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- Training to Develop Synaesthesia for Improved Memory and Maths Ability (Theoretically)
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- The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence
- How Caffeine Affects Neurotransmitters and Profoundly Changes Your Brain
- A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It
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Training to Develop Synaesthesia for Improved Memory and Maths Ability (Theoretically)
Imagine listening to a symphony and experiencing a rainbow of colours emerging from it. Or imagine being unstoppable at maths because you see grids appear in front of your eyes whenever you perform sums. This is synaesthesia and as it turns out, there’s a good chance you may be able to train yourself to experience it.
Synaesthesia is a phenomenon characterised by the subjective experience of senses and experiences ‘bleeding’ into one another. For instance, someone with synaesthesia may find that when they hear sounds, they also experience vivid colours. Others might find that when they read a page of writing, they see each letter appear as a different color, or maybe they assign each letter a personality. It is fairly rare, affecting roughly 1 in 23 people (1).
Many people who experience this sensation describe it as being almost like a ‘secret power’ or just something that they privately enjoy (I share my experiences below). That is to say it’s a positive experience generally rather than a mental health disorder. Furthermore, some individuals even find that they’re able to use their synaesthesia in order to enhance other abilities. You can use a connection between color and letters for instance as an aid for memory, while some forms of synaesthesia can even help you to perform maths to a much higher standard.
Now generally, it’s presumed that synaesthesia is congenital. That is, you’re born with it and it is to do with developmental changes in the brain. Specifically, it is thought to be the result of an increased ‘cross talk’ between brain regions, such that activity in your auditory cortex could stimulate activity in your color area – V4.
But recent research now suggests that synaesthesia can also be learned over time. In a study published in October 2014 (2), it was shown that adults can be ‘taught’ synaesthesia through training. So does that mean you could potentially teach yourself to develop it? And what might you use this for?
Read on and we’ll look in-depth at the nature of synaesthesia (and thus its potential applications), its causes and finally how we might adopt it.
Types of Synaesthesia
Synaesthesia comes in many different forms, each of which can be considered more or less ‘useful’ than the others from a self-development standpoint. It’s important to recognise at this point that despite broad categories existing, each individual experience of synaesthesia is different and unique.
That said, here are some of the most common forms this phenomenon takes:
One of the most common examples of synaesthsia, this is the aforementioned form where letters and numbers (graphemes) are ‘shaded’ to appear as distinct colors. This could potentially be useful for mnemonic purposes, helping those with the experience to remember words and numbers by considering color as well as meaning.
Chromesthesia is the association of colours with sounds. It’s easy to think of this in the context of listening to music but in fact it can just as well be a relationship between everyday sounds like doors closing and key clinking. What’s exciting about this one is that many people with chromesthesia also have perfect pitch because they can use the colours to identify notes.
Spatial Sequence Synaesthesia
This is a rarer and in many ways more unusual form of synaesthesia in which numerical sequences appear as points in space. So the number one might be very ‘far away’ whereas the number two would be nearer. These people can also see months and dates as ‘spaces’, even feeling the presence as time in the space around them. These people generally have a much better memory for events.
Number Form Synaesthesia
Number form synaesthesia is a ‘mental map’ of numbers that appears whenever a person thinks of numbers or tries to perform sums. This can aid in their ability to complete those sums but the grids generally don’t correspond to any written systems that are used more widely.
Auditory-tactile synaesthesia is a type of synaesthesia where sounds induce sensations in specific areas of the body. It’s one of the least common forms but one that has demonstrably been ‘acquired’ in later life.
Here an individual is able to physically feel the sensations that they see other people experience. Essentially this is an extreme form of ’empathy’ and is likely due to the increased activity of mirror neurons. It’s probably not a form of synaesthesia really, but I include it here because I wanted to give you an idea to chew on: imagine watching porn…
Swimming Style Synaesthesia
Swimming style synaesthesia is a form of synaesthesia where engaging in particular swimming styles results in the experience of particular colours. This one really brings home just how many varied forms of synaesthesia there are and just how unique it is to each individual.
