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Recent Conference

McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Conference Presenters and Abstracts


Presentation Schedule


The 7th Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association, Inc., took place on September 26 – 28, 2008 at McMaster University.


We were pleased to have Jamie Ward,
Professor of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK, as our Keynote Speaker.





Patricia Lynne Duffy presenting at McMaster University. Photo credit Carter Jones.



Patricia Albers, Writer, Independent Curator; Mountain View, California

Painting as Cathedral: Synethesia and the Art of Joan Mitchell

Although abstract painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) had both synesthesia and eidetic memory, she never knew either as named conditions. Nonetheless, around the age of thirty, Mitchell realized she could enlist these perceptual “differences” in her art-making process. Simultaneously lyrical and tough, her paintings address memories of her feelings filtered through an acute involvement with landscape. Their emotional intensity, wide formal range, controlled freedom, and soulful and idiosyncratic use of color and light are indebted to the artist’s colored-hearing, colored-personality, and colored-emotion synesthesia as well as to the eidetic memory that allowed her to re-experience the past in its sensate and emotional fullness. Music, poetry, and drinking were also vital in her search for “painting as cathedral.” Patricia Albers will describe Mitchell’s modes of perception, discuss her methods, and examine selected works through the lens of her synesthesia and eidetic memory.


Bryan Alvarez, Department of Psychology, University of California Berkeley

Do grapheme-color synesthetes bind color to a spatial plane?

Bryan Alvarez1, Lynn Robertson1,2
1University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
2VA Northern California Health Care System

Grapheme-color synesthesia is a human phenomenon in which a letter or number (grapheme) evokes the visual perception of color. The color is most often described as existing in the mind's eye (non-projector synesthetes) and less commonly as existing in the same spatial location as the printed text (projector synesthetes). Data were collected from 15 grapheme-color synesthetes (12 non-projectors and 3 projectors) and 12 matched non-synesthetic controls. We designed a new procedure to examine the effects of depth perception as induced through stereogoggles as it relates to synesthetic color priming. On each trial an achromatic letter was shown to synesthetes followed by a color patch that either appeared on the same depth plane or that changed planes. Importantly, the letter and the color patch were in the same location on the screen but appeared as if they were closer or farther in depth. Our findings replicate previous studies showing synesthetic color priming for synesthetes. That is, they were faster to name the color of the target patch when it was congruent to the synesthetic color letter that preceded the target than when it was incongruent in color. Overall, responses were also faster when the color patch was on a different plane of depth than the letter than when it was on the same plane. Critically, projector synesthetes showed an interaction between plane congruency and color congruency, a pattern that resembled that of non-synesthetes viewing colored letters followed by color patches. However, this pattern was absent in non-projector synesthetes. These findings suggest that the mechanisms underlying grapheme-induced color for projectors are similar to those of wavelength induced color in non-synesthetes. However, non-projectors may be different. It further supports previous claims that synesthesia exists at one end of a spectrum of physiological and perceptual experience ranging from non-synesthetic to complete awareness of synesthetically induced percepts. We are following up these behavioral data with structural imaging to examine correlations between behavioral performance, perceptual descriptions, and neuroanatomical differences.


Sergio Roclaw Basbaum, Pontificia Universidade Catolica de São Paulo, Brazil

Synesthesia and culture: the synesthetic experience and the installation of modernity

Departing from the concept of digital perception -- the kind of perceptual experience favored by the pervasiveness of digital apparatuses in contemporary technological society -- and its many synesthetical appeals, one is taken to ask about the meaning the synesthetic experience assumes in different cultural contexts throughout the history of the West. Synesthetic experience, with its immersive, magical and a-rational aspects, seems to be at the core of the perceptual experience of the Medium Ages, when the balance of all five senses was part of a religious understanding of the Cosmos; through the development of the Modern experience and its increasing claims for rationality, objectivity and materialism, one can follow the traces of the Medium Ages experience and its synesthetic appeals running always in opposition to the growingly dominant perceptual environment: the “Natural Magik” of Giovanni della Porta, the Magic Lantern experiences of Athanasius Kircher, the Romantic thinkers and artists of the early XIXth century, and finally the Symbolist poets of the late XIXth century. Such opposition between the separation and specialization of the senses demanded by modern rationality may help understand the reason why such artists usually regarded as synesthetic in recent literature, such as Scriabin, Kandinsky or Fishinger were not thought of in such terms at their lifetime.


