Annual National Conference of the American
Synesthesia Association, Inc.
The University of California, Berkeley
Hosted by the Institute
for Cognitive and Brain Sciences
Organization website: http://www.synesthesia.info.
by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute
Although historical descriptions of
cross-sensory experience abound, particularly
in the arts, it is only recently that
the public-at-large has found the idea
to be a topic of interest. Perhaps the
current enthusiasm is partially due to
the way various technologies today titillate
so many of our senses simultaneously.
The current fascination may also be related
to research reports on cross-sensory experiences,
more properly termed synesthesia. Synesthesia
occurs when an individual receives a stimulus
in one sense modality and experiences
a sensation in another. Recent empirical
studies, it seems, have buoyed the topic,
often revising earlier conclusions about
how the brain works. More precisely, we
now know that historical commentators,
who cast the phenomenon in terms of abnormality,
philosophy, and metaphor, were too quick
to draw these conclusions. Their views
today, in effect, remind us how hard it
is to characterize subjective experience.
The updates, on the other hand, show that
despite the limitations of rigorous, quantitative
analysis, data can nonetheless further
Indeed, advances in brain research have
allowed us to enlarge our knowledge of
this phenomenon. One compelling outcome
is the evidence that laboratory studies
comparing genetic characteristics with
brain plasticity and development have
furthered the nature/nurture debates.
Equally exciting is the manner in which
synesthetes and scientific research teams
have extended their hands to one another.
The communication among diverse populations
was quite evident throughout the Fourth
Annual National Conference of the American
Synesthesia Association (ASA), at the
University of California, Berkeley.
Held in early November, and hosted by
UC Berkeley Institute for Cognitive and
Brain Sciences, the conference demonstrated
how seamlessly some topics reach across
disciplinary domains. Presenters, attendees,
synesthetes and non-synesthetes, exchanged
information easily despite the varied
backgrounds of those in attendance. As
scientists, artists, humanists, and lay
people articulated various themes, the
resulting blend underscored that quantification
and communication are both necessary in
our efforts to elevate our understanding
of higher brain function. Even scientific
studies designed to focus on a limited
areas (e.g. color-grapheme studies) seemed
to reach beyond the laboratory space.
It was clear that articulate descriptions
provided by synesthetes helped researchers
to raise questions they used in the design
and interpretation of research goals.
In the symposium environment, moreover,
it seemed that further refinements would
come about because of how the synesthetes
in attendance reacted to the data presented.
The working lunch, led by Sean Day, helped
the group to sort through some of this
complex information and share their responses
to nagging questions within the field.
A short review can hardly touch the tools
and topics the symposium brought to mind.
One highlight was learning of the history
of the American Synesthesia Association
(ASA), a story that offers a microscopic
view of how the field as a whole has gained
momentum. Carol Steen and Pat Duffy, two
synesthetes, founded the ASA in 1995.
Steen, who uses synesthesia in her art,
heard the neurologist, Richard E. Cytowic
on National Public Radio in 1993, the
year his book The Man Who Tasted Shapes
was published. This book was instrumental
in bringing synesthesia to the fore for
many. In Steens case, his comments
marked the first time in her life that
she learned anything about synesthesia,
although she is a synesthete. This led
her to explore the literature, limited
though it was. Through her exchanges with
Simon Baron-Cohen, a synesthesia researcher,
she met Pat Duffy, a synesthete writer
also living in New York City. Steen and
Duffy formed what became the ASA so that
synesthetes could talk to one another.
Since that time the ASA has organized
seven conferences, the Berkeley event
being the latest.
As many of us know, interdisciplinary
events often challenge us with a spectrum
that mixes the "too-technical"
and "overly naïve" with
a number of strong, balanced presentations.
This was not the case at the ASA meeting.
All of the speakers were of the highest
caliber. Given this, it is hard to separate
out one or two. Overall Daphne Maurers
paper made the greatest impression on
me. From McMaster University in Canada,
Maurer is an expert in cross-modal perceptual
development in infants. Her earlier work
proposed that infants experience a sensual
bouillabaisse. What this means is that,
for them, sights have sounds, feelings
have tastes, and that smells can make
a baby feel dizzy. She offered some perspective
on the way the brain changes during development,
how infants react when objects are presented
to more than one sense, and on apparent
remnants of the early synesthesia in adulthood.
