The Frontal Cortex

New Theories of Synesthesia

I’ve got an article in New Scientist on changing scientific perceptions of synesthesia, and how synesthetic experiences are helping scientists understand how language is processed inside the brain. The article is behind a subscription wall, but here’s the link:

For the woman known as AP, everyday language is like a soap opera. Every letter of the alphabet has a distinct human personality. “A is a mother-type, very sensible. I is a little guy, H and G are always fussing over him. M and N are two old ladies who spend all their time together and natter a lot. T is a protective male.”

AP isn’t making it up. She has the neurological condition called synaesthesia, which somehow causes crosstalk in her brain, tingeing the letters of the alphabet with genders and personality types. AP’s condition manifests itself in other curious ways too: she sees letters and numbers as coloured, and perceives shapes when she tastes certain flavours. But it is her personification of language that is the most interesting part, because it simply doesn’t fit psychologists’ understanding of synaesthesia.

I can’t help but think that Vladimir Nabokov, a notorious synesthete, would be amused by this research. While Nabakov blamed his “mild synesthetic hallucinations” on his own sensory “leakings and drafts,” I’m sure he’d be interested to learn that something much more profound is going on.


  1. #1 cjlay
    May 21, 2007

    Got here folowing the NS article. Does it occur to you that these links with leters are visual, giving rise to a mental image of a person? A, for example, is typical feminine A-line, with broad, secure base,(hence ‘sensible mother-type’.) M&N equally broad & squat & stable, and close together, hence ‘nattering over the fence’. The lower case ‘i’ is most certainly little [person]while G & H are close to it not only in the alphabet, but also in many words such as ‘night’, bright’, etc. Hence the image of their ‘overlooking’ him. cjl

  2. #2 Annie
    June 2, 2007

    For those without a subscription, there are two free posts out there in the blogosphere, one at the Neurophilosopher and a longer one at Madam Fathom.

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