Greta Berman, The Juilliard School, New York City

Exploring Synesthetic Commonalities

Common knowledge has it that synesthesia cannot be studied because synesthetes all see things differently. But this unscientific sentiment is tantamount to saying that we cannot investigate perception because all human beings see things in their own way. Of course they do. However, no serious researcher would come to this conclusion.

In the same way, I propose that synesthetes share certain distinctive commonalities. Using patterns of perception developed by two scientists, Heinrich Kluver who described “Form Constants” and Georg Anschutz, who studied artists with synesthesia, I shall compare specific art works by known genuine synesthetes, Carol Steen, Marcia Smilack, David Hockney, and Joan Mitchell.

The American painter, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) has written extensive journals, strongly suggesting that he was synesthetic as well. But before I had read these statements, I had already observed aspects of his work that looked like aspects of the art of other synesthetes. I shall discuss some of these observations, with reference both to writings and visual analyses.


David Brang, University of California San Diego

400ms in the Life of a Synesthete: From Associative to Synesthetic Contextual Priming

David Brang, VS Ramachandran, Seana Coulson
University of California San Diego

In grapheme-color synesthesia, individuals experience a specific color when viewing numbers or letters. We previously tested the brain activity of synesthetes and non-synesthetes in a modified sentence-priming paradigm using event-related potentials (ERPs). Subjects were presented with sentences such as “The grass is,” ending in either a color word (“green”), rectangular color patch, or a grapheme matched to each synesthetes' perceived color (“The grass is 7”). To determine if and when synesthetic colors are integrated for semantic meaning, half of the sentences were congruous, half incongruous. The brain waves of synesthetes, but not controls, differed as early as 100ms after reading sentences such as “The grass is 7” compared to “The grass is 2,” in which 7 is green and 2 is blue for one synesthete, showing early perceptual effects as well as semantic integration of the synesthetic colors. To test whether these perceptual/semantic effects could be elicited in non-synesthetes, ERPs were recorded from two additional groups of control subjects. 12 non-synesthetes were trained to associate letters/numbers with colors and an additional 12 non-synesthetes were shown sentence-ending graphemes in the physical color of the associated letter/number (a physically green 7). ERPs from both groups of non-synesthetes showed semantic integration in response to learned or colored graphemes. However, only non-synesthetes viewing physically colored graphemes showed an early brain response similar to that of synesthetes'. In summation, synesthetes' brain response was more similar to controls viewing physically colored letters/numbers than to learned associations, further demonstrating the non-associative, perceptual nature of synesthesia.


Steven Brown, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

“A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”: A Convergence of Sensory Representations in the Human Orbitofrontal Cortex for Aesthetic Appraisal

Dr. Steven Brown is one of the world's experts on the neuroscience of the arts. His brain imaging studies have elucidated the nature of singing, dancing, and speaking in the brain. He will tell us about how the brain processes aesthetic experience. Dr. Daphne Maurer's studies of perceptual development in infants and children are world renown. Here she will explain how colour becomes linked to music, especially in some people with synesthesia -people like composers Messiaen, Liszt, Sibelius, and Rimsky-Korsakoff, who literally saw colours when they heard music.


Sean Day, Trident Technical College, South Carolina

A case report of ‘flavor to color’ synesthesia

I present a report of my own case of ‘flavor to color’ synesthesia. This is compared to other paradigms in the arts and sciences, such as Cardanus’s system relating planets and musical intervals with flavors; to cases in the neuroscience literature, such as those reported by Bleuler and Lehmann, or by G.C. Ferrari, or regarding Michael Watson, “the man who tasted shapes”; and to current accounts reported via the Synesthesia List. I investigate whether patterns emerge within my own case and, more broadly, whether there are general patterns and trends in this type of synesthesia and its relation to other types. I also examine how this synesthesia affects my behavior in regards to food preferences, and present a few recipes (my own and others') that I have experimented with in my attempts to harness this synesthesia creatively and explore its parameters.


