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American Synesthesia Association

Recent Conference Abstracts

The Tenth Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association took place on May 31 through June 2, 2013 at OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Our Keynote Speaker was

Noam Sagiv
Centre for Cognition and Neuroimaging
Brunel University
London, United Kingdom

click here for Conference Program

Photo credit Carter Jones
James Wannerton, President UK Synaesthesia Association, presenting.


Kathleen A. Akins, Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University; Burnaby, BC, Canada

Synaesthetic colours as perceptual-cognitive fossils: How learned properties of letters influence synaesthetic colour in Czech and English

Kathleen A. Akins1, Marcus Watson3, Jan Chromy2, James T. Enns1 1Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada 2Institute of Czech Language and Theory of Communication, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic 3Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

A number of recent studies have demonstrated that learned properties of synaesthetic inducers influence their colours. Here we show how a variety of these influences, including several never previously-described, play out among large samples of native Czech- and English-speaking synaesthetes. These languages use essentially the same alphabets, but differ greatly in their phonology and in the instructional methods used to teach literacy. Synaesthetic colours in both these languages are affected by letter properties that include their order in the alphabet, shape, frequency, semantic associations, the presence of accents and other diacritical marks, phonological characteristics, and their status as vowels or consonants. Of particular interest is the rejection of a previous hypothesis. We have argued that alphabetical order influences synaesthetic colour because letters are learned in roughly alphabetical order (Watson, Akins, & Enns, 2012), but the new data shows this to be false. Czech synaesthetes show the same alphabetical order effect as English speakers, but they learn their letters in an entirely different order that has no impact on synaesthetic colour. The relationships between learned properties of letters and their synaesthetic colours are like perceptual-cognitive fossils, traces laid down during the development of synaesthesia that allow us to reconstruct aspects of this development.

Sergio Roclaw Basbaum, Composer, Musician; Pontificia Universidade Catolica de São Paulo; Brazil

The work presents and discusses the main many singular aspects of the Cromofonic compositions of Brazilian Contemporary Music composer Jorge Antunes (born 1942). A pioneer in his field, Antunes began to present his concepts of synesthetic music in the 1960s, bringing both music and a sophisticated personal theory of correspondences between sounds and colors which may place his work in a unique place in the history of synesthetic works of art. We expect to both present some original aspects of his work and discuss the aesthetic implications of his theory.

Greta Berman, Art Historian, Writer; The Juilliard School, New York City

I don’t Have Synesthesia But…

After nearly 33 years of teaching art history to musicians, dancers and actors at Juilliard, I have come to the conclusion that many of them have synesthesia without knowing it. For this paper I shall present a case study of a few musicians with synesthesia.

First will be Kendall Briggs, a composer, and teacher at Juilliard. He discovered that he had synesthesia when talking to me about the subject.

Second is Bryan Wallick, an internationally renowned pianist, who received a grant to explore his synesthetic realities in a multimedia project that allows the audience to see the colors he experiences while performing. Bryan learned of his synesthetic abilities while in my class.

Third will be pianist Joyce Yang, a Van Cliburn Silver Medalist, who actually did a project in class related to her synesthesia, and has released a CD using some of that material.

Most recently I have several synesthetic students; one is an oboist who tastes the music she plays. Another is a pianist/composer whose comment, “I don”t have synesthesia, but when I hear certain chords I see specific colors” inspired the title of my paper.

Duncan Carmichael, University of Edinburgh; Scotland

How effective is online testing for synaesthesia? Validating the Synaesthesia Battery with novel prevalence and sex-ratio data

Duncan Carmichael1, Julia Simner1, David Eagleman2, Richard Shillcock1 1University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK 2Baylor University, Houston, Texas, USA

