Tag Archives: Synaesthesia involving face perception

SYNAESTHESIA IS NOT A CROSSING OF THE SENSES, BECAUSE CONCURRENTS ARE MEMORIES OR LEARNED ASSOCIATIONS, NOT EXPERIENCES!

I thought I’d share my response to question that I saw posted on the internet “What is it like to have “crossing” of the senses known as synesthesia?

It is nothing like a “crossing of the senses”, because that is not what it is or how it works, regardless of the countless times that clueless non-synaesthete academics have described it that way. I do not see a colour in response to a sound instead of hearing a sound. My senses of smell, taste, vision and the other senses are normal or good for my age. Another way in which synaesthesia is not a crossing of the senses is the countless types of synaesthesia that do not have simple sensory experiences as either inducers or concurrents. Sometimes thinking of a very specific concept will trigger for a very brief time a visual memory of a scene of a place that I visited decades ago, as it looked then. The inducer is purely abstract, not sensory, and the concurrent is a memory of a visual nature. Clearly the concurrent is not a sensory experience because it is not a scene that I saw at that time, md also because the scene was the way the place looked many years ago, not as it looked at that time. This type of synaesthesia, a type that I experience quite often among many other more widely-known types of synaesthesia, is a memory of a visual sensory experience, and is not an actual sensory experience. If I actually thought that my synaesthesia concurrents were real sensory experiences, I’d be fit for a psychiatric institution, because that would be a type of hallucination.

Clearly synaesthesia as a phenomenon that involves memory, or the neural processes that give rise to memory, because numerous studies have found various types of memory superiority associated with various types of synaesthesia, often these links being between memory and synaesthesia centred upon the same areas of mental processing. This is one of the intriguing things that I have noticed about my own synaesthesia, which inspired me to write the very first post in this blog, about The Strange Phenomenon, which is an unusual and not previously described type of synaesthesia in which the inducer is a specific face viewed from a very specific angle and the concurrent is a memory of another person’s (similar) face and entire persona (face, mannerisms, personality, voice). This repeated experience linking synaesthesia with face memory prompted me to do face memory tests, including the short form of the CFMT, and unexpectedly discover my own status as a super-recognizer, a form of memory superiority in face memory.

Synaesthesia is not hallucination and synaesthetes generally understand that concurrents are not real, current sensory experiences. We understand this because we can see set patterns among groups of inducers and concurrents and know what to expect because of the great reliability of these associations between thoughts that belong in set categories. An example would be grapheme colour synaesthesia, in which most of the letters of the alphabet (a category) are individually reliably asspcoated with specific colours (another category). The way this trype of syanesthesia is experienced is more like learning or knowledge than the rapid and fleeting triggering of memories, but Iguess learning and knowledge are based on memory. With some more rarely-experienced types of synaesthesia with concurrents that seem like current sensory experiences (as in my white chocolate-flavoured hugs synaesthesia), I have been able to pick them as synaesthesia concurrents or sensory memories rather than hallucination or normal sensory experiences because the sensations are extremely brief in duration – they flash in and out of the mind in an instant, or hit like a bolt of lightning, leaving you wondering, and if I hadn’t made the effort to keep a record of these associations by writing them down, they would be quickly forgotten and not obvious as instances of synaesthesia due to their ephemeral nature. These sensations or experiences cannot be mistaken as normal sensory experiences. I think anyone who describes their synaesthesia as hard to pick from reality or like a hallucination, or constantly-occurring, is probably lying, or at least confused.

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post or using it in 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 my objection will be well publicized. If you believe that you published any of these ideas before I did, please let me know the details in a comment on this article. If you want to make reference to this blog 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.

This astounding neuroscience rediscovery could be a central piece of the puzzle

Some bold and persistent researchers have rediscovered an unusual bundle of nerve fibres or a “major white-matter fascicle” in the human brain. Nice work! It is now called the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF). This discovery could be an important new piece in the puzzle in researching and exploring ideas that I’m looking at in this blog, such as the relationship between the many different varieties of synaesthesia and face recognition or face memory and also reading ability. I think this discovery could be highly relevant because the rediscovered structure is a pathway of white matter that connects the occipital lobe at the rear of the brain, where visual processing happens, to other areas of the brain, and there is speculation that information carried by this pathway could play a role in face recognition and reading. I have proposed that synaesthesia might be linked to superiority in face recognition (super-recognition) and superiority in reading, citing myself and close kin as examples. I have also described and written about types of synaesthesia that involve faces or other complex memories of images as the concurrent or the inducer or both. Researchers have found that grapheme-colour synaesthesia is characterized by greater coherence in the white matter network in the brain, and that would presumably include the rediscovered VOF. I have identified the rear of the brain, the right hemisphere of the brain and the fusiform gyrus as the parts of my brain that are most likely be the locations of the events that give rise to my super-recognition and synaesthesia and related interesting goings-on, so this white matter highway at the back of the brain  is very likely involved in these processes.

