American Synesthesia Association

Previous Conference Abstracts

The Eleventh Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association will take place on October 2, through October 4, 2015 at the University of Miami, Florida

Our Keynote Speaker was

Dr. Anina Rich
Perception in Action Research Centre
Department of Cognitive Science
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Photo Credit Carter Jones

Conference Presenters Caitlin Gianniny and Helena Melero


Sergio Basbaum, Pontificia Universidade Católica São Paulo, Brazil

Synesthesia and Visual Music: Whitney and Pellegrino, Conceptual Pioneers

If we are to develop a contemporary archeology of the concept of "visual music", it is interesting to investigate artists who, flirting explicitly with this concept in their practices, and using technical tools which are in the root of contemporary artistic resources, have developed representative and book-length theoretical contributions to the field. By a comparative presentation of the contributions of two singular artists American, John Whitney, Sr., and Ronald Pellegrino, both of whom reclaimed the concept of visual music, we expect to bring a contribution to this growing field of synesthetic artistic investigation. Being influenced by German filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, who immigrated to California in the 1930s, John Whitney and his brother James developed experimental abstract films during the 1940/50s which became an acclaimed reference in the field of visual music. Detaching from experimental film work, John Whitney became a pioneer of digital video, with referential works like "Catalog" (1961) and many others. In 1980, he published "Digital Harmony", a book in which he presented in detail a personal theory of a dynamic harmony between images and sounds, extended from the mathematical relations of frequencies that have shaped Western music tonal development. He carved then a key notion of "complementarity" which is possibly unique and certainly could constitute a paradigm for subsequent works. On his side, Pellegrino started as a music composer in the avant-garde context of electronic contemporary music in 1960s, thus advancing to musical happenings and multimedia works (he even worked with widely acclaimed Brazilian composer Jocy de Oliveira), to finally develop a unique universe of sound and light through the combination of analog synthesizers and laser, which respond to common mathematical equations -- thus achieving himself a proper concept of complementarity. In 1983 he published "The electronic arts of sound and light", in which he also developed at length his conceptual understanding of visual music possibilities. By bringing together two different aesthetic matrixes -- experimental film e-music --, and achieving relevant and original, and also deeply synesthetic, aesthetic results, its interesting to compare their works and reflections in a time in which many artists in digital culture pursue different versions of visual music.

Greta Berman, The Juilliard School, New York City

Van Gogh and Gauguin: No Joke

Synesthetes often disagree about the color of a grapheme or musical note. The exchange is usually amicable, and there is some jest involved. However, there was little humor in the strained relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. I shall argue that some of their severe quarrels and hard feelings resulted from their very different synesthetic responses. Of course, it was largely their difficult personalities that were to blame, but I have found more and more evidence to indicate that both had synesthesia. This paper shall examine the nature of their synesthesia, the new evidence, and ways in which the two influenced each other in their art.

John Camacho and Veronica Petersen, University of Missouri, St Louis; San Francisco State University, California

Sensing Synesthesia: A Philosophical View of the Senses and Synesthesia

John Camacho1, Veronica Petersen2, 1University of Missouri, St. Louis, 2San Francisco State University, California

In the study of synesthesia, philosophers aim to explain how to individuate the senses. In “What exactly is a sense?” Brian Keeley argues that synesthesia does not tell us anything special about how to individuate the senses. We do not dispute this conclusion. Instead of Keeley’s strategy of looking at synesthesia to provide information about the nature of the senses, in this paper, we will examine the way that we individuate the senses and argue for a richer account of synesthesia.

To accomplish this goal, we will employ the philosophical distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities such as shape, size and extension are the qualities of physical objects which are perceiver independent; while secondary qualities including color, smell and taste are not. Interestingly, synesthetes experience these secondary qualities of non-physical entities like names, “The name John tastes of margarine.” Other synesthetes have secondary qualities of the primary qualities themselves, “The man who tastes shapes.” If synesthesia is a mixture of primary and secondary qualities, then we may be prepared for experiencing new senses.