Consistency of response over time is regarded as the hallmark of the synaesthetic experience. In tests of consistency, synaesthetes outperform controls over months, years, and even decades (Simner & Logie, 2007). In 2007, Eagleman et al. presented an online battery of tests aimed at the reliable identification of a wide range of synaesthesias by assessing consistency in a single test session. This battery has been very widely used, but has never been previously validated. Is single-session testing a reliable way to distinguish synaesthetes from controls? In our study in Edinburgh, we randomly selected 1500 UK participants to run through a limited version of the Synesthesia Battery to test for grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Using this method we found the prevalence of grapheme-colour synaesthesia in the general population to be 1.1%, in line with previous prevalence estimates based on lengthy retests (over 6 months; Simner et al. 2006). This replication suggests that the Synaesthesia Battery is as valid a methodology as previous longer-term assessments. Our data also allow us to present the most reliable estimate to date of sex differences in synaesthesia: we found no suggestion of any difference across the sexes (female prevalence = 1.1%; male prevalence = 1.1%) and we discuss the implications of this for theories of synaesthesia’s aetiology.

Sean Day, Trident Technical College; Charleston, South Carolina

Synesthesia attrition: implications of the case studies analysis for a systems view of the phenomenon

Sean A. Day1 and Anton V. Sidoroff-Dorso2 1Department of English and Journalism, Trident Technical College, Charleston, SC, USA 2Department of Psychology, Moscow Pedagogical State University, Russia

Synesthesia attrition is a frequent and multifarious tendency when congenital synesthesia partially reduces, some of its concurrents drop out or they vanish altogether (Cytowic and Eagleman, 2009; Sacks, 1995). Being an essential part of a synesthete’s ontological history, it represents a significant aspect of long-term dynamicism of synesthesia. Though there are extensive first-person reports about this tendency (Dittmar, 2009; Day, 2012) and it was suggested as a factor in determining an individual's Synesthesia Quotient (Sidoroff-Dorso, 2012), much remains to be revealed and classified.

We will discuss some results of analyzing new case studies as well as structuring the data available in literature on synesthesia. This touches upon aspects such as diet, hormonal changes, pregnancy, diseases and trauma. We demonstrate that, despite seemingly idiosyncratic propensities of synesthesia attrition, some explicit regularities can be revealed. Some propensities of attrition can be attributed to the scale, valence and time-span of experienced impact with temporary, partial and single-category (in multiple synesthetes) disappearance being caused by minor lifestyle perturbances such as change of employment or residence, while permanent and massive loss being caused by medication, aging, prolonged distress and bereavement. We conclude that proper understanding of synesthesia attrition contributes to a more integrative systems model of synesthesia with constraints beyond neuronal and genetic being considered.

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

Literary Portrayals of Synesthetes: five categories of depiction

With the growing body of research into the phenomenon of synesthesia in recent years, a number of new works of fiction with synesthete-characters has appeared. This raises the question of the ways in which the synesthete is represented in literature, i.e., what are the various images of the synesthetic character in literary works?

In previous presentations and writings, the presenter identified four categories of literary depiction of synesthetes, but recent research has revealed the emergence of a fifth category as well.

By analyzing the synesthete-characters in several works of recent fiction including Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, Christina Meldrum’s Amaryllis in Blueberry, Gene Ha and Alan Moore’s Top Ten (Super-Hero graphic novels), T.J. Parker’s The Fallen, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, Katherine Vaz‘s Saudade, Holly Payne’s The Sound of Blue, the presenter will discuss and explore the five categories of literary portrayals of synesthetes. In addition, the talk will reach back to seminal nineteenth century literary works such as J-K Huysmans’ Against Nature, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Vowels” as well as his “Letter of a Seer”, and Max Nordau’s Degeneration to investigate some roots of present portrayals of synesthetes in fiction.

Carrie Firman, Artist; Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin

“Belfast in My Colours” and “The Guidebook of New Punctuation”: Synesthesia in Graphic Design

As a graphic designer, I find inspiration and useful coding in my synesthetic experience. These two books combine these creative inputs. My presentation will sample both projects' content and describe intent, process, creation, and the role of synesthesia in each.

Belfast in My Colours: A Synaesthetic Exploration of My Temporary Home was created and published while completing an International Artist in Residence term awarded to me by Digital Arts Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK). The experience of being transplanted into another culture and location for two months resulted in historical study, reading anecdotes, and exploring as much as possible. The landmarks took on personalities as I came to know them. When I began to make digital drawings of them, I applied color groups whose synesthetic personality I perceived matched each building's character.

