Synesthesia

Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Synesthesia


The Fisher-Price effect

Witthoft, N., & Winawer, J. (2013). Learning, memory, and synesthesia. Psychological Science, 24(3), 258-265.

Synesthesia is a topic of fascination for scientists and the lay public alike: it even has it's own rock song (Peter Himmelman, "Synesthesia", Synesthesia, Island Records, 1989). The term refers to the phenomenon where a stimulus evokes a consistent sensation which is not obviously derivable from the stimulus. While there are many types of synesthesia, probably the most widespread is color-grapheme synesthesia, in which achromatic letters or numbers reliably evoke particular colors. The particular associations are idiosyncratic, but there are regularities; the letter "R" is likely to be red, for example, and "Y" yellow (Rich, Bradshaw, & Mattingley, 2005). Some of these regularities may reflect underlying regularities in the way our sensory systems are structured; on this view, synesthetes are people for whom typically implicit connections become explicit (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some of these associations may be learned in childhood. A few case studies have described synesthetes whose color-grapheme pairings reflected childhood toys or refrigerator magnets (Hancock, 2006; Witthoft& Winawer, 2006), though a large-scale study did not support this hypothesis (Rich et al., 2005). In this paper, Witthoftand Winawer (2013) go beyond the case study: they have found a group of nearly a dozen synesthetes whose color-grapheme pairings differ from the usual pattern. For these subjects, for example, "R" tends to be purple, and "Y" red. Intriguingly, these mappings match a set of magnetic letter toys sold by Fisher-Price between 1972 and 1989, and all but one of the synesthetes in the study remembers having this set as a child; several still have them. The authors estimate that the odds of finding 11 subjects whose mappings match such a set is astronomically low. …

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