Exotic senses include the cutting edge work by David Eagleman and Scott Novich’s research on sensory addition. Using the VEST (Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer) placed over the torso, the Eagleman Lab’s can acquire new sensory experiences from unfamiliar sources such as feeling the economic movements of the stock market or feeling how to pilot a plane through vibrations. The goal would be accounts of the senses and synesthesia that best appreciate the possibility of exotic senses.

Duncan Carmichael, University of Sussex, England

Synaesthesia - comorbidity and aetiology

Duncan Carmichael, Julia Simner, University of Sussex, UK

In this talk, I'll discuss how our researching findings in three areas may help to shed light on the aetiology of synaesthesia: comorbidities in synaesthesia, sex-differences, and lifespan development. I'll begin my summarizing work about conditions that have been linked to synaesthesia in the literature, and our own empirical contributions in this area (e.g., anxiety disorder, auto-immunities). Understanding conditions that may or may not be linked with synaesthesia may offer a pathway by which to understand the neurobiological roots of synaesthesia. I'll then discuss our recent findings about sex differences within synaesthesia. Earlier studies had suggested six times more females than males but our own methods using more unbiased sampling had failed to find significant differences. For the first time we've now been able to screen large number of the general population with sufficient power to establish, statistically, that there is no large sex differences. This allows us to focus our efforts on understanding genetics in a more targeted way. Finally I'll describe recent and upcoming research from our large European Grant MULTISENSE, which has begun to explore the changes that take place in synaesthetes across the lifespan, both in early childhood and older age.

Patricia Lynne Duffy, Author; United Nations Language and Communications Programme, New York City

Synesthete-Characters in Fiction: literary depictions synesthesia as a creative force

More and more research into the topic of synesthesia has filtered into the mainstream in recent years, and has inspired the imaginations of literary artists. Consequently, a number of new works of fiction with synesthete-characters have appeared.

In most of these works, the character's synesthesia is linked with his or her creativity, and shown as either an actual or potential creative tool in the character's artistic process, product, or performance.

By making reference to the four categories of literary depiction (mentioned in the presenter's previous talks and writings), the presenter will show examples of the synesthesia-creativity link as represented in several works of recent fiction, including Christina Meldrum's Amaryllis in Blueberry, Katherine Vaz' Saudade, Gene Ha's and Alan Moore's Top Ten (Super-Hero graphic novels), and Peter Brook's and Marie-Hélène Estienne's The Valley of Astonishment.

Through discussing these works, the presenter will show the identification of synesthesia with creativity in recent literary works.

Carrie C. Firman, Artist; Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin

Comparing with Kandinsky: Color-Personality Synesthesia in Art and Graphic Design

Wassily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Russia; d. 1944, France) is widely believed by researchers to have been a synesthete. Among his writings, we have records of his thoughts on the relationship of multisensory connections in art. He presented and taught these concepts as fact during his career, demonstrating their absoluteness in his mind. In his 1912 text Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes several pages filled with detailed attributes of personality and presence for several of the basic colors. From this passage and several examples of his abstract artwork, I created a personality profile for each hue. I compared this to my own perceptions of the same type, noting similarities and differences. Then, I created two pieces of digital artwork for each color–one interpreting Kandinsky’s perceptions and style, and one representing my own. This short visual catalog of two synesthetic experiences shows both striking overlaps and disagreements, which are experiences well known to synesthetes and researchers yet rarely studied outside grapheme-color and sound-color types. I will present the process of this project, including selections of Kandinsky’s writing and artwork, along with my personal perceptions for each color, focusing on the varying relationship of our synesthetic experiences.

Caitlin Gianniny, Artist; Community Training and Assistance Center, Boston, Massachusetts

Synesthesia as a Way of Knowing: experience, bias and cultural acceptance

How does synesthesia relate to questions about ways of seeing or knowing more broadly? And how do ways of seeing or knowing relate to implicit or explicit biases, cultural acceptance and discrimination?

