Monday, November 27, 2006

Addling the Brain   posted by David Boxenhorn @ 11/27/2006 11:36:00 AM

A few days ago, I came across a very interesting article on lexical-gustatory synaesthesia (via Language Hat):

Lexical-gustatories involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, she wrote in a study, “Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the issue of Nature dated Thursday. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.

Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking, she said. The correct words light up the taste regions of their brains. Also, when given a surprise test a year later, they taste the same foods on hearing the words again.

(Synaesthetes are hardly ever described as “suffering from” the syndrome, because their doubled perceptions excite envy in many of us mere sensual Muggles.)

It can be unpleasant, however. One subject, Dr. Simner said, hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax.

Now Amnestic points me to a fascinating video of V.S. Ramachandran talking about the subject. Some reactions to the video:

1. So synaesthesia is was LSD users report!
2. Synaesthesia can be good for something - e.g. patterns jump out at you
3. Einstein might have had some type of synaesthesia
4. I can easily see how some kind of synaesthesia could give rise to new "modules" - e.g. a prime number identifier

One of the most interesting things about the Language Hat link was that quite a few synaesthetes, of various kinds, showed up to share their perceptions. I was wondering if any GNXP readers had something to share? In particular, I am interested in ways synaesthesia is good (or bad) for you.

UPDATE: This sounds like some kind of synaesthesia:

"Squaring numbers is a symmetrical process that I like very much," he says. "And when I divide one number by another, say, 13 divided by 97, I see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops that seem to warp and curve. The shapes coalesce into the right number. I never write anything down."
His mathematical abilities are so extraordinary that it took a long time for them to be recognised. Daniel struggled at school (why, he wondered, were the numbers in the textbook not printed in their true colours, nine in blue, and so on?). He got a B at Maths GCSE. He wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome until three years ago, at 25. Sooner would have been better "both for me and my parents"; consciousness-raising is part of his motivation for writing his book. "My condition is invisible otherwise."

Scientists at California's Center for Brain Studies were astounded when, two years ago, they discovered his facility for discerning prime numbers. They had assumed he must have been trained to do it. But to him, it is more like an instinctive process: "Prime numbers feel smooth, like pebbles".