Hearing Colours, Tasting Words and Seeing Auras – Synaesthesia Explored

Scientists researching the strange condition of synaesthesia, which is characterised by a kind of sensory cross-activation that can result in people hearing colours, tasting words and feeling flavours, will discuss their work as people living with the condition share their personal experiences at an international conference held at Trinity College Dublin this week.

Given that synaesthetes sense the world so differently – some see colourful arrays in response to their favourite songs, or halo-like auras around people – it is unsurprising that their unusual perceptions can be portrayed in music or art.

Synaesthesia is an exceptional case of cross-activation from one sense to another. But this general idea can be used in a very different way, through development of technology to help replace damaged senses, and even create new ones.

Visiting speaker Professor Amir Amedi, University of Jerusalem, will present his pioneering work on sensory substitution devices that enable the blind to create visual images through signals conveyed via sound or touch at a public lecture on Thursday April 21. Tickets are free, but should be booked in advance here.

Associate Professor of Genetics at Trinity, Kevin Mitchell, said: “The development of sensory substitution devices has taken off in recent years, based on both better electronics technology and a deeper understanding of how our brains process sensory information. Professor Amedi has been at the forefront of these developments and will also discuss technology that can augment or even create new senses.”

The three-day conference, being held in conjunction with the UK Synaesthesia Association, will also explore Cross-Modal Perception – the process by which information from our various senses can be combined by our brains, which must integrate very different types of information from our natural senses.

Other interesting topics of note include an exploration of the links between synaesthesia, autism and savant syndrome, and factors affecting the associations of colours and letters.

Trinity researchers will also present case studies of synaesthetes who see coloured auras around people, and of those whose synaesthesia was lost due to head injury or medications, but subsequently returned.

Professor Mitchell said: “Our recent case studies of synaesthetes who see coloured music and coloured auras give a deeper description of what it feels like to have these experiences.”

“We have also documented two cases where these experiences were lost, due to the effects of various medications in one case, or to a series of injuries (concussions and a lightning strike) in another. The fact that the synaesthetic experiences have returned after many years, in both cases, illustrates that the underlying cross-connections that lead to this experience are remarkably “hard-wired” at a neural level.”

A well-known philosophical problem (Molyneux’s problem) was posed by Dubliner William Molyneux in the 17th century, who asked if a blind man could suddenly see a sphere and a cube, having felt them before, whether he would then be able to tell the difference between them by sight alone. This problem exercised the brains of many a famous philosopher at the time, particularly George Berkeley, who was a fellow of Trinity College.

Professor in Psychology at Trinity, Fiona Newell, said: “We now have the tools to address this problem, and exciting new research in cognitive neuroscience helps us to understand how the senses interact in the brain.”

“Furthermore, this knowledge also provides insight into how best to rehabilitate perception in cases of sensory deprivation or how to optimise sensory integration for cognitive tasks such as learning and memory.”

Media Coverage

Irish Times

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