The Guidebook of New Punctuation took shape during a subsequent residency in Milton Keynes, England. Being on another continent for several months and so heavily dependent on e-mail, I wished a more descriptive punctuation system existed. I designed a system of 44 marks by interpreting the forms and motion I experience when hearing or expressing conversational concepts. Humor, attitudes, emotions, and devices of influence are included. The project culminated in creating a glyph font containing all the New Punctuation.

Julian Ghloum, Dept. of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour; McMaster University Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Less Perceptual Narrowing in Synaesthesia?

Julian Ghloum1, Laura Gibson1, & Daphne Maurer1, 1McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Perceptual narrowing is an experience-dependent process that describes infants’ increasing skill at differentiating stimuli in native categories (upright own race human faces; native speech sounds; and native musical rhythms) and the simultaneous loss of a more general ability to discriminate stimuli from non-native categories (inverted human, monkey and other race faces; foreign speech sounds; foreign musical rhythms). The narrowing is believed to result from synaptic pruning that begins during the first year of life. Synaesthesia is thought to arise, at least in part, from less-than-normal synaptic pruning during development that results in greater brain connectivity in adulthood. Here we tested whether adults with synaesthesia show evidence of less perceptual narrowing, i.e., whether they are better than non-synaesthetic adults at discriminating among chimp and inverted faces and between foreign speech sounds. As predicted, the results to date show that synaesthetic adults (n=14) are more accurate than non-synaesthetic controls (n=19) in discriminations among chimp faces (p < 0.05, and p < 0.001, respectively, in two tasks), inverted faces (p < 0.001), and, as predicted, no difference for discriminating upright human faces (p=0.124). In addition, synaesthetes (n=10) are more accurate than non-synaesthetic controls (n=11) in discriminating between two foreign speech sounds [the retroflex/dental distinction in Hindi] (p < 0.05). In work in progress, we are investigating if differences between adult synaesthetes and controls extend to discriminations of foreign musical rhythms. The combined results will indicate whether the extra connectivity that has been demonstrated in the brains of adults with synaesthesia brings with it an enhanced ability to discriminate stimuli from non-native categories.

Laura Herman, Student, Pine Crest School; Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Synesthetic Associational Patterns between Letters and Numbers: Why Q is Purple

Grapheme-color synesthetes typically associate each letter with a specific color, but the cause of these pairings is unknown. However, one potentially useful clue is that the pairings appear to be consistent within a language but different across languages. To determine the cause of these particular letter-color pairings, this study compares the frequency of letters in natural language with the wavelength of their associated colors across English, Spanish, and German synesthetes. The frequency of a letter was highly correlated with the wavelength of its associated color (r2 0.7). Frequent letters are typically more red and orange, while infrequent letters are typically blue or purple. Additionally, synesthetes show a tendency to associate more saturated colors with the most common letters (r2 0.2), whereas the luminance of the colors is less correlated with letter frequency (r2 0.003). Neurophysiologically, this pattern may be caused by the wavelength-specific color receptor neurons of visual area V4 being fused with the language processing neurons of the left middle temporal gyrus (LMTG) that perform semantic recognition. This fusion is theorized to be caused by a genetic mutation on the sixteenth chromosome. This account suggests that this mutation causes V4 and LMTG neurons to fuse, and that a young synesthete's exposure to their native language guides the specific color associations that are formed as a result. Further, the impact of childhood exposure is evident in the correlation value for children’s books letter frequency (r2 0.57) rather than letter frequency in the Brown Corpus (r2 0.45), a compilation of general exposure to the English language. .