I’m amazed by the story of how this brain pathway came to be forgotten or discredited by science. Apparently because it was unusual in it’s orientation its very existence conflicted with established thinking at the time, so it became non-existent in the eyes of science. I’m sure that many scientists and neuroscience enthusiasts will be surprised that dogmatic thinking in science can create an important “blind spot” in scientific knowledge, but I’m not one of those people. I’ve seen too much misbehaviour, bias and simple ignorance in neuroscience to believe that the fairy-tale accounts of science as an automatically self-correcting enterprise apply to this corner of the world of science.

http://www.iflscience.com/brain/brain-pathway-rediscovered-after-100-years

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/11/13/1418503111

http://www.washington.edu/news/2014/11/17/major-brain-pathway-rediscovered-after-century-old-confusion-controversy/

Blair, Jenny Lost and Found: How a pair of scientists rediscovered a part of the human brain. Discover. October 1, 2015.

http://discovermagazine.com/2015/nov/5-lost-and-found

 

Pictures from the past

While making a cake by hand from scratch tonight, scenes from South Fremantle and Moore River flashed into my mind’s eye. While mixing the icing scenes from years ago in Subiaco appeared. I call this phenomenon “fine motor task – visual place memory synaesthesia”. As far as I know I’m the first person in the world to name it and identify it a synaesthesia. It is interesting because it violates one criterion of a quite old definition of synaesthesia, that it only involves simple sensory experiences, such as simple shapes or colours but not complex visual experiences such as objects or faces or landscapes. I also very occasionally experience the appearance of a face as a synaesthesia concurrent, which is another reason why these types of synaesthesia are interesting – because they appear to be linked to my super-recognizer ability (marked superiority in face memory). Another reason why these things are interesting from a scientific point of view is that they seem to be related to a synesthesia-like experience which appears to be the involuntary operation of an ancient memorizing technique known as the method of loci. In these experiences, which other people also report experiencing, memories of concepts become accidentally connected with visual memories of particular scenes. For example, re-visiting a spot in a carpark where I spent time years ago reading a book or listening to a talk radio broadcast will automatically bring to mind the concept or thought that I got from reading or listening there years ago. It can also operate in reverse with the concept evoking a memory of the exact scene that I looked at when I first learned about it. It’s interesting.

A very lippy gash, things with personalities, animals who are people and a man who is a lion….very strange

How many personified inanimate objects can you count in the TV show linked to below; Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy? There’s the screwed-up chocolate stick soldier/teacher, the French signer made of croissants, the verbally abusive wound in the arm of Sgt Raymond Boombox (my personal favourite), the misunderstood mountains who go tisk tisk, the thing with a conch shell for a head, etc. And how many animals can you count that behave like people? There’s a  ruthless and deadly WWI flying ace dolphin, Dondylion, his disturbing animal companion, a spoon snake, and no doubt many more. There even seems to be an example of a real person being seen as having the characteristics of an animal; “David Lee Roth, King of the Lions”. I can see that – Roth (lead singer of Van Halen) did once have a mane and had a King of the Jungle sort of attitude, with great physical confidence. He was on the prowl. He was covered in fur.

What is psychedelia? What is psychedelic television? If it is a creative collision of concepts that shouldn’t but do go together, presented in a surreal, striking and colourful visual style, then Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy must be the only example of the genre that I’m aware of. That’s interesting – synaesthesia is also a collision of concepts that shouldn’t but do go together, and it is often very colourful, surreal and striking, and most types of synaesthesia seem to involve the sense of vision. There’s a belief that synaesthesia and creativity are linked. Psychedelic television and synaesthesia appear to have a collection of characteristics in common. What are we to make of this? The hyper-awareness of colour manifested in this television series is equal to the hyper-awareness of colour that I found in the autobiography of the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory. Colour doesn’t mean this much to non-synaesthetes, not quite.

I’m reminded of the most psychedelic neuroscience journal paper that I’ve read this year – the one comparing auras in mysticism and synaesthesia, by Spanish researchers, which was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. These researchers described a number of most interesting synaesthetes who had some interesting types of synaesthesia, including one person who experiences people-animal synaesthesia, in which a person might be seen by the synaesthete as having “the face of a bird of lion”. What’s the betting that this synaesthete would see in an instant David Lee Roth’s lion-like characteristics? I don’t know how anyone could miss it really. Does one need to be a synaesthete to see how much some people resemble animals? Noses can be beaks, people can be pigs and some of us do look horsey, or bug-eyed.

After very much enjoying the whole first series of Noel Fielding’s extraordinary TV series, (and keenly anticipating the next one), I can’t help feeling that personification and personality-related synaesthesia in general must have been one of the main ingredients that went into the creation of this strange psychedelic treat. The personification of inanimate objects and other forms of fusion or confusion of supposedly different states of being are themes that pop up constantly in this TV series. So many aspects of the series remind me of synaesthesia, in its various forms. Is it the creation of a synaesthete mind? What goes on inside Noel Fielding’s brain? Many people have wondered.

Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy http://youtu.be/u-HaEEv2p_o

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

Van Halen Panama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-NshzYK9y0

Rarely experienced types of synaesthesia – I’ve noticed some interesting patterns

Inspired by reading the fascinating fairly new journal paper by Spanish researchers comparing some more rare types of synesthesia with auras in mysticism, I have been playing with the idea of writing a post in which I list all of the types of synaesthesia that I have ever experienced, the common and the rare, and then I started writing down all of the rare types that I’ve only ever had happen a few times or even only once. I noticed something interesting about these types – out of a total of eight that I’ve thought of, three of them appear to be triggered by the novelty of a sensory or linguistic experience, and all other five types have some aspect of a person or persons as the “inducer” or trigger. So my rarely experienced types of synaesthesia appear to have completely different categories of triggers as my more frequent or ordinary synaesthesia experiences, which can be triggered by learned concepts such as years or numbers, or can be triggered by movement (manual chores) or music or purely sensory experiences like smell or voices. There seem to be two really quite distinct classes of synaesthesia types, the rare sporadic types triggered by persons or novelty, and the common frequent types triggered by the types of sensory and conceptual stimuli that researchers have already fully explored and described, at least in the way that my mind works. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the flashbacks that are an element of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a troublesome variety of synaesthesia and/or related to the Tetris effect?

I’m going to explain why I think this question is worth considering.

I have recently been reading a most interesting book that has been descibed as a “medical memoir”. I have read that the fiction writer Siri Hustvedt has mirror-touch synaesthesia, and I was rather interested in reading about that, but the main topic of Hustvedt’s book The Shaking Woman is her search for an explanation for her seizure-like shaking episodes that are triggered by public speaking.

One thing that I’ve noted is that both Siri and her late father have experienced PTSD-type flashbacks of traumatic memories (warfare, car accident). Like myself, Siri Hustvedt has also experienced the Tetris effect, which is like PTSD flashbacks in that it is an involuntary experience of a visual memory. I don’t experience the Tetris effect much these days, but when I do it is typically in response to a full day of weeding or some other outdoor repetitive work. I don’t think scientists know how common the Tetris effect is, and if it is a thing that everyone experiences then it wouldn’t mean a thing that the novelist and I both experience it. I have at least one other close blood relative who has also experienced the Tetris effect quite a few times. The Tetris effect operates through an unknown memory system, possibly related to procedural memory, according to the Wikipedia. I would think that the Tetris effect would have some type of visual memory system as its basis. It is interesting that Hustvedt’s mysterious shaking episodes were dampened-down but not completely cured by the drug propranolol, which (according to the book) is also used to treat high blood pressure, migraine, performance anxiety and PTSD. Hustvedt seems to have a lot of whatever mechanism is the basis of PTSD, which I guess might be a very strong or hyperconnected visual memory system in her brain. I would think this system is also probably responsible for the Tetris effect. Another reason to believe that the Tetris effect and PTSD operate in the same brain system is that a study described in the Wikipedia found that playing a Tetris-like video game soon after a traumatic event “….reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards”. I guess a specific memory system becomes overloaded with memories if the game is used as preventative treatment, so less of the traumatic memories can be encoded properly for long-term storage.

Hustvedt and I have quite a few things in common. We are both synaesthetes, we have both experienced the Tetris effect, we have also both experienced and migraine headaches, and we have both apparently had brain-based experiences of involuntarily-retrieved visual memories. In her book Hustvedt did not spell out explicitly that her flashbacks included visual content, and she did mention the memory of sound, but I’m happy to assume that anything labelled as a “flashback” included visual content. My involuntarily-retrieved visual memories are two different types of synaesthesia which I’ve experienced which trigger visual memories of scenes or a face. Hustvedt’s shaking episodes are like synaesthesia in that they have a very specific trigger (public speaking) and a very specific manifestation (violent body tremors without apparent anxiety, or under the influence of propranolol, an “electric buzz” quiver throughout the body).

There seem to be a lot of things here that are inter-connected. My experiences of my fine-motor->visual memories of scenes synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon, which is I believe a hybrid of face recognition and synaesthesia in which seeing one face under very specific conditions triggers an involuntary experience of a very old memory of the face of another person, show that synaesthesia concurrents or triggered additional sensory experiences can be in some ways similar to PTSD flashbacks, but without any accompanying psychological distress. My fine-motor-triggered visual memories are very subtle and hardly noticeable, while the face memory evoked in The Strange Phenomenon is more of an intrusion into ordinary consciousness. I’d like to put forward the theory that the flashbacks of PTSD (and not any of the other distressing features of PTSD) are synaesthesia concurrents that just happen to be distressing visual or sensory memories. I guess they must have some type of trigger, and I guess could be something purely sensory, very subtle or ordinary. I have never experienced PTSD myself, probably because I have fortunately never been in the type of extremely traumatic situation that causes this psychological syndrome, so I can only guess at what PTSD flashbacks are really like from what I’ve read. Are PTSD flashbacks the result of a type of synaesthesia that can manifest as quite a subtle experience, but are only troublesome or exceptional because of the very unpleasant nature of the memories evoked? Are synaesthetes more likely to develop PTSD if exposed to trauma than non-synaesthetes exposed to equivalent situations? It’s just a theory!

