A couple of nuggets have cropped up on the theme of synaesthesia.
The first was a talk at Newcastle Uni. that I didn’t manage to attend. The talk, “Synaesthesia as a Disturbance of Memory and Perception” was given by Dr Jamie Ward (School of Psychology, University of Sussex) (2011). What sounded really interesting is that, in trying to understand synaesthesia, he was positing an intrinsic link between perception and memory.
Although I didn’t get to the talk, I did manage to get hold of his slides. In one slide Ward proposes an ‘alternative model’ of memory. The traditional model has different systems for different types of memory each being managed by a different part of the brain. The ‘alternative model’ that Ward appears to be developing / arguing for is based on a “perception-memory continuum along the ventral visual stream”. This sounds really interesting and provides a potentially helpful basis for understanding the role of perception as a prompt for memory, particularly the apparent interaction between different elements of memory. Sadly, Ward doesn’t appear to have published work on this yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.
In his conclusions, Ward commented that synaesthesia is associated with basic changes in perception and, while the direction of causation is hard to infer, his results are more consistent with the view that changes in perception drive the formation of synaesthesia. This is interesting… in a lecture given at Gresham College, Prof. Kendrick stated that “it is now generally thought that this kind of synaesthetic experience of the world, where senses are not necessarily interfering with one another, but more integrated, is the way that young children experience the world early in life. It may explain why everything goes into the mouth in babies. It is now thought that, in fact, the developing brain is very much the sort of synaesthetic brain, where all the different senses are, to some extent, overlapping, and that, as you develop, they become separated and give the experience that most of us have as adults.” Thinking about work with infants and young children: it would be interesting to find out more about how the separation of the senses progresses with age and the implications of that for practice.
A recently published case study by Held et al. (2011) indicates that the mapping of one sense to another is not innate but is learnt. The case study focused on a small group of children in India who regained their sight after corrective surgery. The authors found that “the newly sighted subjects did not exhibit an immediate transfer of their tactile shape knowledge to the visual domain […] However, this ability can apparently be acquired after short real-world experiences.” (Held, 2011)
Held, R. et al. (2011) ‘The newly sighted fail to match seen with felt’, Nature Neuroscience, 14, 1, 551–553
Kendrick, K. (2010) Understanding the brain: A work in progress, Public Lecture given at Gresham College, 22 November, 2010
Ward, J. (2011) Synaesthesia as a Disturbance of Memory and Perception, Public Lecture given at Newcastle University, 19 January, 2011