Alexandra Kirschner, Voice trainer; Stuttgart, Germany

Alexandra Kirschner1 and Christine Söffing2 1Stuttgart, Germany 2Artist, Synesthete; Head of Experimentelle Musik Universität Ensemble, University of Ulm, Germany

But the eyes do not see it

How can awareness of one’s synesthesia affect the quality of voice and learning? In this presentation, I will share my experiences as a voice trainer in a German boy’s choir in which there are several young synesthetes. In a film made by Christine Söffing, young synaesthetes talk about their synesthetic perceptions when singing. I use one’s awareness of synesthesia when I do voice training. Not only does it support the singer’s sense of self but it is a useful tool for developing the quality of the voice. Most of the children I’ve worked with were not aware of their synaesthesia so I also feel it helps to have a synesthetic teacher, such as myself, to bring out the best in these students. In addition, I have observed that the visual imagery of young synesthetes often appears in their description of their synesthesia. I raise several questions. Is synesthesia in children different from adults? What role does visual imagery play in children's synesthesia? Is it a special form of synesthesia? I believe it would be very interesting for researchers to look at this phenomenon closely to explore more about consciousness and synesthesia.

JJ Lee, OCAD University; Toronto, Ontario, Canada

How Synesthesia can make you a better artist

JJ Lee1, Natalie Waldburger1, OCAD University, Toronto, Canada

First year fine art students created work from a project entitled "Synesthesia" for the Color Explorations course at OCAD University. The assignment, designed by David Griffin, has spawned several fascinating results and approaches that are exceptional for first year undergraduates. Students were given a presentation on synesthesia (videos, short documentaries) and slides of artists historically using this idea (such as Whistler, Kandinsky and Russolo). As this was a cross-disciplinary course, students were given free reign to use any medium. While expectedly some created a simplistic illustration of a song, others came up with interesting results such as sound installations and animations. We would like to share these artworks to show that Synaesthesia as a model can promote lateral and creative thinking strategies, essential to contemporary art pedagogy. Presenters are Faculty of Art professors Natalie Waldburger and JJ Lee.

Natasha Lvovich, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY; New York City

Synesthesia and Translingual Creativity: A Lens into Multilingual Mind

This paper will examine the relationship between synesthesia and multilingualism through the lens of literature written by multilingual authors in their second language (called ‘translingual literature’) using an interdisciplinary perspective: L2/bilingualism scholarship, cognitive theory, literary theory, and semiotics, fusing it with findings from neuroscience. ‘Translingual synesthesia,’ as a complex personal system of coding for language processing, demonstrates idiosyncratic subjectivities of the multilingual mind and serves as a form of language emotionality and creativity, allowing multilingual authors to transcend cognitive and linguistic realms via cross-modal metaphor. In this process, multilingual writers strive to embody L2 with this form of personal imagery as “affective conditioning” while simultaneously creating an aesthetic effect of “de-familiarization of the word” (“ostranneniye slova” in Russian Formalist theory).

I will briefly explore my personal ‘synesthesia quest’ as a multilingual, a L2 scholar, a writer, and a synesthete all at once, and will draw from the existing research on Vladimir Nabokov’s polychromatism, as well as from my own and a few other translingual writers’ introspective accounts of their mental representation of multiple languages. The complex mental geology of these multilinguals’ multiple arrangements will be viewed in the light of psycholinguistics of bilingualism, cognitive theory, and creative literary polyglot practice. Finally, a few interdisciplinary implications of synesthesia and multilingualism will be modeled for applied linguists, language and art teachers, and language learners - as examples of existing programs, studies, and learning experiences.

Michele Root-Bernstein, Adjunct Faculty, Michigan State University; East Lansing, Michigan

Worldplay and Synesthesia: A Connection? Implications for the Link to Creativity

In this presentation I explore a potential link between synesthesia and imaginary world invention in childhood. Worldplay may be defined as a complex form of make-believe that involves the persistent and consistent elaboration of an imaginary place or system. Peaking around the age of nine as a solitary (or intimately shared) and private activity, worldplay is often creative, involving imaginative instantiation of inner thought. Preliminary evidence suggests that it is also associated with and, in some cases, structured by synesthesia.