Wikipedia contributors Tetris effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tetris_effect&oldid=448999724

The Shaking Woman. The Book Show. Radio National. April 22 2010.  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2010/2878610.htm

Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper

(this article added to on August 10th 2011)

I thought that I’d read pretty much everything that there was available to read  about face recognition testing, but I had overlooked the 2006 journal paper by Duchaine and Nakayama published in the journal Neuropsychologia which validated the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). This short paper has been well worth a look. I’ve found quite a few things in this paper that have provoked much thought and added to my understanding of The Strange Phenomenon, including some most fascinating information about one of the study subjects, a male who was supposedly a prosopagnosic but who employed an interesting trick that enabled him to get a score in the normal range in the CFMT. The Strange Phenomenon is a type of synesthesia that involves face recognition which I have experienced in the past. I have fully described this phenomenon in the first posting in this blog “A Most Peculiar Experience”.

In the introduction to the paper there is a reminder of why the CFMT is such a good test of an ability as it is used in everyday life, and a reminder of the processes that give rise to face recognition. “Because the test will measure face memory, performance on the test will depend on both perceptual mechanisms and memory.” “However, face memory, not face perception, is the ability that determines our success in identity recognition in everyday life, and so it is especially important to measure it.” So, memory is an essential element of this ability. Given that there is a general belief that synaesthesia is somehow linked with superior memory, we perhaps should not be surprised to find a connection between synaesthesia and superior face memory ability, as is measured in with CFMT. The fact that memory is an element of face recognition perhaps explains the clunky, abrupt nature of The Strange Phenomenon. Like other types of synaesthesia, there is a definite moment when it “kicks in”, and you can never be sure exactly when it will “kick in” till it does, even though one knows what conditions trigger it. Memory works like this too. Memories can be retrieved in an unpredictable, triggered, abrupt and uncontrollable or hard-to-control process. Similarities between some types of synaesthesia, memory and The Strange Phenomenon are obvious. I believe that these are all “threshold phenomena”.

On page 582 I’ve discovered a detail which was discovered in the study that is written up in this paper which possibly helps to explain one of the requisite characteristics of the trigger of The Strange Phenomenon. The Strange Phenomenon violates what is possibly a universal feature of face recognition that is found in prosopagnosics, normal controls viewing upright faces and also normal controls viewing inverted faces. This feature is a slightly better performance at identifying faces from front views compared to side views. In contrast, The Strange Phenomenon generally requires a side view (from around a 45 degree angle) as the trigger for the automatic recognition of the apparent facial similarity between John* and Jean*. I take this as evidence pointing towards probable reasons why The Strange Phenomenon requires a side view – that it is the only view in which the two adults of different genders, John and Jean, look similar, and/or that a side view is the only view that gives an integrated visual understanding of John’s, (and maybe Jean’s), distinctive flat face. It appears a general superiority of a 45 degree view of faces for the purpose of recognition is not the reason why The Strange Phenomenon requires a view from this angle. I find this surprising, but I can still think of a possible reason why a full-face view is best for face recognition – because it is the view that gives the greatest “feel” of social interaction, and a “feeling” of social interaction enhances or gives rise to face recognition. Which brings me to the most interesting find in this paper…..

Reading through the paper one gets the impression that the CFMT is a better test of real-life face recognition ability than the older tests that it is compared to. In general the CFMT appears to prevent prosopagnosics from getting a score that falsely indicates normal ability by using strategies that don’t involve actual face recognition, but out of the eight prosopagnosics in the study there is still the problem that two prosopagnosics, (given the anonymous names of F41 and M57 in this study, the letter denoting gender and the number denoting age at time of testing) scored within two standard deviations of the mean, which is judged to be within the normal range. F41’s score was pretty low, but prosopagnosic M57’s score really required an explanation because it was only just below the mean score for the normal control subjects. How did M57 do it? M57 was asked. His cool trick was a deliberate strategy, but not really a cheat. He explained that he “…intentionally attempted to “lust” after the faces rather than simply memorize them.” This is rather amusing considering that M57 is a male and all of the faces in the CFMT are of men’s faces. This strategy wasn’t just some wild idea that M57 dreamed up – he was a veteran of face recognition testing, and M57 was testing a theory that he had formulated about his own performance in such tests. His theory is apparently supported by evidence that attractive faces are better remembered than unattractive faces. M57’s deliberate attempts to add emotional content to the plain colourless pictures of faces during the encoding/memorizing of these images appears to have been very effective. I guess in employing this strategy he was recruiting parts of the brain to the task that wouldn’t have otherwise been drawn into the job of memorizing faces. Was M57 using a simple type of emotional arousal to boost the connectivity of his brain during this testing? Did this temporary enhancement of brain connectivity bridge his impoverished connections between brain regions that normally make face recognition difficult for him by isolating the various parts of the brain that need to work together during successful face recognition? This theory sounds like the opposite of synaesthesia, and there is evidence that many agnosias, including some but not all cases of prosopagnosia, are caused by under-connected brains. It is a well-accepted observation that there is an association between emotion and synaesthesia. Music is an experience that appears to be a particularly powerful trigger for both emotions and synaesthesia. According to what I’ve read there appears to be evidence that there are generally two different types of problem that give rise to prosopagnosia – some prosopagnosics simply have damage to a specific part of the brain that “does” face recognition (the fusiform face area I guess), while for possibly most prosopagnosics the problem lies in poor connections between different parts of the brain, resulting in faces being recognized unconsciously, with clues that can be detected by researchers, but the person is not conscious of the recognition because their under-connected brain fails to relay this information to the parts of the brain that “do” conscious thought.