Patricia Lynne Duffy, Author; United Nations Language and Communications Programme, New York City

Language in Living Color: Portrayals of synesthete-characters in recent mystery/adventure fiction

This presentation will consider the portrayal of synesthete-characters and their experience of language in recent fictional works in the mystery/adventure genre.

In the last few years, several books with synesthete-characters have emerged in mystery/adventure fictional works: Mystery Myx by Dave Diotaveli; Rainy Day Women by Jane Yardley; The Fallen by T.J. Parker;. Top Ten: the Forty Niners by Alan Moore and Gene Ha; a short work of creative non-fiction, “Phone Home” by Natasha Lvovich.

Why have authors working in this genre chosen to create main characters with synesthesia? What dimension does the trait of synesthesia add to the character, and how does such a character fit the context of the mystery/adventure genre? Are the authors of these works synesthetes themselves– and if so, how does this affect their understanding and representation of synesthesia as a trait?

The presentation will explore the above questions. In addition, it will consider how the characters in these fictional works fit into the general four categories of ‘Literary Depictions’ of synesthete-characters described by P. L. Duffy (may be viewed on Wikipedia Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia#Literary_depictions)

The presentation will also include a reading by synesthete-author Natasha Lvovich, who will read an excerpt from her work, “Phone Home.”

As more literary portrayals of synesthetes filter through popular fiction genres such as mystery/adventure – how will they contribute to the evolving image of synesthetes in the popular media?


David M. Eagleman, Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA

A large-scale analysis of synesthetic correspondences

This talk will present a large-scale data analysis drawn from our online synesthesia test battery at www.synesthete.org. The talk will concentrate, in particular, on colored sequences (letters, numbers, weekdays, etc). In addition, I will present a review of the current state of our genetics analyses, showing what we have learned about synesthesia’s mode of inheritance.


Frans Evers, Co-Founder Interfaculty Image & Sound in The Hague

The Role of Synesthesia in the Innovation of the Art Curriculum

Art education is in need of a new curriculum in which art, science and technology meet. To develop such a curriculum was the aim of the Interfaculty Image & Sound when it was founded in 1990 in The Hague. A new approach was created on the basis of a yearly evolving program of thematic courses and interdisciplinary research groups. In 2001 some of these courses were integrated with the new Information Science master of Media Techology of Leiden University. This also affected the Image & Science program which was reformulated, reformatted and renamed into ArtScience, in 2003. With its long history of both scientific and artistic research, synesthesia has proven to be the ideal subject to introduce the study of the artistic potency of science and technology. The stories of sensory, verbal and mediated synesthesia have triggered a new lexicon of image and sound. In the curriculum this lexicon plays a role on different levels: 1) in the Synesthesia course where the theories of the unity of the senses and the unity of the arts are presented and discussed, 2) in the Sense Interference course in which mediated sensory experiences are evoked, 3) in research projects and manifestations on synesthetic concepts in the arts such as Schoenberg's storm and light crescendo, Mondrian's colored sounds and noises, Scheuer's harmony of colors and chords (Scheuer), and Rekveld's sonic light, and 4) in a shared interest in Gesamtkunst and smart art.


Lindsay Hearne, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Unique, Multi-Concurrent Synesthesia: an fMRI Case Study

R is a unique synesthete. Congenitally blind, she experiences three forms of synesthesia. She has taste synesthesia and a tactile synesthesia, where she associates the feeling of specific objects in her hands. She also experiences a remarkable association that places her in a spatial context relative to other objects. Often, this takes the form of a position within a house, for example, “sitting in a bed with a newspaper, with a window to the right”. In addition, R’s forms of synesthesia, while independent, are all triggered by the same inducer: words. Some words trigger all three kinds of associations, while many trigger only two or one. This unique situation provides the opportunity to examine the anatomical locus of each type of synesthesia. I will present the results of an fMRI result examining this, and discuss it’s implications on the neural network theories of synesthesia.