How Synaesthesia Works
As mentioned, it is generally thought that synaesthesia is the result of increased ‘cross-talk’ between brain regions, which is interestingly also one of the hall marks of creativity. Another theory is that it occurs as a result of ‘disinhibited feedback’, which is to say that inhibition of activity is not as well managed across neural connections – meaning that sensation isn’t ‘filtered’ in quite the same way it normally would be. Normally this disinhibition is the work of neurotransmitters which ‘quieten’ the firing of neurons. It’s worth noting too that synaesthesia can be ‘brought on’ by strokes, meditation or the use of psychedelic drugs (even marijuana) which lends support for the disinhibition theory. A working example is when you get punched in the eye and see a flash of light – the pressure is enough to cause the nerves in your eye to ‘fire’ and this creates a bright light that is brought on by physical stimulation rather than visual.
More interesting still is the idea that we all already have synaesthesia to some degree – and that this might even have had a role in the development of language. Consider the two shapes below. One of these is a ‘bouba‘, the other is a ‘Kiki’. Which is which?
Chances are, if you’re like 90% of people, you’ll have said the shape on the right is the ‘Bouba‘ and the left one is the Kiki. If not, then your brain is probably broken, sorry…
So what’s the reason for this? There’s no logical explanation for why either is more a ‘Bouba‘ than the other and yet it seems obvious. And it’s clear to imagine how this might have led to a mutual understanding while attempting to communicate. It’s also interesting to note that those people who have synaesthesia such as grapheme-colour synaesthesia will often agree on some consistent ‘connections’. For instance, it’s very commonly agreed that the letter ‘A‘ is ‘red‘.
Researchers have pointed out how Bouba and Kiki also have several other associations no matter who you speak to: people can tell you the personality of these shapes, the sounds they might make and even the gender! Another interesting point here is that all the letters forming the ‘Bouba‘ are very curved, unlike the Kiki which is sharp and pointed.
Many of us will also agree that sadder music should be blue in colour and in fact we even call sad music ‘blues’. Likewise there is agreement that red represents hot and blue represents cold and we all know that green is ‘go‘. Language and communication are riddled with these sorts of examples.
If you’ve been reading all this and thinking ‘hey waitaminute; letters aren’t senses!’ then you’re onto something. There are those who point out that the assumption that synaesthesia is a link between two senses is actually inaccurate in the majority of cases. For instance, in grapheme-colour synaesthesia it is not sight that sets off the colour experience but letters. In other words it is not the sense but rather the concept.
Several studies show that the shapes alone are not enough to trigger the experience, but that it is the context that matters most. In swimming style synaesthesia simply talking about a particular swimming style can trigger the experience of colours. It has even been suggested that we develop synaesthesia as a ‘tool’ for grasping abstract concepts in childhood. Some have even suggested that ideasthesia could explain the nature of consciousness – that it is the process of assigning meaning that results in subjective conscious experience.
And here’s a thought: perhaps language simply is a form of synaesthesia?
How to Become a Synaesthete – Synaesthesia Training
But forgetting all that explanation for a moment… is it possible to become a synaesthete? According to this study the answer is ‘yes’. Even though synaesthesia might normally have some basis in our neurology, it seems that you can create a functional association between letters and colours simply by constantly reinforcing that connection.
In the study, non-synaesthetic adult participants were given training (including reading and memory tasks) with the intention of reinforcing memory associations. Over time, the subjects exhibited some of the hallmarks of synaesthesia and described experiencing letters as having a colour from then on. Here it seems to be a simple case of classic conditioning – whereby seeing the two senses together often enough result in them becoming linked. We can explain this process through brain plasticity – and the fact that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’.