The recent attention on racial discrimination in the United States has drawn into sharp focus the role of experience in shaping our worldview. Depending on the color of your skin, the rules in our country change. One of the major difficulties faced by communities of color is credibility in conveying this difference in experience to people who have not, and most likely will not be able to experience the same thing. This problem of credibility oddly enough is not unfamiliar to the synesthetic community, that for many years remained unacknowledged or dismissed as the result of exaggeration. As a synesthete, my experience of seeing what others do not, has taught me the importance of openness towards viewpoints that are distinct from my own.

This presentation brings together research in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, critical theory and creative practices to explore how synesthesia intersects with how we develop views of the world, beyond experiences directly impacted by synesthesia. The goal of this is to raise questions. Could the experience of synesthesia provide a basis for empathy? What are the roles of unusual experiences, openness to experience, tolerance for ambiguity and fluid boundaries? Connections to consciousness and social cognition? How can learning about how we think and interpret change how we act, and be a means for creating social change?

Radhika Gosavi, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Decoding Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

Radhika Gosavi, Emma Meyering, Nathan Rose, Bradley R. Postle, Edward M. Hubbard, University of Wisconsin–Madison

In “grapheme-color” synesthesia, synesthetes reliably, automatically experience a specific color when viewing a specific black-and-white symbol (with different colors associated with different symbols). Our research focuses on two domains in grapheme-color synesthesia: neural decoding and memory functions. Previous neuroimaging studies using univariate analyses have shown that synesthesia is associated with activity in color areas, including V4. However, these approaches are inherently unable to address a question of fundamental theoretical interest: Is the subjective experience of synesthetic color generated by the same, or different, neural processes from those that support the perception of veridical color? We have begun to address this question with multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA). Decoding of the veridical color was robust for both groups; cross-category decoding between graphemes and colors was only successful for synesthetes. Finer-grained analysis of confusion matrices derived from MVPA of V1 and of V4 yielded two additional insights. Consistent with previous studies, the neural coding of color differs qualitatively between these two regions. Additionally, cross-category decoding in synesthetes is markedly stronger in V4 than in V1. These findings suggest that the synesthetic experience of color may be generated by the same mechanisms that support the visual perception of color. In the other domain, previous studies have found memory enhancements in synesthetes. These findings suggest that the synesthetic experience of color may be generated by the same mechanisms that support the visual perception of color. These high-level representations of color, however, may not penetrate “backward” to primary sensory cortex.

Greg Jarvis, Band Leader, The Flowers Of Hell; Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Synesthesia As A Musical Tool

An accomplished musician praised by Lou Reed, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and others, Greg Jarvis will explain how he utilizes his sound-to-vision synesthesia in creating and performing music with his trans-Atlantic experimental orchestra, The Flowers Of Hell. From tuning an instrument based on the sight of wavering out-of-tune notes, through to arranging over 100 layers of simultaneous sounds in his symphonic recordings, Jarvis will share techniques he’s developed for using synesthetic vision as a musical tool.

Herve Pierre Lambert, Centre de Recherches Littérature et Poétique Comparée, Université Paris X Nanterre

Investigation on the Zigzag

Studies on synaesthesia have drawn attention to the existence of entoptic phenomena, that Klüver had described and listed under the name of "form constants". Zigzag, one of the entoptic phenomena belonging to Klüver’s form constants, is especially well represented in depictions of synesthetic artists. This entoptic phenomenon is also well represented from the first human depictions in Upper Paleolithic art and its form could have been used as starting point for more elaborate depictions.

