A new study has shown for the first time that people can be trained to “see” letters of the alphabet as colors in a way that simulates how those with synaesthesia experience their world.
The University of Sussex research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also found that the training might potentially boost IQ.
Synaesthesia is a fascinating though little-understood neurological condition in which some people (estimated at around 1 in 23) experience an overlap in their senses. They “see” letters as specific colors, or can “taste” words, or associate sounds with different colors.
A critical debate concerns whether the condition is embedded in our genes, or whether it emerges because of particular environmental influences, such as colored-letter toys in infancy.
While the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, psychologists at the University’s Sackler Center for Consciousness Science devised a nine-week training program to see if adults without synaesthesia can develop the key hallmarks of the condition.
They found, in a study sample of 14, that not only were the participants able to develop strong letter-color associations to pass all the standard tests for synaesthesia, most also experienced sensations such as letters seeming “colored” or having individual personas (for instance, “x is boring”, “w is calm”).
One of the most surprising outcomes of the study was that those who underwent the training also saw their IQ jump by an average of 12 points, compared to a control group that didn’t undergo training.
“The main implication of our study is that radically new ways of experiencing the world can be brought about simply through extensive perceptual training,” says co-principal investigator Dr. Daniel Bor.
The researchers point out that their results are preliminary and do not necessarily indicate that “non-synaesthetes” can be trained to become “genuine synaesthetes.” When the team retested participants three months later, many of them had lost the experience of “seeing” colors when thinking about the letters.
However, the findings do “show that synaesthesia is likely to have a major developmental component, starting for many people in childhood,” adds co-principal investigator Dr. Nicholas Rothen.
Furthermore, the IQ-boost could have important implications for those suffering from certain brain disorders, says Dr. Bor: “The cognitive boost, although provisional, may eventually lead to clinical cognitive training tools to support mental function in vulnerable groups, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD) children, or adults starting to suffer from dementia.”