I believe this study is of great importance
in reminding us that the genetic parameters
that drive many studies should not lead
us to forget developmental options.
Also impressive was the contrast among
papers, which was both real and thought
provoking in an expansive way. For example,
on the art side, the talks ranged from
the photographer Marcia Smilack detailing
how she, as a synesthete, translates her
responses to shapes and geometry contained
within architecture, to Christine Söffins
discussion of her creative use of synesthesia-based
ideas in the art classroom. Similarly,
scientific studies included Alicia Callejass
web-based descriptive study of grapheme-color
synesthesia; Noam Sagivs presentation
of the prevalence of synesthesia and number
forms obtained from over 1000 naive volunteers
recruited among visitors in the London
Science Museum; and Richard Cytowics
discussion of examples based on fragrance
and aroma (drawn from some of his recent
lectures in Japan). Those who missed the
event can, fortunately, access many of
the scientific ideas in Synesthesia: Perspectives
from Cognitive Neuroscience, recently
edited by Lynn C. Robertson and Noam Sagiv.
While space does not allow a detailed
discussion of the multi-colored threads
that weave the fields tapestry,
one area that came up in passing has lingered
in my mind. Within the field, as several
attendees pointed out, there is a debate
over synesthesia as a projective experience
as opposed to an associative one. The
associative, as I understand it, would
have the evoked perceptual experience
within the minds eye while a projective
synesthete would place the synesthete
experience within the world itself. To
my surprise, several researchers rejected
the projective even as a possibility.
Ive been thinking about this since
the symposium primarily because I have
always assumed that synesthesia is a projective
experience. This definitional conflict
brought to mind the imagery debates that
surface periodically in the cognitive
Briefly, the history of human thought
in the West has long included debate about
the mental image, which is generally seen
as a type of perceptual experience that
can occur in the absence of the relevant
perceptual object. To oversimplify, this
idea has fostered the view of cognition
residing in the mind/brain, frequently
translating into a tendency to put the
role of the body and the environment aside.
Sometimes "imagery" is framed
in terms of the imagination
and at other times characterized in terms
of mental representation. In either case,
the debates have revolved around the use
of a pictorial analogy as compared to
a descriptive one.
As a visual thinker I have always come
to understand my ideas through manipulating
them in relation to the environment rather
than through abstract operations in my
mind. For this reason I have questioned
the validity of the basic assumptions
that drive the debate. While doing so,
moreover, I have met much resistance.
Correlating my reservations with the synesthesia
references to projective and associative
possibilities now makes me wonder if studies
of synesthesia might allow us to step
outside of the brain (and into a shared
mind/body/environmental space) when we
This sense that synesthesia might enlarge
our basic questions stems from a number
of factors. One is that my environmental
framework is perhaps opposite to that
of a projective synesthete, yet both take
place outside of the "minds
eye". Whereas I project inwardly
from my hands-on manipulation, theirs
is an outward projection. A second is
the nature of the synesthete experience
itself as self-described by synesthetes.
Christopher Tylers description in
the Robertson/Sagiv book suggests that
the dichotomy presented at the conference
accentuates the projective/associative
frameworks and ignores the limitations
of seeing the phenomenon in this way.
As I understand it, Tyler describes a
form of synesthesia that is a combination
of the projective and associative descriptions,
one that was not entertained in the discussion.
At this point, the options are clearly
more open-ended than well-defined, as
the final paper, by Peter Grossenbacher
of Naropa University reminded all in attendance.
He opened his talk with the comment that
he usually begins to speak on this subject
by providing an introduction of synesthesia.
Initially, due to the composition of the
audience, he thought that he would be
able to skip this section. With each presentation,
however, it became obvious that he had
assumed too much. If nothing else, the
range of viewpoints demonstrated that
competing theories exist, as do definitions
of what precisely we mean by the term
The range of topics covered in the two-day
symposium leaves me in agreement with
Grossenbacher. Of course, it is important
to note when saying this that it was,
in part, the lack of a clear definition
that stimulated robust exchange. Indeed,
it may just be that the expansive and
elusive nature of synesthesia is precisely
what captures the imagination.
Robertson, Lynn C., & Sagiv, Noam.
2005. Synesthesia: Perspectives from Cognitive
Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press.