Edward M. Hubbard, INSERM Unit 562 Cognitive Neuroimaging, Orsay, France

On the relationship between ordinal sequences and space: The case of a number-form synaesthete

Edward M. Hubbard1, Mariagrazia Ranzini1, Manuela Piazza1,2 and Stanislas Dehaene1,3
1. INSERM Unité 562, Gif-Sur-Yvette, France
2. Center for Mind Brain Sciences, Rovereto, Italy
3. College de France, Paris, France

Although first described by Galton in 1880 and later by Flournoy in 1893, sequence-form synesthesia has been remained poorly studied compared to forms such as grapheme-color synesthesia. We tested an unusual sequence-form synaesthete, DG, who reports spatial forms for 58 different sequences. These forms are elicited not only by numerical sequences (including negative numbers and Roman numbers), but also by other ordinal sequences, such as time sequences (months of the year, days of the week, hours of the day), the alphabet, financial sequences, and different units of measure (e.g. kilograms, kilometers and degrees). He also reported that working with new sequences lead to the development of new spatial forms, suggesting that unusual mechanisms of plasticity may be active in DG. He was highly consistent in his drawings as assessed by two drawing tests more than one year apart. DG also took part in three behavioral experiments: parity judgment, number comparison, and number-cueing. In these experiments, congruency (congruent versus incongruent with DG's mental number line) and orientation (horizontal versus vertical alignment) were manipulated in order to test whether these factors would affect his performance. We found that vertical alignment of both hands and numbers significantly affected DG's results in all three experimental tasks and that his reaction times were faster when numbers or response side were congruently aligned with his mental number line. DG's performance indicates that spatial processes are linked not only to numerical sequences, but can also extend to other ordinal sequences, even sequences newly learned as an adult.


Wan-Yu Hung, University of Edinburgh, UK (See pdf File for Chinese Characters)

Colourful characters: composite effects in Chinese synaesthesia

Wan-Yu Hung1,2, Jools Simner2, and Richard Shillcock1,2, David Eagleman3
1. School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh. UK
2. Dept. of Psychology, University of Edinburgh. UK
3. Depts. of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, US

Our research examines the synaesthetic colouring of a non-alphabetic language. Research with English speaking synaesthetes has shown that words are coloured in non-random ways (e.g., by their initial letter or stressed vowel; Simner et al., 2006). We manipulated features of Chinese orthography, to show that Chinese, too, is coloured following a systematic rule system. Our previous studies show that characters with identical initial consonant-sounds (e.g., 周 and 張 pronounced /zhou1/ and /zhang1/) or vowel-sounds (e.g., 周 and 優 pronounced /zhou1/ and /you1/) are significantly likely to be coloured the same. In an additional study, we examined whether characters are also coloured by their written components. Most Chinese characters have two sub-components: a ‘phonetic radical’ and a ‘semantic radical’, which carry information about the character’s phonology and meaning. For example, the character 姑 /gu1/ (which means “aunt”) contains a semantic radical 女 (which means “female”) and a phonetic radical 古 (pronounced /gu3/). Many radicals are legal characters in their own rights (e.g., 女and古). Our early data suggests that characters comprising one radical only are more consistently coloured -- in a retest over time -- than characters comprising two radicals. We also examined how ‘character-regularity’ influences this colouring. Regular characters are those whose radicals are arranged in the order semantic-phonetic (the reverse ordering is also possible in Chinese) and whose pronunciation is identical to the pronunciation of the phonetic radical in isolation. Early data suggests that characters are significantly more consistently coloured if they are regular. We hypothesise that the regularity of structure, and the consistent phonemic mapping, might give rise to the more consistent colouring over time. Taken together, our findings provide the most detailed information yet available about mechanisms that trigger synaesthetic colours in non-alphabet languages.


Michelle Jarick, Psychology Department, University of Waterloo, Canada

The Ups, and Downs, (and Lefts and Rights) of Synaesthetic Number-Forms

Michelle Jarick, Mike Dixon, & Daniel Smilek
Psychology Department, University of Waterloo, Canada

