A study at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science explores how training can generate synaesthetic experiences and may lead to cognitive boost and better memory skills
"When I see equations, I see the letters in colours, I don’t know why", Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once wrote. Feynman is but one of many creative people throughout history who have had synaesthesia, from novelist Vladamir Nabokov who perceived letters in colour (grapheme-colour synaesthesia) to musician Kanye West who sees sounds as colours. But a study by researchers at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science suggests that people can be trained to see colour – that we can learn new ways of perceiving the world.
"When I see equations, I see the letters in colours, I don’t know why" Richard Feynman
Dr Daniel Bor who co-led the study with Dr Nicolas Rothen, has been exploring issues around memory for a number of years, using techniques such as FMRI, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Brain scanning techniques and others such as TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) which stimulates the brain, to see which parts of the brain carry out certain functions. As he explains, ‘all that in order to study how we perform strategic processes, to generate strategies to see how we use those working memory, in short term memory.’ Dr Bor’s 2012 book The Ravenous Brain was well-reviewed, chosen as a best book of 2012 in the The Wall Street Journal and a book of the week in the Times Higher Education magazine. He also studies attentional processes and recently become more interested, ‘in both cognitive training as a research as a research and clinical tool.’
Kickstarting contemporary research
The modern science of synaesthesia, explains Dr Bor, was largely kickstarted by Simon Baron Cohen, current Professor of Developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. ‘He created a test in the 1980s to try and find out whether the experiences that synaesthetes have are consistent over time. He provided evidence with this test that it seemed to be a genuine condition which lead to a lot of research from a lot of different places to try to unpack what synaesthesia is – what kind you can have and what causes it in the first place.’
In respect of this study much of Dr Bor’s research was based around the well-researched psychological process of chunking, which he explains, ‘is a way of compressing some set of information in order to make it easier to remember or the task easier to perform. For instance if I gave you the phone number I want, for example 12345 6789 would be easy, really easy to remember because you could chunk it based on the mathematical relations between the items. You can get an amazing performance benefits from chunking.’
This is especially pertinent to synaesthesia because, says Dr Bor, what synaesthesia does is to, ‘add on extra information to difficult to remember items such as letters and numbers for instance, there may be extra colours associated with them in syneasthetes. It will help them remember things better.’
When Dr Bor suggested this perspective about 12 years ago experts in the field were interested but at the time there was no supporting research or evidence. But that has changed, not only has there been studies showing the memory advantages of synaesthetes, but Dr Bor’s own study of a prodigy who has both synaesthesia and a very strong memory advantage supports this insight. ‘All these clues are pointing towards synaesthesia being associated with superior performance on certain tasks,’ says Dr Bohr so the study emerged as a means to test that and see if they could potentially produce a tool to ‘train synaesthesia’ and develop the cognitive benefits for non-synaesthetes.
The study expanded on an idea by Dr Nicolas Rothen who had trained people for 10 minutes a day for a week. The results were not dramatic but nevertheless interesting. ‘My idea was to train them for a lot longer and make the tasks as motivating as possible,’ says Dr Bor, ‘I had specific ideas about how to train as subjects to maximize the benefits, that’s basically what we did in the study and we did see strong cognitive benefits.’
They not only discovered that after the training the participants were able to pass the standard tests for synaesthesia, but those in the study who underwent training saw a leap in IQ on average of 12 points compared to those who didn’t have the training. Though Dr Bor stresses the leap in IQ is very much a provisional result and needs further confirmation with a different active control group, the result demands further attention. ‘It’s very rare in the literature, in particular when you talking about an already relatively bright population such as the student population to boost IQ. That’s extremely rare to discover.’ They are currently doing a study to test this initial finding.
Aside from issues of memory, it makes intuitive sense that the ability to get a different perspective on a problem can provide insight. In 2014, the Ford Motor Company created a special position within their company for engineer and synaesthete Michael Haverkamp – Specialist Cross-Sensory Harmonization. Haverkamp brings a cross-sensory approach to car design. As Dr Bor says, ‘synaesthetes on the whole are really pleased and proud that they are synaesthetes, they tend to get a memory advantage and they see the word in this extra special way.’ Training the brain to experience the world in a different way suggests that increased memory capacity may be just one of the benefits.