Roughly 11% of historical and contemporary individuals grouped for the study of worldplay exhibited early grapheme-color synesthesia, an incidence well beyond the high end of its prevalence (1 – 2%) in the general population. Building on speculation in the scholarly literature that synesthesia may facilitate creative thinking, I examine its role in three instances of worldplay from the turn of the 20th century. Joseph Folsom, Lorey Day and Una Hunt, although otherwise unknown, loom large in the convergent annals of synesthesia and worldplay: first, because they incorporated fused perceptions into their play and, second, because they made that fusion a pretext or algorithm for the elaboration of highly integrated imaginary worlds.

The tantalizing possibility exists that synesthesia enables children to think synthetically and with originality. Tracing its role in worldplay may help explain the lifelong impact of that play and its significant correlation with adult creativity across the arts and sciences. It may also explain how synesthesia plays out and to what “purpose” in creative behaviors characteristic of childhood.

Robert Root-Bernstein, Department of Physiology, Michigan State University; East Lansing, Michigan

The Effect of Being Multi-Lingual on Color-Grapheme-Sound Synaesthesia

Color-grapheme and color-sound synaesthesia are two of the most common forms but the combination of color-grapheme-sound synaesthesia has rarely, if ever, been reported. Brang, et al. (2011) have, however, found that color-grapheme synaesthetes in general have enhanced sound-vision interactions suggesting that involuntary synaesthesia between sound, symbols and color may represent an extreme form of broader cross-modal interactions. How might such multiple cross-modal interactions influence each other? I report here on a color-grapheme-sound synaesthete who is multilingual. Like typical color-grapheme synaesthetes, she has had a stable association between specific colors and English (her native language) letters. She also associates musical sounds with colors, patterns and shapes, most notably particular colors with the pronunciation of language phonemes. Now in her early thirties, the subject has became fluent in Spanish after the age of 25 and then in French after the age of 30. She finds that her color-letter correlations vary from one language to another based upon the pronunciation of the letter in the language she is speaking or reading. Thus, sound-grapheme synaesthesia, which is undoubtedly acquired in schools when we learn to read, can affect neurological grapheme-color synaesthesia by means of the connection between color and sound in a multi-modal synaesthete. Such cross-modality may have much broader implications for understanding how to utilize natural brain organization to improve learning. Indeed, cross-modality between color, sound and symbols has already been developed into foreign language and mathematics learning systems (“Visible and Tangible Math” and “The Silent Way”) by Caleb Gattegno.

Noam Sagiv, Centre for Cognition and Neuroimaging, Brunel University; London, UK Keynote Speaker

Synesthesia - A window into human consciousness and social cognition

Over the years we have come to realize that the study of synesthesia involves virtually every aspect of human cognition including perception, attention, memory, language, thought, emotion, and creativity. I will consider here two additional aspects: consciousness and social cognition. In the first part of this talk, I will argue that synesthesia could be used as a model problem for the scientific study of consciousness. I will highlight some of the areas in which synesthesia could generate insights into human consciousness. These include: Individual differences in conscious experience, the neural correlates of consciousness, how we construct the perceived world, and the development of consciousness. In the second part of the talk, I will review some of the work we have done on personification in synesthesia and how it ties into ordinary social cognition. These include phenomenological, behavioral, and neuroimaging studies. I will argue that frameworks for understanding synesthesia could be extended into the domain of social cognition and that the personification of objects or graphemes may provide a new point of view on one of the most central problems in human cognition - understanding other people’s state of mind.

Jasmin Sinha, Project Manager; Luxembourg

Latin and Luxembourgish: Synesthesia as hidden learning tool

Although today we know a lot about synesthesia, there are still many open questions on its benefit for the concerned synesthetes. What is synesthesia good for? Is it a gift or a burden? Is it a tool or only a toy, or nothing special at all? Does synesthesia provide any help or guidance, or rather the opposite? We also know that so far over 65 different types of synesthesia have been reported. A synesthete may have several types, but may be aware of only some of them: the “obvious” ones. What about the “hidden” synesthesiae? Which synesthesia types can be considered as “hidden” or “obvious”? Can hidden synesthesiae become obvious? Do they have a function? If they have an impact, what is it? What is their influence on perception? On learning? This experience report from a genuine synesthete’s perspective will present the impact of hidden synesthesiae on perception and learning. Two everyday examples will be used: Second language learning and decision making, both illustrated by synesthetic visualizations.

