Hearing colours and seeing smells might sound to some like some kind of science-fiction superpower but it is actually a very common experience. Synaesthesia is the term used to describe the sensation of one sense, triggering another. Experiences of synaesthesia range from very broad sensations involving all of the senses to much more specific sensations such as just seeing a certain day of the week in a particular colour. The latter is termed grapheme-colour synaesthesia and is a form of the most common type of synaesthesia. A long list of famous musicians, writers, artists, and scientists, are alleged to have had the condition. These include Vincent Van Gogh, Sir Robert Cailliau, Vladimir Nabalov, and Kanye West. Given this link, it was once presumed that individuals with synaesthesia demonstrated heightened levels of creativity. This has since been disproven as individuals with synaesthesia report similar levels of creativity to individuals without the condition. They are however more likely to engage in artistic pursuits given their unusual sensory experiences.
Given the relative unusualness of this condition, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have been drawn towards exploring what exactly causes such mixing up of sensations. In their now landmark study that was published in the mid-1990s, psychologist Christopher Baron Cohen and his colleagues demonstrated synaesthesia to be a real neurobiological condition by carrying out fMRI scans on synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes alike. Sure enough the fMRI scans revealed that parts of the brain responsible for seeing were activated when sound occurred and so on. This only occurred for the synaesthetes.
Once synaesthesia was confirmed as a real phenomenon, researchers turned their heads towards determining what if any, the advantages of being a synaesthete were. As already mentioned, levels of creativity were not found to be significantly heightened in this group. However better memory performance, particularly on tasks that involve words, colours and complex patterns has been demonstrated for individuals who experience this fascinating condition. The jury is still out on why exactly this occurs but researchers suggest that the richer perceptual experiences that occur for synaesthetes lead to more detailed memory encoding and retrieval. In other words, individuals who have that extra component associated with their senses, e.g. seeing a particular fact as a certain colour, have more details to help them store and remember that piece of information.
Promising research has demonstrated that synaesthetic techniques can be taught to non-synaesthetes in order to assist with memory and reading. For instance individuals with neurodegenerative problems have been taught to associate colours to things that they need to remember and individuals with dyslexia have been taught to associate letters with colours in order to make them more recognisable. This is an extremely exciting area of research that may have significant implications for improved learning. Do you suspect that you experience some form of synaesthesia? A quick and simple test for the condition can be found here.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.