Typically, numbers are spatially represented using a mental 'number line' running from left to right. Individuals with number-form synaesthesia experience numbers as occupying specific spatial coordinates that are much more complex than a typical number line. L. describes experiencing the numbers 1 through 10 running vertically from bottom to top, 10 to 20 horizontally from left to right, 21 to 40 from right to left, etc. We investigated whether her number forms could bias her spatial attention using a cueing paradigm and a SNARC-type task. In both experiments, L.'s responses confirmed her synaesthetic number forms. She was significantly faster in the cueing task to detect targets on the bottom of the display if preceded by a low number (1, 2), and the top of the display if preceded by a high number (8, 9). She showed no effects when targets occurred on the left or right (misaligned with her number form). She was however reliably faster to detect left targets following the presentation of numbers 10, and 11, and right targets following numbers 19 and 20 (since for L 10 to 20 run from left to right). We conceptually replicated these biases using a SNARC-type task. For the numbers 1, 2, 8, and 9 she showed compatibility effects for up-down movements (aligned with her number form), but not (misaligned) left-right movements when making odd-even judgments. In sum, cueing and SNARC tasks can be used to empirically verify synaesthetic number forms, and show that numbers can direct spatial attention to these idiosyncratic locations.


Bruno Laeng, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway

A fMRI study of a grapheme-color synaesthete: The larger the color difference between ink and illusory colors, the more the visual areas are engaged.

Bruno Laeng1,2, Kenneth Hugdahl2,3, Karsten Specht2,3
1 Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway
2 Department of Biological & Medical Psychology, University of Bergen, Norway
3 Haukeland University Hospital, Bergen, Norway

TH and PM are synaesthetes who experiences colors when viewing alphanumeric symbols. Beside behavioral investigations, we performed an fMRI study in which the synaesthetes performed three conditions: a regular Stroop task and two Stroop-like single-letter tasks, in which the synaesthetes were asked to name aloud either the ink color or the illusory color. The colors of the presented letters were either congruent or incongruent with the illusory color, and we systematically varied the RGB color distance of the incongruent trials. An age and sex-matched control group performed the same tasks, except the naming of the illusory colors.

The fMRI results demonstrated highly overlapping networks in the synaesthetes for all three conditions, with the strongest activations when they named the ink color of the single letter. The control group showed a comparable activation pattern when they performed the regular Stroop task, but demonstrated fewer activations under the single letter task.

Importantly, a parametrical analysis of the RGB coordinates’ distances in color space of the ink color and the illusory color revealed correlated activations especially in the left anterior V4 area, when the synaesthetes named the illusory color. This effect was absent when they named the ink color. Simultaneously, the RGB color distances in color space between the illusory color of a letter target and the illusory color of a letter distractor systematically facilitated the speed of search.

The present behavioral and fMRI results support the view that the synaesthetic experience is ‘perceptual’ and confirms thereby the hypothesis of a dual color perception.


Noam Sagiv, Centre for Cognition & Neuroimaging, Brunel University, West London

Re-conceptualising synaesthesia: Empirical motivation and theoretical advantages.

We constantly receive information from multiple sources and there is little wonder that substantial cross-modal interactions go on in the human brain. What is more surprising is that in a minority of individuals such interactions occur when a stimulus is presented in only one sensory modality. Indeed, this is the case in synaesthesia. A large number of synaesthesia-variants have been documented in the past few decades. Some of these fall within previous narrow definitions of the phenomenon (e.g, strictly sensory variants such as coloured-smell). Others variants (such as grapheme personification) share some phenomenological features with more established forms of synaesthesia (elicited by ordinal sequences, in a consistent, automatic, and idiosyncratic manner) but are not unanimously accepted by all researchers as types of synaesthesia in their own right. Where should we draw the line and why? I argue that while the classification problem is not an empirical one per se, it can be informed by phenomenological, behavioural, genetic and neurobiological data. I will evaluate earlier definitions of the phenomenon in light of recent findings from our studies of chromatic-graphemic synaesthesia, personification, and “mirror experiences”. I will highlight some problems with prevalent assumptions in synaesthesia research and review the benefits of adopting a more liberal working definition of the phenomenon.


Jools Simner, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, UK

The ‘growth’ of synaesthesia: developmental influences in coloured letters and tasty words

Jools Simner1, Jackie Thompson2, Jennifer Harrold1, Harriet Creed1, Louise Foulkes1, Louise Monro1
1Dept. of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, UK.
2Dept. of Psychology, Yale University, USA.

