In 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?
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