When I read about M57’s effective strategy I was fascinated because it seems to have a lot in common with my own naturally-employed strategy for success in the CFMT, in which I have gotten perfect scores more than once. When I did the CFMT test I would very quickly imagine a character or personality based on the appearance of the face when I encoded the face, dreaming up a different character for each face. I would wildly interpret individual features of the face, and the overall mood and character of the face. Plumpness in the cheeks interpreted as evidence of an impulsive character. Large eyes with an anxious-looking mouth was taken as evidence of a sensitive and intellectual personality. I knew this was fanciful, but it worked very effectively. Using this personification strategy made it easy to tell the difference between faces that I had previously seen and newly-presented faces, because I felt that I “knew” some of the people pictured while others were still strangers to me. There is a simple explanation of why the use of personification in the encoding the memories of faces/personalities is such an easy and natural process for me. Ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) is one of the many different types of synaesthesia that I have. OLP is a type of synaesthesia in which individual items in ordered sequences such as letters, numbers or days of the week are associated with individual personalities. Like grapheme->colour synaesthesia it has its origins in early childhood and the associations are pretty much fixed for life.

Perhaps you are thinking that ordinal linguistic personification sounds like pretty crazy stuff that seems so irrational that it surely couldn’t be useful and couldn’t be associated with useful abilities. I would argue that a brain that can “do” OLP is a brain that is richly connected to cultural, personal and linguistic associations by virtue of the fact that it is physically very inter-connected. It is possibly a brain that has a natural talent for learning languages and learning to read (two talents that are found in my family). Do you believe that the letters of the alphabet are nothing more than graphemes (basic written language symbols) that are associated with phonemes (a most basic unit of sound in a language)? Is your thinking really as limited as that? The letters of the alphabet and other graphemes such as numbers, Oriental characters and punctuation marks can have many types of properties. They clearly have shapes and sounds. In some minds they can also have colours, genders, ages, personalities and physical orientations (facing left, right or to the front). Some graphemes resemble faces, and many of them look like stick figures in different poses, poses which can be highly expressive of emotion or personality. Can’t you see the letter E’s big smile as he faces toward the right? Don’t you think the letters K and Y look so happy waving their arms about? The letter H is a bit of a frump with her square body and legs that are rather far apart, wouldn’t you say? I’ve always thought Mr S was a bit of a snake, while letter M and number 1 stand straight and resolute. Have you ever seen the 1940s cult classic movie The Curse of the Cat People? It isn’t as bad as the title suggests, in fact it could be described as a perceptive exploration of hidden and forgotten aspects of an introverted childhood, a world of imaginary friends and playing among nature and personification synaesthesia. When the ghostly Irena teaches young Amy how to write the numbers 1 and 2, she personifies them by making reference to the resemblance of the graphemes’ shapes to human figures “One is like a tall princess. A princess? Of course! And two is the prince who kneels before her on one knee. Yes? Yes! The prince! That’s right. This is more fun than just numbers. Of course!” (Irena hugs Amy). Personification is a funny little brain trick that makes learning how to write and recognize graphemes more fun, and it also appears to be an aid to learning how to recognize faces.

Letters of the alphabet can have associations with the names of people who have a first name that begins with that letter. In my own ordinal linguistic personification all of the letters that are the first letter of a close family member’s name have genders and personalities that are the same or similar to the family member. The first letter of my own name is pretty much a reflection of my own (possibly inaccurate) self-concept when I was a young girl. Letters of the alphabet can also have associations with words that start with that letter, and the phonemes that are linked with graphemes can have sound symbolism. In my OLP the letter M is a motherly type of personality. She is a “Mum’s lipstick” type of colour. I don’t think there is yet any scientific consensus as to why the word for “mother” has a “ma” or “mam” sound  in so many different languages, but sound symbolism is often offered as an explanation. A recent article about sound symbolism in language in New Scientist magazine explicitly linked sound symbolism with synaesthesia and the “bouba-kiki effect”. Sound symbolism in language is possibly a universal and innate feature of human psychology. Research indicates that sound symbolism patterns are recognised by young children and adults across cultures, but more research needs to be done to confirm this. I do not think it is a stretch to propose that there is a connection between my mother-personality OLP synaesthesia for the letter M and a universal sound symbolism in language that is somehow based on synaesthesia.

