Reviewer biography

The 7th Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association, Inc.

26-28 September 2008
Hosted by McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Organization website: http://www.synesthesia.info.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Berkeley CA 94704 US


My interest in neuroscience grew out of a realization that contemporary research was able to not only look more closely at brain processes, but was also able to turn philosophical theories into answerable questions. Research on synesthesia, an involuntary joining of senses in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense, provides a dramatic example. One of the primary organizations in building an awareness of synesthesia is the American Synesthesia Association (ASA), founded in 1995, by Carol Steen and Pat Duffy, two synesthetes. Indeed, the ASA conferences have significantly furthered our understanding of how older views that this form of perception was either abnormal or metaphoric have been replaced with a growing understanding that, while idiosyncr

ASA provides information to synesthetes, aims to further research into the area of synesthesia, and brings researchers and synesthetes together on a regular basis. Their annual conferences always cover an array of topics and provide a forum for scientists, health professionals, academicians, researchers, artists, writers, musicians, lay people and experiential synesthetes. As an attendee of the fourth conference, held in 2004, I wondered how the field would strike me four years later (my review of the Fourth conference is available at http://leonardo.info/reviews/jan2005/fourth_ione.html). I am pleased to report that the 7th Annual conference (held at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) surpassed my expectations. I was impressed to find the latest research as compelling as earlier studies, and much more comprehensive. Even more exciting was the ambiance of the event. There is a real sense of community at these events and the exchanges among members of various backgrounds demonstrate that interdisciplinary efforts can build bridges. In this case, the balance between research and experiential aspects came through in informal discussions and in several collaborative projects presented at the program.

Speakers at the conference touched upon cultural, historical, scientific, and experiential realities. In all cases, an extensive intertwining of views was in evidence. The keynote talks that opened the conference set the stage for what was clearly going to be an exceptional event in all respects. Held in conjunction with the Institute for Music and the Mind, the first talk “A Colourful Appetite for Music: How the Brain Connects Music to Colour and Pleasure,” combined a lecture by Steven Brown and Daphne Maurer with musical performances. In this case, both of the speakers used musical examples to illustrate and elaborate their points, with Brown talking about how the brain processes aesthetic experience and Maurer explaining links between music and color in the work of synesthetic composers such as Oliver Messaien and Franz Lizst, who is said to have told an orchestra: “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!'

The coupling of art forms and data came up repeatedly, often in unusual and perceptive ways. One original approach was presented by Christine Sö ffing and Axel Baune. Sö ffing is a synesthete who hears colors, forms and the texture of sounds. Her efforts to sonificate the color wheel of Joahannes Itten led her to collaborate with Baune, who has been collecting noises, instruments and sounds for many years. Through their work together they recognized the limitations of Itten’s color wheel, moved to the color ball of Phillip Otto Runge and developed techniques that allowed them to use her synesthesia to play with the frequency spectrum, pikes and to learn about her experience of color through their sound manipulations. Kathleen A. Spanos used music and Irish dance to present an extraordinary production based on her synesthesia. In this case, she translated the language of the dance, where the basic movements are kimenes, morphokines and motifs into phonemes, morphemes and phrases.

Other talks were more thought provoking in a general sense. Patricia Lynne Duffy, the author of the first book about synesthesia by a synesthete, examined the portrayal of synesthete characters in recent mystery/adventure works: Mystery Myx by Dave Diotaveli, Rainy Day Women by Jane Yardley; The Fallen by T.J. Parker; Top Ten: the Forty Niners by Alan Moore and Gene Ha and a short work of creative non-fiction, Phone Home, by Natasha Lvovich, who was at the conference and read from her book. Duffy’s presentation, which would be great in a college course used to introduce students to synesthesia, demonstrated that the recent interest in this topic has led novelists to give synesthetes character roles. How such portrayals filter into society is not a trivial matter, as the marriage of Frankenstein and the mad neuroscientist reminds us. Similarly, James Wannerton’s talk, asking if the media is giving the right message, looked at how the public has learned about synesthesia and how synesthetes and researchers might better educate the public-at-large. Wannerton’s themes came out of a straw poll he conducted in his hometown, Blackpool, where he found that the ideas and perceptions of the people he polled about synesthesia ranged from the fairly accurate to the downright bizarre. Other thought-provoking talks were given by Marcia Smilack (on how she uses her synesthetic responses as signals that tell her when to shoot photographs), Carol Steen (who talked about how new information has influenced and changed her own artwork) and Sean Day’s case study of his flavor-to-color synesthesia.

The scientific talks conveyed that the field has grown since the 2004 conference; with more studies considering developmental aspects and commonalities that connect synesthete and non-synesthete brains. Ferrinne Spector presented a study that tested color and texture associations to a variety of odors. Her results suggest that sensory associations to odors, like those to colors and letters, may result from the joint influence of learning and natural biases linking dimensions across sensory systems. She concluded that such links may reflect an inherent neural organization between different senses that is modifiable with learning and can manifest as crossmodal associations or synesthetic percepts. Jamie Ward's keynote address asked what is synesthesia, where does it come from, how does it work, and what does it do? These are excellent questions and his thinking and research in this area in effect offers a perceptive challenge that will no doubt aid the field in moving forward. His point is that while all of us see, imagine and think about the world, few of us are synesthetes. Yet, and this is the fascinating part, there are some associations that are adopted by both synesthetes and non-synesthetes, for example a high pitch with lightness. Jools Simner’s discussion of the "growth" of synesthesia was similarly stimulating. Her lab designed the first longitudinal study to monitor child synesthetes over time. The findings show, among other things, that synesthesia develops independently of normal memory maturation and that words acquired early in childhood (e.g., dragon and fairy) are significantly more likely to trigger tastes than words acquired later in life.

As I listened to the talks and savored the experiential activities (the exhibition, dance, musical interludes, etc.), I was impressed to see that the field has grown over the years. I would attribute this to several factors. First, it seems that the exposure of synesthesia has broadened its reach, which in turn has revealed there is a larger synesthete population than was previously estimated. Current estimates are that 5% of the population has one of the approximately 54 kinds now known. Much of the information about the field is circulated through Sean Day’s site at http://home.comcast.net/~sean.day/index.html. Day’s efforts have brought together an array of information and resources, including a list that identifies the 54 varieties of synesthesia. Equally interesting is that all kinds of people are now known to experience synesthesia. Therefore, while the growing body of research has shown that that, although synesthetic pairings (e.g., colored-hearing) are idiosyncratic, they are nonetheless real for 4-5% of the population (and there is now some discussion as to whether the trait is more common in artists and creative people).

In 2004, I ended my review of the ASA meeting with the thought that the options for synesthesia are more open-ended than well-defined. This is a point that Noam Sagiv discussed in his talk, about how the term synesthesia is now defined and whether an outline for a better “working” definition is needed as we move forward. With each presentation at the recent conference, it became obvious that the idiosyncracies of synesthesia are hard to firmly characterize. Yet, I am not sure that I see this as a problem as I watch the field grow. The complexities of the topic continue to stimulate robust exchange and new research shows that the new studies continue to open doors. Since the field remains expansive and the elusive nature of synesthesia does not preclude the development of useful research and creative projects, synesthesia is an exciting field. As the annual ASA conferences indicate, the enthusiasm of researchers and synesthetes continues to broaden the scope of our understanding of this alluring topic.