SCIENCE / Unscrambling Synaesthesia

RICHARD Cytowic has spent a decade studying the history and causes of synaesthesia. At the core of his research is evidence that the brains of synaesthetes are organised differently from those of the rest of the population. But is this substantiated by other trials? Are other scientists even convinced that the condition exists?

In Britain, a team of psychologists has begun to tease out a biological explanation for synaesthesia. They are using hundreds of volunteers who claim to feel, see and smell 'in colour'.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a clinical psychologist at London University's Institute of Psychiatry, says doubts about synaesthesia being a genuine condition have been largely dispelled. 'The evidence is accumulating that it is real, so we're taking it seriously after a history of it not being taken all that seriously in this country.'

Studying people who have synaesthesia will help scientists understand more fully how the brain is organised, Dr Baron-Cohen says. One theory is that babies are born with senses that are intermingled, but within a few months their brains begin to separate them. 'Synaesthesia may be showing what happens when this modularity is not achieved,' he says.

The team at the Institute of Psychiatry began its research after making contact with Elizabeth Pulford, an 82-year-old artist who had advertised herself in the British Psychological Society's Bulletin as 'a woman who has experienced the lifelong condition of hearing words and sound in colour'. After a series of controlled tests on her, the psychologists were convinced she really could see words in vivid colours. Mrs Pulford was given 100 words and asked to ascribe a precise colour to each one. A year later she was given the same test and was able to give exactly the same description to each word. 'Moscow', for instance, was a darkish grey with spinach green and a pale blue in places; 'Daniel' was deep purple, blue and red and shiny; 'Maria' was deep violet-blue.

Dr Baron-Cohen and his colleague John Harrison of the Charing Cross Medical School in London have now begun to investigate the first batch of about a dozen of the 600 people who have since contacted them claiming to have synaesthesia. He said that some appear to have a primitive form of the condition where they only see days of the week or months of the year in certain colours. Others have a much wider ability to associate a large vocabulary of words with a spectrum of colours. 'The descriptions we've been given are so detailed and consistent that it is difficult to explain by either a metaphorical use of language or by an impressive memory,' Dr Baron-Cohen says.

Dr Eraldo Paulesu, at the Medical Research Council's Cyclotron Unit at the Hammersmith Hospital, London, has helped the researchers find the possible fundamental biology behind synaesthesia. When volunteers were placed in a scanner to measure blood flow in different parts of the brain they were found to have unusual activity in the visual cortex when words or sounds were played over headphones. 'This was not so in people without synaesthesia,' Dr Baron-Cohen says.

About 95 per cent of those who have come forward are women. The trait seems to run in families, although the link is not very strong. People with synaesthesia are also convinced that they dream in colour, whereas other people think they only sometimes do so.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones