Can Synesthesia Be Learned?

synesthesia1In class this week, we have been very curious about the origins of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition in which sensory experiences evoke other perceptual experiences that are not typically elicited in most individuals. A common example is seen in individuals who associate specific colors with certain letters or graphemes. We have been asking many questions, including: How much of synesthesia is genetic? How much is dependent on our environment? Is it dependent on exposure to certain features in our culture, possibly during a “critical period”? For example, could a person develop sound to color synesthesia with a limited exposure to sound in childhood?

A study conducted by Bor, Rothen, Schwartzman, Clayton, and Seth (2014) investigated whether or not adults without synesthesia could be trained to acquire these synesthetic experiences. These non-synesthetes were trained to learn 13 specific letter-color associations by engaging in various memory and reading tasks over the course of 9 weeks. After training, participants took a variety of tests used to measure genuine synesthesia, like the color consistency task, the synthetic Stroop task, and a classical conditioning test—and they all “passed” as actually having synesthesia! Days after training, participants showed behavioral and physiological evidence for synesthesia, reporting perceived color experiences for colorless letters. Furthermore, participants were experiencing these strong perceptions inside and outside of the lab setting and across different contexts.

However, participants gained more than these perceptions. Bor et al. (2014) also found that participants who completed training showed an increase in their IQ by an average of 12 points, compared to controls. This suggests that there is something about learning synesthetic links that can result in an enhanced cognitive ability. These results are useful and exciting to explore. It is possible that this training could help individuals at risk for dementia or other diseases that cause cognitive decline.

In Bor et al.’s study (2014), the training was intense and lasted over a period of 9 weeks. However, the researchers note that some participants demonstrated synesthesia after just 5 weeks! So, it seems that there are some aspects of synesthesia that can be learned. The “genuineness” of their synesthesia, however, is under debate. In most participants, this ability faded away over time. This study made me wonder, what else could we learn if we are committed to this sort of training? For example, could we learn other special skills that are present in conditions like Savant Syndrome?

Works Cited

Bor, D., Rothen, N., Schwartzman, D., Clayton, S., & Seth, A. (2014). Adults Can Be Trained to Acquire Synesthetic Experiences. Scientific Reports, 4. doi: 10.1038/srep07089

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8 thoughts on “Can Synesthesia Be Learned?

  1. This is a very interesting concept to learn about! And the possible benefits for people at risk to develop dementia seems pretty cool

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  2. One of my friends has a form of synesthesia involving odors and tastes? I’m not sure if it’s the same thing but the concept of the intermingling of different senses is a perplexing thought. I never considered the idea of it being learned however, I always just assumed it from a biological basis and it’s interesting to hear compelling arguments of a degree of environmental influence. Do you know if this condition is genetic? And have there been any studies done on synesthesia in primates? (I don’t know if it’d be possible but I’m honestly just curious.

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  3. Synesthesia has always been an intriguing concept to me as someone that does not experience this phenomenon. What pathways are being altered when synesthesia is being learned? Do you think it would be possible for this learned synesthesia to be maintained over time as opposed to fading as you mentioned. Can all types of synesthesia be learned or only certain aspects? I would be curious to learn more about how learning this plays into treating diseases that cause cognitive decline.

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  4. I read a book when I was a kid called ” A Mango Shaped Space” and ever since then I have been super fascinated with it, especially since it comes in so many forms like tasting colors, etc. The implications with dementia is pretty cool too. I wonder if other forms of synesthesia, like tasting colors, can be taught?

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  5. I had always assumed synesthesia could be learned if you really spent some time with it. Although it wouldn’t be the exact same as some neurological difference crossing senses together, you could be conditioned to associate certain colours with certain sounds or letters. I expect it is something like a “critical period.” It’s probably not quite the same, but there is a critical period for learning syntax in languages and there’s probably a similar period for learning the “language of colours.” If you learn the associations early on, you’d probably spend your whole life practicing and refining the skill, at least much better than someone who at the adult stage of life thinks of synthetic associations as ridiculous. I have a friend who has synesthesia, and when she describes it to people we all kind of understand what she means. We all sort of understand what it means to see sounds in words or tastes or whatever sense, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect) which is why it makes sense that it can be taught, but if it’s not something you go through life with I imagine it would fade pretty quickly. I know bilingualism also has beneficial effects on IQ and preventing dementia, so maybe this is similar. People who learn only one language only have semantic meaning attached to a word. That’s usually only a couple associations depending on the word. Bilingual people can apply the same meaning to several words, creating a very different mindset for how language works (and how not exclusive it really is) and I imagine applying several associations (like both colour and sound and meaning) to a word has the same effect. I’d hazard a guess that it is this aspect that has the benefits for dementia.

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  6. It would be interesting if this learned synesthesia is still maintained after long periods of time (Mayda after several years). I am curious what age groups were tested. I imagine elder people would have a harder time then say a 20 year old.

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  7. Synthesia seems like a mixing up of the different pathways, visual and language may be paired more closely than we think. It would be interesting to look more into the other ways that the visual and language come together, such as imagining stories and such!

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  8. The findings discussed in this article bring up many intriguing questions:
    1) Can synethesia be classified as conditioned association?
    2) Is there a genetic predisposition and why?
    3) Are the genuine tests for synesthesia actually genuine or must we look at the neurological workings of synesthetes to confirm the abnormality
    4) Can synethesia be used as a form of learning/ studying?
    5) Would teaching synethesia be more effective in infants? Or more generally, is it affected by age?
    6) Does the average synesthete have a higher IQ than the average person?
    7) Does synesthesia bestow any (cognitive) benefits more practical than IQ?
    8) Which area of cognition is synesthesia most heavily impacting (for better or for worse) long-term memory, attention?

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