Jennifer Mankin, University of Sussex, England

The Psycholinguistics of Grapheme-Colour Synaesthesia: Simplex and Complex Words

Jennifer Mankin1, Chris Thompkins2, Jamie Ward1, Julia Simner1; 1Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, England, 2Institute of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Research on grapheme-colour synaesthesia has successfully established the genuineness of the phenomenon and some of the influences that determine colour associations, but has thus far focused in large part on individual graphemes. This study investigated the colours that synaesthetes experience for whole words, both simple (e.g. book, rain) and complex (e.g. compounds like mailbox). Our previous work (Mankin et al., under review) showed that the number of colours that synaesthetes associate with a compound word is influenced by that word's frequency, i.e. how often it appears in the language. This was one of the first studies to use synaesthesia to investigate psycholinguistic theories, and to show that synaesthetic colours for words are influenced by implicit linguistic factors. In this subsequent study, we have also obtained the synaesthetes' colours for the constituent words that make up those compounds (e.g. rain and bow for rainbow). This allows us to directly compare how the multiple synaesthetic colours in a word interact, and how they may both parallel and inform our understanding of psycholinguistic processes. The results show that the colours of compound words are indeed closely related to the colours of their constituents. Furthermore, the similarity between the colours of the constituent words influenced the number of colours associated with the whole compound. These studies point to a structured system of synaesthetic word colouring and strengthen the case for synaesthetic colours being a useful and informative tool for investigating linguistic processing.

Beat Meier, University of Bern, Switzerland

Development of synesthesia across the adult lifespan

In synesthesia, stimuli such as sounds, words or letters trigger experiences of colors, shapes or tastes. The consistency of these experiences is a hallmark of this condition. In a previous study we investigated for the first time whether there are age-related changes in the consistency of synesthetic experiences. Using a cross-sectional approach, we tested a sample of more than 400 grapheme-color synesthetes who have color experiences when they see letters and/or digits with a well-established test of consistency. Our results showed a decline in the number of consistent grapheme-color associations across the adult lifespan. We also assessed age-related changes in the breadth of the color spectrum. The results showed that the appearance of primary colors (i.e., red, blue, and green) was mainly age-invariant. However, there was a decline in the occurrence of lurid colors while brown and achromatic tones occurred more often as concurrents in older age. These shifts in the color spectrum suggest that synesthesia does not simply fade, but rather undergoes more comprehensive changes. These changes may be the result of a combination of both age-related perceptual and memory processing shifts. I will present the results of a second wave of data acquisition after a one-year interval to investigate the longitudinal age-related trajectory of the consistency of synesthetic experiences.

Helena Melero, Laboratorio de Análisis de Imagen Médica y Biometrĺa, Departamento de Tecnologĺa Electrónica, Escuela Superior de Ciencias Experimentales y Tecnologĺa, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid, España

The emotional binding theory of synesthesia – Insights from the olfactory system

Helena Melero, Susana Borromeo, Eva Manzanedo, Alexandra Cristobal-Huerta, Juan Antonio Hernández Tamames; Laboratorio de Análisis de Imagen Médica y Biometr´a, Departamento de Tecnologia Electronica, Escuela Superior de Ciencias Experimentales y Tecnologĺa, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid, España

Recent years have witnessed the flourishing of diverse neurobiological and associative learning theories of synesthesia, and different experimental approaches (neuroanatomical, functional, and behavioral) have been developed to test their predictions. The majority of these models were formulated taking grapheme-color synesthesia as a starting point, but few of them have been assessed in the context of other modalities. In this presentation we will analyze the neurobiological characteristics of the olfactory system and olfactory synesthesias in order to provide new testable hypotheses that may defy or confirm existing explanatory models of synesthesia, including the model proposed by us in 2013, namely the Emotional Binding Theory (EBT).

Monica Murgia, artist, writer, independent researcher, New York City

Teaching Synesthesia as a Gateway to Creativity

This article encapsulates my experience of teaching creativity within a higher education curriculum. Creativity often eludes common understanding because it involves using different conceptual streams of thought, often times developing unconsciously and manifesting in the prized "eureka" moment. In 2009, I began explaining the neurological condition of synaesthesia and later introduced this phenomenology in a course designed to cultivate creativity to first year fashion design students. There are many challenges in teaching creativity. Through teaching this course, I discovered that the first challenge is making the students conscious of their own qualitative beliefs on creativity and art. The second is creating exercises to challenge and alter these beliefs, thus forming a new way of thinking and experiencing the world. The most resistance from my students arose when experimenting with non-representational art. They did not have a conscious framework for making and evaluating abstract art. Introducing synaesthesia, a neurologically-based condition that "merges" two or more sensory pathways in the brain, gave my students a framework for discovery. Understanding sensory modalities and ways in which these modalities can blended together in synaesthesia proved to be a gateway to creativity in many of my students. The scope of this article chronicles how I developed my teaching methodology, the results it created in my classroom, as well as its effects on my own artistic practice.