In this talk I discuss recent findings from our lab showing how synaesthesia develops from its roots in childhood, into adult forms. Using both child and adult populations, we show developmental influences in two variants of synaesthesia: grapheme-colour (colours from letters/numbers) and lexical-gustatory (tastes from words). In grapheme-colour synaesthesia, we present the first longitudinal study of child synaesthetes over time. We tested 615 children age 6 – 7 years randomly sampled from 21 primary schools, each child individually assessed for synaesthesia. We then returned 12 months later, and compared the development of synaesthetes with that of age-matched non-synaesthetes, with both average and superior memory-spans. We show that synaesthesia develops independently of normal memory maturation, and the trajectory of this acquisition indicates synaesthesia may rely on, or endow, exceptional mechanisms, and that these may be implicated in other assets associated with the condition. We also tested 9 adult lexical-gustatory synaesthetes to examine whether developmental effects can be inferred from adult taste experiences. We found that words acquired early in childhood (e.g., dragon, fairy) are significantly more likely to trigger tastes than words acquired later (e.g., office, client). Such effects remain even when word frequency, word-length and imagebility are controlled for. Together, our findings suggest that synaesthesia develops during childhood, following stages of language acquisition, and that there are critical periods during which greater growth can occur.


Marcia Smilack, Photographer; Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

What Does A Metaphor Look Like?

I asked a friend what a metaphor looks like to her, explaining that for me, a metaphor has four compartments. She said her metaphor has just two, like a room with a window, which made no sense until I had this dream. We entered a cottage and immediately the door flew shut. When I touched the handle, the door dissolved and became the wall. So, I tried the window, but it too dissolved and became the wall. Sealed inside, I said, “Well, I guess we are inside your metaphor now.”

Why does my metaphor have four compartments? Does hers have only two because as a non-synesthete, one plus one equals two? For me, one plus one equals four because everything I experience comes with a built-in second version. I live my life in metaphor, which accounts for my eidetic memory. I could not create my artwork without it.

After noticing that reflections trigger my synesthetic responses, I began to photograph them on water. I used my synesthetic responses to teach myself photography. I click the shutter when I hear a chord of color, experience motion, or feel texture on my skin. Also, from extreme empathy, I briefly become what I am looking at and cannot help but personify what I see. My pictures of houses become pictures of people because the windows are eyes. Are partitions within the non-synesthetic mind like bearing walls whereas my own are mere curtains easily set aside? My photographs document my synesthesia.


Christine Söffing, Synästhesiewerkstatt Neu-Ulm, Germany

The sonification of the color wheel of Johannes Itten - a scientific art project.

Christine Söffing, Dr. Axel Baune, Klaus Schmidtke – Synästhesiewerkstatt Neu-Ulm, Germany

Yellow, green, red, blue sounds. Christine Söffing hears colors, forms and the texture of a sound: soft, hard, furry, like plastics, etc. In order to arrange and systematize the sounds, the first idea was to sort the sounds according to colors and put them into color files and sonificate the color wheel of Johannes Itten. Is there a sound for each color in the color wheel of Itten?

Dr. Axel Baune has been collecting noises, instrumental and vocal sounds for the scoring of plays and films for many years. Sorting these sounds according to the colors Christine Söffing sees, it soon was obvious, that the color wheel of Itten didn't hold enough colors to match all sounds. The color ball by Phillip Otto Runge with merged tones seemed better.

Are there sounds, which do not occur in the color ball? Which colors appear more frequently, which not at all? And what constitutes the color? Is it the frequency spectrum, is it the pikes? Or what is it? Does a collection of green sounds produce green music?

The EMU, experimental music and art of the University of Ulm, uses the sounds of one color to compose music with the program pd (Pure Data). Lecture with sound examples.


Kathleen A. Spanos, University of Limerick, Ireland

Color Play: Synesthesia in Irish Dance

Unlike other art forms dance is uniquely multi-sensory in that it exists in both space and time simultaneously, with a literal mixing of visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimuli in dance perception. This is particularly true in Irish dance, which is highly rhythmical and thus consists of an additional acoustic element. As an Irish step dancer I experience synesthesia in the form of colored movements and rhythms. I have created a choreography in which I deconstruct some Irish dance vocabulary by way of synesthesia and that is built around four basic movements, each of which is paired with a primary color.