Carol Steen, Artist; Touro College, New York City

Abstract: Synesthesia: Seeing the world differently

Synesthesia shapes and informs an artist's aesthetic as well as contributes to her artistic process, even when she is unaware of it.

In this paper, I examine some of the processes and outcomes of using synesthesia in art. I discuss what might be different about the works of synesthetic artists, and look at how some types of synesthetic experiences can be used. I explore Heinrich Kluver’s Form Constants that can be found in the artworks of many synesthetic artists. Kluver discovered that synesthetes see things in common, but I observe how these forms can be used in painting, sculpture, and video. Integrating one’s synesthetic abilities into one's work can invite challenges to an art world that hasn’t yet understood synesthesia. Synesthetic artists cannot and should not have to conform to prevailing art world standards. One example of this is Van Gogh, the appreciation of whose work had to wait many years because he went against the aesthetic standards of his time. Knowledge about synesthesia, or the lack of it, certainly contributes to both an artist's work, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Clara Ursitti, Artist, Lecturer; Glasgow, Scotland

What Sound Does a Scent Make?

I will present some of my scent based installation and performance work, and will discuss this in relation to some thoughts around recent advances in the scientific study of the senses through a crossmodal sensory model. Much of this will be based on research conducted whilst I was the Arts Council of England Helen Chadwick Fellow at The University of Oxford, where my thinking was both challenged and affirmed by the Crossmodal Research Laboratory. The importance of “being there”, and the experiential will be emphasized. I have a practice that has focused on the non-visual. I have been working with fragrance since the early 1990s.

James Wannerton, President of the UK Synaesthesia Association; Blackpool, UK

30 Year Retrospective

The vast majority of synaesthetes simply sit back and enjoy their experiences, with some maybe stretching to sharing these experiences with the like minded or interested. That’s not the way it is with me.

May 2013 covers the 33rd anniversary of the day I discovered synaesthesia was a seemingly shared “condition” complete with an appropriately difficult to pronounce scientific name. It’s no exaggeration to say that day was a pivotal moment for me and from it stemmed a journey of discovery and understanding that continues unabated to date. On this journey I’ve met some incredible people and made some long lasting friendships all directly because of my synaesthesia. Today I’d like to share just a few of the pivotal moments from the last thirty years – from the initial struggles with reactions and attitudes; the tremendous feeling of “validation” via fMRI scan results; the media interest and ultimate intrusion; the bizarre “job offers”; the good media choices and the bad. Plus, the personal cost of all this to myself, and those close to me.

Many times I’ve questioned my own desire and motivation to carry on, asking, “What difference does all this make?” and “Where is all this leading?” Well, it’s led to some pretty bizarre situations, most of which have remained private but are relevant nonetheless. Finally, I’d like the opportunity to briefly speak about the continuing work of the UKSA including mention of the recent inroads made into the UK education system with synaesthesia increasingly cropping up on school curriculum’s as a subject in its own right.

Jamie Ward, School of Psychology, University of Sussex, UK

Enhanced memory in synaesthesia: What's the story so far?

Jamie Ward1 & Nicolas Rothen2; University of Sussex, UK.

People with grapheme-colour synaesthesia (and perhaps other varieties) have enhanced memory ability on a range of different memory tests. There are several possible accounts of this. One account is that synaesthesia affects memory by providing a system for organizing memory (e.g. time lines) and cueing retrieval (e.g. its green so it’s John). An alternative account is a more indirect explanation: the brains of synaesthetes are configured differently and this affects cognitive ability more broadly (in perception, memory). We provide evidence for the latter in several studies showing that synaesthetes have enhanced memory even for material that doesn't induce synaesthesia (e.g. images of everyday scenes, coloured nonsense shapes). However, the profile is quite specific. For instance, synaesthetes show a much greater memory advantage when remembered items can be discriminated by colour than by orientation or location. Curiously, we find a similar profile of enhanced memory in non-synaesthetes if they have a synaesthesia-like profile of perceptual abilities (good colour perception, poor motion perception). This suggests an intimate relationship between individual differences in perception and memory.

