None of us are language savants like the famous British synaesthete Daniel Tammet, but there is a consistent line of descent in our family of bilingual or multi-lingual people. I also seem to have a thing about unusual voices. I choose to have people in my life who have unusual voices and I love to listen to distinctive singing voices of a range of types. For me, singing voices are easily categorized as interesting or not interesting, and I much prefer the former. The gravel-voiced rap singers Everlast and Tone Loc have interesting voices, and so do all counter-tenors. I recently read an interesting observation about the extraordinary sound of the counter-tenor voice in a newspaper interview article about German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. “I think these days the audience knows what a countertenor is, but it’s that inability to readily categorise the voice that makes for better communication – you listen with fresh ears, and focus more on the words.” I believe this is an important element of my enjoyment of the voices of countertenors and other singers with interesting voices. The strangeness of the sound draws attention closely, finely, and it also destroys any set of simple musical expectations. I find strange sounds compelling and interesting, and I’m not sure why I find this so very enjoyable, but I do know from experience that when people enjoy doing anything involving thought, they are most likely utilizing some particular area of cognitive strength.

Beth Gibbons from Portishead and Kate Bush are some female singers who have interesting voices. For me, many interesting voices have a colour. Today a rellie and I were having an argument at a supermarket about the colour of the music that we were listening to, as Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, one of the strangest bits of music to ever hit the top of the charts, was playing on the PA system among the aisles of groceries. Don’t worry about us. We are just a little bit different.

Pretty as a landscape

I’ve just been having a quick look at the abstract of a journal paper about agnosia for scenes, which is apparently an inability to recognize and learn scenes lacking salient landmarks. It seems to be related to prosopagnosia, which is an inability to recognize faces. The link between these disabilities is easily understood when one thinks with one’s mind’s eye. A face is like a landscape. Have you ever heard of the term “pretty as a picture”? One could take that literally. Some noses are hills, and others are more like mountains. Some people have noses like a great dividing range, a great long thing continuous with the brow.

If there really is a close relationship between prosopagnosia and agnosia for scenes, then it seems clear that agnosia for scenes is not much to do with landmarks. It is surely about the whole picture, the entire landscape, a thing that wraps around one, a reality that one can almost feel through one’s back and upper arms. I’m sure there is something unusual about the way I percieve faces and the way I experience scenes. I believe I enjoy “encoding” both types of things more than most people. When I am a tourist it is all about discovering new vistas, experiencing and remembering new places. I am the ultimate rubberneck, and I don’t much care if it looks a bit odd or a bit unsophisticated. When I visit a home that I have never seen before, I can’t help looking around a lot, even though I have little interest in interior decoration. If your home has the same floorplan as another home that I’ve been inside, it won’t take long for me to detect that.

My memory for places does have limits. In case you are wondering if I am a savant who can draw incredibly detailed scenes from memory, like Stephen Wiltshire and other autistic savants, you will be disappionted. I think I was pretty good at art when I was a high school student. My art teacher seemed to take a special interest in my work, even though I was never the star of the class. I tried to draw what I actually saw, which other students didn’t seem to be doing much, and I tried to be a bit original, but I wasn’t a human camera, and art has never been a major interest of mine.

Mendez, MF, Cherrier, MM Agnosia for scenes in topographagnosia. Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(10):1387-95. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12757910