Synaesthesia

Daniel Tammet is best known as an autistic savant with unusual self-awareness; however, when Daniel wrote his first book in 2005, he highlighted through the title, Born on a Blue Day, his experience of synaesthesia. A neurological condition, estimated to be experienced by 4.4% of the population, the term synaesthesia originates in Greek and means “joined sensation” or “to perceive together”. It refers to the cross-mingling of senses in ways that are not usually associated with an individual sense. Daniel Tammet refers to synaesthesia as “cross talk between the senses”; whereas researchers at Oxford University refer to the neurological condition as neural hyperconnectivity and attribute the condition to hyper-excitability in specific regions of the brain, resulting in an automatic and involuntary blending of the senses.

music notesThere are more than sixty varieties of this condition and the incidence of each form varies, depending upon the type of synaesthesia. One form of synaesthesia links colour with sounds – notably experienced by a wide range of musicians such as: Franz Listz, Jean Sibelius, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder (despite being blind), Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams and Lorde. In other varieties of synaesthesia, certain tastes are experienced with specific words; different forms of pain may be experienced in conjunction with colour.

Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is one of the more common forms of synaesthesia. This is associated with heightened excitability in the primary visual cortex region of the brain and is experienced as letters, numbers and words are automatically associated with specific colours that remain constant – hence, Daniel Tammet perceived the date on which he was born as blue.

LettersAlthough the condition is not specifically linked to intellectual ability, synaesthesia does appear to enhance learning and memory as well as the development of talents in musicians and artists. Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University has identified a link between autism and synaesthesia; while Dr Nicholas Rothen at the University of Sussex and Dr Clare Jonas, at the University of East London are researching if non-synaesthetes can develop synaesthetic strategies to enhance cognitive functioning and learning.

In helping students develop effective study skills, it may be useful to encourage the regular and consistent use of colour as a specific synesthetic strategy to assist learning and production of academic work. The regular use of colour seems to increase visual memory, enhance categorization and reinforce links. Students may not be synaesthetes; however there is no reason why students cannot benefit from utilising similar strategies to enhance their learning.

© Michele Juratowitch
michele@clearingskies.com.au