In dance the basic units of movement are kinemes, morphokines and motifs, which in language translate to phonemes, morphemes and phrases. Dance is similar to language in that both communicate something by relying on our ability to understand the syntax of these basic elements. The “grammatical” rules of dance are applied to its minimal units so that we can understand the overall concept or symbol communicated by the dance. In dance perception a fusion of the senses is required to understand an overall concept and this is often referred to as a symbolization process. In my choreography, this process is illustrated through overt colored-movement associations.

For a select group of people, the basic components of language give rise to synesthetic experiences. Because dance is analogous to language in the sense that it can be broken down into minimal units it stands to reason that there can exist a form of synesthesia that similarly associates colors with dance elements. In my choreography I will demonstrate a practical analysis of colored-movement associations with the aim of elucidating the symbolization process involved in dance perception.


Ferrinne Spector, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Making Sense of Scents: The Colour and Texture of Odors

Ferrinne Spector & Daphne Maurer, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, McMaster University

There are scattered reports (e.g., Stevenson & Tomiczek, 2007) of synesthesia induced by odors and one report (Gilbert, et al., 1996) that non-synesthetic adults reliably associate colours to common odors (e.g., lemon = yellow). Such associations may be based on learning. The purpose of the present study was to test colour and texture associations to a variety of odors.

We presented non-synesthetic adults (n = 80) with 22 odorants, including familiar and unfamiliar, as well as pleasant and unpleasant odours. We asked participants to make colour and shape/texture associations to each smell. A subset of the participants (n = 35) smelled the odours a second time, and were asked to identify them. Every odour stimulus was associated consistently to a specific colour and/or texture (all ps < .01 by binomial probability statistics). The associations to the four odours that were identified accurately (cinnamon, lemon, peppermint and licorice), seemed to be based on learning/memory (e.g., lemon = yellow; peppermint = smooth, hard, sticky). The associations to the 18 odors that were not identified accurately are less likely to be based on learning/memory (e.g., ginger = black, rough, sharp; lavender = green, white, liquid, sticky; onion = brown, rough, sharp; camphene = blue, rough, liquid). The results suggest that sensory associations to odors, like those to letters and colours, may result from the joint influence of learning and natural biases linking dimensions across sensory systems. Such links may reflect inherent neural organization that is modifiable with learning and can manifest as crossmodal associations or synesthetic percepts.


Carol Steen, Artist; Touro College, New York City

What a Synesthete Sees: or Why Tom Thomson Sends Me Over the Moon

Fifteen years ago, in 1993, I learned about the term that describes my process of creating art and understanding my perceptions: synesthesia. Five years later, I came to the realization that there are commonalities between the ways I see and the visual processes of other synesthetes.

One thing that we synesthetes share is visions that change very quickly. We observe numerous kinds of lines, varieties of shapes, and often brilliant, moving color fields. While the visions of individual synesthetes differ due to idiosyncratic perceptions, there appear to be similarities in what we do see despite there being fifty-four known triggers.

This new information has influenced and changed how I perceive my own work, and enhanced my observations of the art of others. The discovery of commonalities between my own work and other synesthetic artists has also led to my awareness that I had broken the two main cautionary “rules” that were prescribed to me at the start of my career. And in their place new rules had to be created.

My paper will focus on the influence of synesthesia in the making of my art and the impact of this understanding of the works of the other artists in the exhibition, “Synesthesia: Art and the Mind” taking place at the McMaster Museum at the same time as this ASA conference.


Mark T Stewart, Department of Psychology, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon

If You Could See What I Hear: Vantage Point Preference For Month Names In Time-Space Synesthesia

Mark Stewart1, Mike Dixon2, Emily Maxwell1, Michelle Jarick2, & Dan Smilek2
1. Department of Psychology Willamette University, USA
2. Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Canada

Time-space synesthetes often experience month names as fixed, distinct locations in space (January may appear to the left while May is perceived to the right). L is a time-space synesthete for whom the perception of such names depends on presentation modality. When spoken, month names are experienced in a pattern much like the shape of an inverted “scoreboard 7,” with January on the right-hand side. However when L is asked to view the name of a month the pattern looks to her like an upright scoreboard 7 with January appearing on the left-hand side. L reports preferring the auditory, inverted scoreboard perspective over the visual, 7-like one. We used a spatial cueing task to test for this preference. Month names were presented visually, either upright or upside down, and served as cues for targets appearing to the left or right. Consistent with previous findings, when upright month names cued targets in correct locations (e.g., January followed by target to left), L was much faster at target detection than when month names cued incorrect locations (e.g., January followed by target to right). To simulate her auditory experience of month names in visual form we used names printed upside-down . The same effects found for upright cues were observed for inverted cues (i.e., corrects faster than incorrects), but L’s response time differences to targets following inverted cues were faster than those to targets following upright cues. Our data provide support for the finding that synesthetic time-space associations sometimes depend on presentation modality, even when a preferred modality (auditory) is approximated via an altogether different sensory modality (visual).