So how much training do you need and what should it entail? In the study the training sessions lasted for roughly 30 minutes, 5 days a week with 9 weeks. There was also ‘homework’ recommended which involved reading an e-book at home where the letters would be coloured. The training meanwhile also involved remembering which letters had which colours or speaking colours out-loud (ala the Stroop Test). Both of these would be easy enough to complete in theory and as you’re been reading this article then congratulations… you’ve already started your training! See, I’ve cleverly made all the ‘A‘s in this article red…
Which I’m bloody well stopping now as I’ve been doing them all manually and it’s driving me out of my mind…
I’m also working on a tool right now that will let you view web pages with synaesthetic coloring – I’ll give you the link as soon as I’ve finished it.
Would this actually be a useful thing to train? Well it could certainly help with your memory and if you could get it to work for numbers (which would likely be more boring to train) it would possibly help with maths too… Interestingly Daniel Tammet – a savant with amazing mathematical abilities – has linguistic, numerical and visual synesthesia. And he explains how his unique perception of numbers and words allows him to perform his impressive feats. This is interesting as many people prodigious in maths describe ‘feeling’ or ‘sensing’ the answers rather than actually calculating them and some theories suggest that this shows them getting ‘privileged access’ to raw information before they are consciously processing it. And again it might be something that we all have to some degree – Tammet suggests that children are better at learning to work numbers when they’re helped to get a ‘feel’ for their size.
Could it be that syneasthesia training is one route to unlocking the dormant savant syndrome abilities in all of us? Or would training in this way instead give you a kind of ‘fake’ synaesthesia? At the very least this could still potentially be used as a personal code that could help you to remember things and see patterns…
Now of course I’m also interested to know whether you can train other forms of synaesthesia in the same way – particularly the number form synaesthesia which seems particularly useful. And could you not create other forms of synaesthesia that don’t yet exist? And who knows too whether supplements such as those intended to aid brain plasticity could be helpful in this aim?
I know I’m going to be experimenting with this, how about you guys?
My Personal Synaesthesia Experiences
Just to finish up with, I’d like to share my own experience with synaesthesia. While I wouldn’t quite classify myself as a synaesthete, I certainly do experience ‘something’ which might be similar and this is one of the reasons I find the area so fascinating. Sharing my experience will help me to explain the subjective experience just a little better…
Predominantly, my experience of synaesthesia is with ‘feeling’ associations that I can’t quite explain between people, sounds, colours and more. This was especially pronounced when I was a child and just as an example – I decided to name my rabbit ‘Binity’ because I believed that this was the ‘sort of sound my aunt would like’. Of course that’s completely nonsensical and when I proudly told my aunt the name of my rabbit, she had no idea what I was talking about (I also don’t know why I was naming my rabbit for my aunt in the first place). I also on more than one occasion made up names for people I didn’t know based on the way they looked and I was certain that my mate would be dark green if he was a colour. I intuitively know that ‘A’ is red even though I don’t have any other grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Similarly I’m pretty sure that ‘D’ is green and ‘E’ is yellow but who knows about letters like ‘K’? I’d say Wednesday should be yellow but the famous Daniel Tammet says it’s blue… so I guess I’m wrong?
This is what synaesthesia is like to me and I suspect it’s similar for many others – albeit to a more vivid degree. The point is that I don’t ‘see’ colours or ‘hear’ sounds, I just ‘experience’ them and I just know they’re there. This is important to understand, because someone with grapheme-colour synaesthesia wouldn’t have difficulty seeing what colour a branded logo was, they would see that colour and ‘experience’ the colour of the individual letters.
I also have anosmia, which means I can’t smell and this is interesting for me because it results in another unique experience. When I feel certain temperatures on my skin, or when I touch certain textures, or when I see things that I imagine would have certain textures, it can trigger vivid memories. And those memories are not of things that happened but of the way I felt when those things happened. Now this must sound like complete nonsense but I believe it’s similar to the way that people can get sent back to their childhood memories by smells. I lack this ability and so mine gets triggered in another way. Maybe.
The point is that I guess every sense could be described as being interwoven with a whole variety of different sensations. Maybe synesthesia is just that but to a greater extent? I’d love to hear any of your experiences with synaesthesia in the comments.
Let’s see if training doesn’t just mess up my screwy head even more!