Anina Rich, Perception in Action Research Centre, Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia Keynote Speaker

Integrating information and the human brain: insights from synaesthesia

At any given moment, your brain is being bombarded by more information than you can possibly be aware of at any one time. There is input coming through each of your senses as well as internally generated information about your thoughts, feelings and current goals. How does the brain integrate information that comes from such different sources and select which is most relevant? We (apparently effortlessly) perceive the sound of a voice with the movement of the speaker’s lips, disregarding the other sounds around us; we access knowledge about objects and events and use this information to guide our perception. In synaesthesia, there is additional integration, the addition of a feature that most of us do not experience. This intriguing phenomenon highlights the gaps in our understanding of ourselves, about how the brain works and how information coming from different sources might be integrated. Here, I will review my work on synaesthesia in the context of integration and binding – the role of selective attention, the level at which synaesthetic experiences might arise, and the links between synaesthesia and the knowledge we all have about the world.

Marcia Smilack, Reflectionist, Photographer, Writer; Columbus, Ohio

Synesthesia Day

In dance class, the fifth grade teacher asked her students to move to the color red or to dance to the smell of cinnamon. The music teacher had her students listen to three genres ten times each while drawing the shapes, lines and colors they heard. Those drawings were added to a timeline amounting to original musical notation. For literature, 9 students read Wendy Mass's Mango Shaped Space and explained it to the rest of the fifth grade. To develop research skills, students studied the history of synesthesia and famous synesthetes. The drama teacher helped her students create a public service announcement on synesthesia while the writing teacher asked her fifth graders to write out and illustrate their dreams. The art teacher had each student paint one of the concentric circles of a famous Kandinsky circle painting, which she hung as a collage on parents night where the results of all of these activities -- done over a period of a 3 month term -- were displayed on what was called "A Sensory Celebration," an event at which I lectured while the students - having heard me lecture and having met with me several times - acted as the experts explaining synesthesia to their families and friends and they ran 8 booths that they designed for each of the activities described. It was a remarkable experience that I would like to report on, particularly for its implications of the value in using synesthesia as a teaching tool.

Eduardo Sola Chagas Lima, Violinist; District School Board, International Music Academy, Ontario, Canada

Cross-sensory experiences and the Enlightenment: in search of a place for music synesthesia

This study contemplates cross-sensory experiences as represented in late eighteenth-century thought, prior to George Sachs’s description of synesthesia in 1812. Sachs’s medical dissertation describing his own condition is now considered to be the first convincing ‘scientific’ report of synesthesia in literature. Yet less objective instances of cross-sensory experiences are not new to music, the visual arts, and poetry. Since these are difficult to assess on the part of modern disciplines (especially in current research on music synesthesia) due to their subjective nature, references to cross-sensory experiences prior to this date are frequently either overlooked or ignored.

The medieval and renaissance understandings of multisensory associations, deriving from natural science and cosmology, gradually gave way to rationalized discussions based on mathematics, physics, and practical experimentations as time elapsed. In eighteenth-century literature, allusions to sound-colour parallels enjoy special attention in the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, among others. In discussing the validity of these associations and their mechanisms, some authors extended these correspondences to the other senses as well: touch, taste, and smell.

This research investigates to which extent Enlightenment approaches to multisensory experiences—along with their priority for reason—are strictly ‘scientific,’ since the long eighteenth century still witnessed the coexistence of natural, cosmological, and philosophical readings of cross-sensory analogies. It also inquires whether Enlightenment thought established a philosophical foundation for initial investigations on music synesthesia. Finally, this study searches for a place for Sachs’s dissertation among eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century debates—the very philosophical context in which it was written.

Ferrinne Spector and Daphne Maurer, Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin; McMaster University, Ontario, Canada

Music Visualization: Exploring Initial Results from the 2013 workshop

Ferrinne Spector1, Daphne Maurer2, Julian K. Ghloum2, Leah Sanson1, Bernard Ho2, Sheila Wang2, 1Edgewood College, 2McMaster University

In 2013, a music visualization workshop took place the day before the 10th ASA meeting. Participants produced drawings to match each of 18 musical excerpts. We will present results based on the visualizations of 10 participants reporting sound-to-vision synaesthesia and 10 participants without synaesthesia. While both groups produced almost exclusively abstract visualizations, only half of the visualizations contained identifiable Klüver constants, particularly circular forms, wavy lines, and reduplication. The other half contained similar-looking forms that did not match any specific Klüver constant.

We will also discuss results from two experiments in which new participants listened to 14 of the musical excerpts from the workshop and chose between matched and mismatched visualizations. Matched visualizations were produced by synaesthetes listening to the same music, and mismatched visualizations were produced for a different piece of music by either the same synaesthete (Experiment 1) or a non-synaesthete (Experiment 2). Visualization pairs were similar in complexity. In Experiment 1, synaesthetes (N = 20), unlike non-synaesthetes (N = 39), preferred the matched visualization over the mismatched visualization from the same synaesthete (Mean = 65%, p<.001). However, in Experiment 2, both groups preferred the matched visualization from a synaesthete over the mismatched visualization from a non-synaesthete (synaesthetes: Mean = 58%; non-synaesthetes: Mean = 54%, p<.01).

Like previous research with animations (Ward et al., 2008), the results suggest that synaesthetic forms elicited by music are appealing to others. They also suggest that the vocabulary of forms described by Klüver constants needs to be expanded.

Laura Speed, Raboud University, Netherlands

Olfactory language and cognition in odour-colour synaesthesia

Odours are difficult to identify and are said to be unimportant in Western cultures. However there exist rare forms of synaesthesia in which individuals have consistent vivid associations to smells, suggesting their odour concepts might be quite different. If such cases of synaesthesia are mediated by semantics, then they provide an interesting opportunity to investigate the apparent weak link between odour and higher levels of cognition, such as language. We asked a group of odour-colour synaesthetes to match everyday smells and fragrances to colour chips from a large book of Munsell colours, on two occasions. In a separate session, participants named the odours and rated them on familiarity, intensity and pleasantness. The results suggest associations between odours and colours are more consistent for odours that are familiar and nameable, compared to odours that are unfamiliar and difficult to name. So, odour-colour synaesthesia may be mediated by semantics. Does this lead to improvements in odour cognition compared to the general population? We tested this idea by measuring aspects of odour perception, odour imagery and the use of odour in everyday life. Overall, odour-colour synaesthetes were better than controls at discriminating odours, imagining odours and were more likely to apply their sense of smell in everyday life. In sum, this study suggests the strong link between odour and colour has positive consequences for several aspects of odour cognition. Odour cognition appears to benefit from the additional semantic associations available in synaesthetes, suggesting olfactory difficulties people generally face are due to impoverished odour associations.

Carol Steen, Artist, Touro College and University System, New York City

Synesthetic and Hypnagogic Visions, or what am I seeing in the shower?

I began to experience hypnogogic visions about a year ago. To my surprise, these experiences were almost as frightening to me as those colored letters I first mentioned to a friend 60 years ago. When I described these new visions to a few people I know, there was a wide range of reactions. Some, who had had similar experiences, were open to discussing them. However, others showed reluctance because these visions have been called hallucinations, and some have even been listed in the DSM. One friend suggested that my sudden onset of these visions might be due to an eyesight problem. However, I find that these visions share some commonalities with my synesthetic photisms.

In this paper I ask whether what I am seeing could be another, as yet unnamed, form of synesthesia, or something entirely different. In an attempt to answer this question, I will explore both visual similarities and differences in synesthetic and hypnogogic visions, as well as attempt to determine when my hypnogogic images first appeared, and where I see them. I will examine the triggers, the range of colors, lines, shapes, geometric ornamentations, and movements I see, and the ways in which these differ from synesthetic photisms. I will also discuss the types of artworks I create using these different kinds of visions.