Ursina Teuscher, Cognitive Science and Psychology Department, University of California San Diego

Time-space associations in synesthetes and non-synesthetes

U. Teuscher, D. Brang, V.S. Ramachandran, & S. Coulson, University of California, San Diego
Teuscher, Brang: Both Department of Cognitive Science and Psychology Department Ramachandran: Psychology Department
Coulson: Department of Cognitive Science

In one type of synesthesia, people report that they associate time events, such as months of the year, or days of the week, with specific spatial locations. This type of synesthesia is particularly intriguing because there exist many conventional time-space mappings that we all use in everyday life (e.g., watches, calendars, metaphors). As opposed to many other synesthetic associations, time-space mappings are thus not only present in synesthetes, but are widely used by all of us as explicit tools or as conceptual metaphors in everyday planning and thinking about time. In this talk I will present research investigating time-space associations in synesthetes as well as non-synesthetes. In several behavioral experiments, we have looked at a large number of spatial representations for the months of the year, as reported by time-space synesthetes and control subjects over time. In a brainwave experiment, we compare synesthetes' to controls' brain activity while they are performing a spatial target detection task cued by month names. I will discuss the findings of these studies, focusing on the phenomenology of mental calendars, possible cultural influence on them, and their perceptual vs. conceptual nature.


James Wannerton, UK Synaesthesia Association; Blackpool, Lancashire, UK

Is the Media Giving Out the Right Message?

The general public's perception of synaesthesia and synaesthetes has undergone some radical changes over the past few years. A recent straw poll conducted in my hometown asked representatives from the medical profession as well as people on the street what their understanding of synaesthesia actually was. A few years ago this question would have resulted in a quizzical look and a shrug of the shoulders. Today, the answers ranged from the incredibly informed right the way through to the downright bizarre. As the vast majority of respondents claimed that that they didn't know any synaesthetes personally, their ideas and perceptions must have come via the media - TV, radio, print and the Internet.

My presentation will share with you the results of the Blackpool poll and also address the question as to whether we, the ones that attempt to articulate and accurately represent synaesthesia, are or are not making a good job of it. Is the media giving out the right message? Has this message so far been a help or hindrance? Can it be improved? If so, how? Has synaesthesia as a whole been well represented or has there been too much focus on one or two types that can very easily be sensationalised? I will illustrate the points using anecdotes from my own experiences in dealing with the media and my very real struggles in attempting to strike a healthy balance between an accurate representation while at the same time making the subject “interesting” enough for a mass audience broadcaster to take on.


Jamie Ward, Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK Keynote Speaker

Synesthesia: Where does it come from, how does it work, and what does it do?

One problem in explaining synesthesia is that it has obvious parallels with how everyone sees, imagines, and thinks about the world but yet synesthesia is not the norm. Not everyone has it, and I am not convinced by the argument that everyone has it to different degrees: either one perceives the letter A‚ as having an extra colour or one does not. As such any explanation of synaesthesia must account for two things: it must explain the ways in which synaesthesia is similar to normal perception and thought; and it must explain the ways in which it is special (e.g. its consistency, its conscious nature). In this talk, I’ll consider both of these. I’ll illustrate how the rules of association (what goes with what) are affected by a mix of universal constraints (e.g. pitch with lightness) and constraints that may be a special feature of synaesthesia (e.g. the adjacency principle proposed by others). I’ll show how synaesthesia relies of spatial representations, accounting for such things as the projector-associator distinction, and how this relates to non-synaesthetic perception and thought. Finally, I’ll turn a critical eye on what synesthesia might do in terms of adaptive function considering creativity, language evolution, and memory.