Marcus Watson, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia; Vancouver, Canada

The prevalence of synaesthesia across two languages: Results from the Czech/Canadian Synaesthesia Survey

Marcus Watson1, Kathleen A. Akins3, Jan Chromy2, Lyle Crawford3, David Eagleman4, James T. Enns1 1Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada 2Institute of Czech Language and Theory of Communication, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic 3Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada, 4Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA

From 2008-2011, the largest survey of synaesthetic tendencies ever (N = 11,664) was conducted at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada. Here we present an overview of the main demographic findings. Prevalence ranges between 0-2%, consistent with Simner et al. (2006) previous large-scale study. We confirm that there is no sex bias in the prevalence of synaesthesia, and that previous reports of such a bias are due to different compliance rates between men and women. We also find numerous individuals who have consistent synaesthetic associations with only a small proportion of inducers e.g. less than 10 letters who would not be considered synaesthetic according to most modern tests of genuineness. Most surprisingly, we find more Czech than English synaesthetes for almost all varieties of synaesthesia, but this difference comes from an unexpected source: second language acquisition. Those who learn a second language in grade school are three times as likely to develop synaesthesia as those who learn a second language from birth, and this entirely explains the Czech-English prevalence differences. These results add to the increasing collection of evidence that the development of synaesthesia is strongly influenced by learning.

Nancy Weekly, Curator, Scholar, Faculty, Burchfield Penney Art Center, SUNY Buffalo State, New York

A Secret Link: Signs of Synesthesia in the Art of Charles E. Burchfield and his daughter, Catherine Parker

This presentation will provide evidence that the American painter Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967) was unwittingly a synesthetic artist who never spoke overtly of his unique ability to sense—and paint—sounds and smells. Since 2008, presentations to synesthetes, neuroscientists, and art historians in Hamilton and St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and to diverse audiences in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Buffalo, New York, and Uberlândia, Brazil, have confirmed acceptance that research illustrated Burchfield’s synesthetic perceptions. New, yet unpublished research will demonstrate that Burchfield’s daughter Catherine Esther Parker (1926-2012) shared synesthetic tendencies. Since the late 1990s, Parker painted images that were inspired by, or in “response to,” music by particular composers. Her special vision was informed by having been a cellist herself, as well as a painter. For example, Parker often responded to the music of Olivier Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer known for his spirituality, love of nature, and rare synesthetic perceptions in which he would simultaneously hear musical chords as specific colors.

Since synesthesia can be a hereditary gift, it is highly possible that Parker had a similarly exceptional perception of sound within a visual dimension. Her appreciation of a wide range of music may have greater depth and complexity than the public originally imagined. Since neither father nor daughter laid claim to these special perceptions, it will be up to the audience to determine if their artwork and written statements prove the case.

Emma Welter, Alumna anthropology department; University College London, UK

Look Lively: The Amplification of Objects’ Agency through Synaesthetic Personification

Academic interest in synaesthesia - an anomalous neurological condition that causes one sensory stimulus to trigger another - has experienced an upsurge in recent years as issues of individual and cultural perception are revisited. There has been a smattering of anthropological documentation of synaesthesia within specific cultures, but its personification-affiliated forms (OP/OLP), in which objects or components of ordered sequences such as numbers, letters, or colors are perceived as possessing distinct personalities and genders, have yet to be integrated within material and visual culture studies despite their potentially immense significance to the discipline: they are an extreme amplification of discussions, pioneered by Alfred Gell, surrounding the “agentic” qualities of objects. Between June and September 2011, I interviewed four women who experienced these types of synaesthesia in an effort to understand how their perceptions differed from cultural instances of personification and to what extent living in a “personified world” impacted their memories and relationships with objects, others, and themselves. Subsequently, I have investigated ethnographic reports of personification throughout myriad cultures, applied them to theories exploring the possibility of objects’ autonomy, and incorporated them with the accounts of my informants.