Mind

Can You Learn To Be Synaesthetic?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJul 6, 2012 1:25 PM

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A neat study from Dutch psychologists Olympia Colizoli, Jaap Murre and

Romke Rouw claims that it's possible to train people to have something a bit like synaesthesia - which they call

Pseudo-Synesthesia through Reading Books with Colored Letters.

Synaesthesia generally comes out of the blue - some people just have it while others don't. Those who do experience it typically report that they've always had it. But could it be learned?

Colizoli et al recruited 17 non-

synaesthetes and got them to read books specially printed such that 4 common letters, "a", "e", "s" and "t", werealways printed in a certain colour: red, orange, green or blue. The idea was that constant exposure to the coloured letters might trigger

grapheme-color synaesthesia,

which is a relatively common 'naturally occurring' form of the condition.On average each volunteer read 100,000 words of the polychromatic prose. They also got a special browser plug-in to colour internet text in the same way, however, most people didn't use it.

What happened? The subjects experienced a colour-letter Stroop interference effect consistent with the idea that they'd learned particular colour-letter associations, although on another task there was no effect. But what was it actually like, subjectively? The size of the Stroop effect was correlated with self-reported

synaesthetic experience on the question "I am experiencing color when thinking about certain letters".

However, the average answer to this question was only 2.5 on a scale from 1 to 5, which doesn't seem very high, and of course there was no control group, so this is hard to interpret. They don't seem to have quizzed people about the subjective experience in much detail, which is a bit of a shame. Six months later, participants could barely remember the letter-color pairs better than guessing.

So to be honest, it's all a bit inconclusive, but it's a cool idea.

Although you might expect the coloured text arrangement to be annoying, many participants said that they quite enjoyed it once they got used to it. Only 2 out of the 17 gave up before finishing a book, while several volunteered to read additional books. So if you want to try and give yourself synaesthesia, it could be doable.

Colizoli O, Murre JM, and Rouw R (2012). Pseudo-Synesthesia through Reading Books with Colored Letters. PloS one, 7 (6) PMID: 22761905

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