In my mind the letters K, R and Y all have vital, positive, outgoing, young adult, powerful personifications (two male and one female) and have grapheme->colour associations with bright colours. I believe this is because these letters have physical shapes that resemble human stick figures in dynamic poses, with K and R standing with legs apart and K with her arms raised, as are the letter Y’s arms. Does the letter R have one hand on one hip? He certainly has tickets on himself, don’t you think? In my mind the letter Y is a man in his prime of life who has a cheerful personality and is associated with an obnoxiously bright yellow colour. I find it easy to imagine him as an Indian Bhangra dancer with his arms joyously raised to the skies, leaping about in a manful manner. Contrast these dynamic letters with the letter C. It seems to be no coincidence that the words “curled” and “caring” both start with letter C, with all of the associated connotations of passivity, gentleness and introversion. In my mind the letter C is a quiet, caring and young female personality and the associated colour is a pale mauvey-pink.

Do you still believe that letters are nothing more than graphemes which are associated with phonemes? There has got to be something seriously wrong with your brain if you do! Tell me, which letters out of C, K, R and Y would you consider hiring to help you to move house, if they were people? I’d only hire the letter C to help pack fragile items and comfort the pets, and I’d be wary of the letter Y being distracted by chatter and dancing and not getting on with the work. I believe it is no coincidence that the letter R is the only letter that I have seen personified in an advertising logo for a removalist company’s logo (see links below). I have also seen some most dynamic letters K and Y personified in advertising items such as a movie poster and a company logo. Ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia cannot be dismissed as crazy stuff. I believe all capable advertising professionals must have a good working understanding of personification and other types of synaesthesia, either conscious or unconscious, as explicit synaesthetes or as “normal people” with well-connected minds and well-developed cultural-sensory sensitivities. I also believe that personification is the trick that was used by myself (a mutliple synaesthete who naturally personifies letters)  and possibly also by the male prosopagnosic study subject M57 to enhance our performances in the CFMT to unexpected levels (M57 into the normal range and me into the super-recognizer range). I believe such personification recruits parts of the brain that are normally used for social functioning to the simple task of face recognition, and this somehow enhances performance.

I believe that another personality-related type of synaesthesia can give some clues about solving the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I’ve recently been reading some personal first-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesias – synaesthesia experiences which can look like coloured “auras” around people’s faces or bodies. I have also read about one very interesting case of coloured facial expression synaesthesia in chapter three of the book The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran. I find this stuff most interesting for many reasons. We are reminded that the trigger or stimuli or “inducer” in this type of synaesthesia does not fit the usual stereotypes of synaesthesia, because the trigger is not simple and is not purely sensory, but is highly psychological and highly social and highly personal. Clearly non-sensory parts of the brain are involved. The trigger is the expressed personality of another person, or to be completely correct, the synaesthete’s perception of the personality of another person. First-hand accounts of coloured personality synaesthesia make it clear that it is the synaesthete’s beliefs about the personalities of others that are the triggers. For example, some coloured personality synaesthetes report that they experience simple correspondences between personality traits and single colours in people that they don’t know very well, but for people whom they know very well no colours are experienced. It has been theorized that the lack of colouration of personalities that are well known is the result of over-complexity or too much knowledge of a person’s personality. When we first meet a person, only the most dominant or obvious personality traits might be clearly perceived, while the many-faceted personality of a person who is well-known might look like a mess of colours if all the personality traits have a colour, or perhaps the colours might cancel each other out to nothing. What does this have to do with The Strange Phenomenon? I think this stuff serves as a reminder that there could be more to this phenomenon than simple visual (face) processing and memory with synaesthesia connections, in the trigger or in the experience triggered. I’m sure that the fusiform face area is involved in this phenomenon, but I can only guess what other parts of my brain might be involved with this trick. Coloured personality synaesthesia reminds us that things as complex and as social as personality traits and perceptions of personality traits can be involved with synaesthesia. In The Strange Phenomenon it most certainly felt to me as though the experience triggered was not just a picture of Jean’s face, but was a memory of Jean’s embodied and voiced personality. I still do not understand why this near-stranger, this face-in-the-crowd should be so memorable to me. I have many theories, but this mystery is unlikely to ever be solved. Coloured personality synaesthesia is also a reminder of how subjective synaesthesia can be. Whether or not another person is coloured can depend on how well known they are to the synaesthete. The synaesthete’s social understanding can clearly have a big influence upon this type of synaesthesia. It is perfectly possible that my perceptions of the personalities involved in The Strange Phenomenon could play a major part in this phenomenon. Once again, I have theories about this, but no real understanding. Perhaps this is what is so interesting about Jean. There is nothing more fascinating than a mystery.

* not their real names

References

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

Ramachandran, V. S. The tell-tale brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature. William Heinemann, 2011.

Robson, David Kiki or bouba? In search of language’s missing link. New Scientist. Issue 2821 19 July 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128211.600-kiki-or-bouba-in-search-of-languages-missing-link.html

Letter personification links:

Wikipedia contributors Ordinal linguistic personification. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ordinal_linguistic_personification&oldid=411966125

Web page showing the logo for the Kambo’s company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter K:

http://boldbranding.com.au/Logo-Design

Web page showing the logo for the Removal Man company which includes a physically dynamic personification of the letter R:

http://www.removalists-perth.com.au/

Web page showing a poster for a movie with a title that starts with the letter Y which includes a physically dynamic and joyful pose of a man in the shape of the letter Y:

http://www.impawards.com/2008/yes_man.html

Web page showing a photo of a colourfully-dressed male Bhangra dancer in a typically joyful and physically dynamic letter Y pose:

http://www.cilco.co.uk/stock-photos/respect-2006/bhangra-dancer-red.htm

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

My Brain Put to the Test

In the first post in this blog I have described an interesting thing that I have experienced that is most certainly related to synaesthesia and also face perception. The trouble with my description is that the reality of my experience cannot be verified by any other person, much the same problem that was once incorrectly thought to be a barrier to the scientific investigation of synaesthesia. What we can do is investigate whether there is anything different or even superior about my brain. Many scientific psychological tests are freely available that can be used to this end. Over the years I have done a few tests that are very relevant to the strange phenomenon that I have already described in detail.

A few years ago I found a test that was an appendix at the back of a pop psychology book that I borrowed from a library. That test was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and apparently it is a test used by university researchers. Out of curiosity I did the test and got a score of 33 out of a possible score of 36. The notes at the end of the test state “If you scored over 30 you are very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.” So I guess I got a good score, but I wasn’t hugely impressed by my effort, as a friend of mine also had a go at that test and she got a better score than mine.

Having an interest in psychology (it was one of the subjects that I studied at university many years ago), I came across something written about coloured letters of the alphabet, and I learned that this experience is a scientifically recognized thing, and that it has a name – synaesthesia. I was intrigued to learn that other people experience numbers and letters as having their own colours which never change. I had thought that it was only my own peculiarity, and I knew that it was a bit strange and I could think of no explanation for it. Having good sense, I had never mentioned it or discussed it with anyone else. It was nice to know that it is a harmless oddity that is really fairly common, but often kept secret. Some years later I found out that there is a group of online tests that one can do to verify if one has various types of colour synaesthesia such as coloured letters, numbers, days of the week and months. This group of tests is the Synesthesia Battery. It also includes some test involving musical notes which I have no clue about. I believe this battery is the work of a team of researchers at an American university, and after doing it, I can see that it is a test that would be hard to cheat. The beauty of this test is that it relies on genuine synaesthetes using their synaesthesia to outperform non-synaesthetes. I had a go at the tests of coloured things, and my scores were thus:

Grapheme Color Picker Test – Score: 0.38

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0. A perfect score of 0.0 would mean that there was no difference in the colors selected on each successive presentation of the same letter.”

Speed-Congruency Test – Accuracy 90.28%, Mean Reaction Time 1.469 seconds +/- 0.508

“An accuracy percentage of right answers in the range of 85-100 typically indicates synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors. Those below typically rule out synesthesia.”

Weekday Color Picker Test – Score: 0.32

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

Month Color Picker Test – Score: 0.46

“In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synesthetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0.”

So, there can be no doubt that I am “synesthetic”. The colours in my head are scientifically proven to be real. I didn’t need some scientist to tell me that, but this is confirmation. I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and some other types of synaesthesia in addition to that.

After experiencing “the strange phenomenon” for many months, and gradually figuring out that there are very specific and narrow conditions that must be met for this phenomenon to happen, and realising that it works like synaesthesia, I realised that it is interestingly different to all of the types of synaesthesia that I have read about, because it involves faces and the recognition of faces. This was interesting enough, but it was another aspect of the situation that really gave me pause for thought. I understood that “the strange phenomenon” seems to be showing me that two people who I had seen are linked, possibly completely unknown to each other, by some kind of shared genetic condition. This is the only explanation that I can think of as to why two unrelated people of different genders have such similar-looking faces, among other similarities. I knew that this was a pretty incredible thing to see or to know, especially if the people involved do not know the full story. These people do not look diseased or strange, and they definitely are not intellectually impaired, so the situation is not obvious. The whole situation is socially bizarre and full of moral questions. I also reflected on the possibility that my interest in faces and similarities between faces is beyond ordinary. Would another person notice a face that looks like their mother’s in a drawing by Mucha? Who knows? Am I different? I was sure there was nothing wrong with my ability to recognize faces, but having an interest in scientific stuff, I knew that there is a condition named prosopagnosia, and that there are tests designed by scientists to diagnose people with this problem, and I thought it would be a good idea to try a test just to be sure that something funny wasn’t going on in my scone. I found my way to http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/ I did the tests that I found there:

The Famous Faces Test – Score: 30 correct out of a possible score of 30 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 85% of the faces they were familiar with.”

Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) – Score 72 correct out of a possible score of 72 (100%)

“On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 80% of the faces.”

I accidentally did this same test, with the same faces, a second time when I had a go at a battery of tests and a questionnaire at another site on the internet that included the CFMT. Again I got a perfect score of 72 out of 72. I guess this result shouldn’t be taken too seriously, because me having previous practice could have boosted my score, but one might also argue that this score indicated that my first perfect score wasn’t just an accident of chance. These perfect scores were all quite a shock, and I was left curious about what my real level of ability is in this area, because there is always the possibility that tests such as these are too easy to measure the upper extreme of ability. It appeared that I had hit a ceiling.

I’m not sure when it was that I came across the concept of the super-recognizer. Super-recognizers are people at the upper extreme of level of ability in recognizing faces. A Google search easily finds the science journal paper that introduced the concept of the super-recognizer. The authors are university researchers Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama. I read the paper with interest, and I thought some of the unique experiences reported by super-recognizers were similar to my experiences. Super-recognizers are able to recognize casual acquaintances who haven’t been seen for many years. I thought this type of ability was similar to my being able to remember Jean’s face, a person who was nobody to me many years ago, and knowing my test scores, I knew there was a possibility that I belong in this group. The researchers found that the super-recognizers did better than the controls in two face recognition tests, including one that I had already done, the 72 question version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, and like me 3 of the 4 super-recognizers got perfect scores in this test, while none of the controls did. I had actually scored better than one of the super-recognizers in this test, who got one question wrong. But this test alone didn’t appear to be enough to decisively sort the super-recognizers from the normal people. The other test discussed in the journal paper was the Before They Were Famous Test, and it looked as though it was difficult. I would need to do this test of face recognition ability or another just as difficult, and do well, in order to really confirm that I am a super-recognizer.

The idea of me as a super-recognizer was most interesting for a variety of reasons: it would be an element of solving the puzzle of “the strange phenomenon”, it is an ability that could be marketable or useful in many ways, and I was the only case that I knew of linking synaesthesia with unusually good ability in face recognition. I had already heard of synaesthetes who have trouble recognizing faces, but not the opposite, although the science explaining grapheme-colour synaesthesia seems to suggest that high ability is likely, considering that this type of synaesthesia is caused by extra connectivity and involves the fusiform gyrus which also plays a central role in face processing. So I was pretty keen to have a go at the Before They Were Famous Test or something similar, but unlike the other tests, it did not appear to be easily accessible through the internet. I was forced to approach researchers for help. At this point my story slowed down considerably. I have given a detailed account of my dealings with university researchers from all around the world, including doing face recognition tests in person at an Australian university, in my 2011 post titled “Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year” (see link below).

Just out of curiousity I’ve recently had a go at the “Face to Face online study” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which is actually the CFMT and a similar test of recognizing motor cars (which are possibly not real models). I got a score of 71 out of 72 (99%) for the CFMT (average score given as 75%), and in the car recognition test I got 62 out of 72 (86%) which can’t be judged as the test is still being developed and the researchers don’t have enough data to give an average score. My score on the CFMT this time should be considered in light of the fact that the faces in the test presented by the MIT are the same faces that I’ve already seen when I took this same test at at Faceblind.org, so I should have had some advantage at that test. Out of curiousity again I did a face memory test that I found at the website of the BBC. I got a perfect score for face recognition, a score of 91% for temporal memory associated with face memory (average score 68%) and a low number of false-positive identifications.

So, up to this point I know these things: I am “very accurate at decoding a person’s facial expressions around their eyes.”, I most definitely have “synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors” and I have high ability in recognizing faces that is consistent with being a super-recognizer.

I have kept records of my results in all of the tests mentioned, including printouts of screen-shots of my scores in the online tests. My test results from The Synesthesia Battery are also kept stored in computerized form, and with my consent can be shared with other researchers anywhere in the world through email. I am happy to share this information with qualified university-based researchers or established science journalists who might be interested. To date no researcher from any part of the world has online or in person asked to see any of the test results that I have mentioned in this article.

Further reading:

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year.

https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/science-week-2011-%e2%80%93-the-world-of-science-and-me-in-the-past-year/

 Links to Tests Mentioned

The Synesthesia Battery

http://www.synesthete.org/

“Eyes Test (Adult)”

http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/tests/eyes_test_adult.asp

“Reading the mind in the eyes”

http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/Faces/EyesTest.aspx

Vision, Memory, and Face Recognition Online

http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php

Massachusetts Institute of Technology “MIT’s Face to Face online study” “Investigating face memory in people with and without autism” “Principle Investigator: Nancy Kanwisher, Ph.D.”

http://facetoface.mit.edu/

BBC Science Face Memory Test  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/