For many years now, I have described myself as a synaesthete. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to someone who experiences a mixing of the senses: people who can taste music, or hear colors. I remember my ninth-grade health teacher describing synaesthesia in those who were on hallucinogens, and putting up my hand to tell him that some people experienced that ALL the time, and that I was one of them. I think the kids would have thought I was just permanently on hallucinogens, if they didn’t know I was such a goody-two-shoes.
However, the traditional description of synaesthesia and the tests researchers performed to detect it in subjects bothered me. My form of synaesthesia didn’t sound like a mixing of the senses. I have color-grapheme synaesthesia, one of the most common forms, in which certain letters take on certain colors. One of the tests for this is to show someone a bunch of characters, and if they have synaesthesia (or so the theory goes), they will see the characters in different colors and will immediately pick out which characters are which. For instance, here’s an image full of 2’s and 5’s:
Supposedly, a color-grapheme synaesthete would immediately see the 2’s and 5’s as different colors, and would be able to tell the difference between the two characters without concentrating: they would see something like this.
However, this test didn’t work for me. I realized it wasn’t the physical shape of the 2 or the 5 that had a color (5 is red for me, by the way): it was the IDEA of the 2 or the 5. I had to concentrate somewhat on the character to see its color, so the above test wouldn’t have worked for me.
Furthermore, letters, numbers, days of the week, months of the year, eating utensils, etc. didn’t just have colors associated with them, but often ages, genders, and even rudimentary personalities. THAT wasn’t a mixing of the senses! How do you explain that W is not only purple but an old woman if synaesthesia only refers to a mixing of the senses?
Well, today I discovered a new term that makes all of this make a lot more sense: ideaesthesia.
According to Wikipedia:
Ideasthesia (alternative spelling ideaesthesia) is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes from Greekἰδέα (idéa) and αἴσθησις (aísthēsis), meaning ‘sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas’. The main reason for introducing the notion of ideasthesia was the empirical evidence indicating that the related term synesthesia (i.e. union of senses) suggests incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. Syn-aesthesis denoting “co-perceiving”, implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, according to others, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia. In other words, while synesthesia presumes that both inducer and concurrent are of sensory nature, ideasthesia presumes that only the concurrent is of sensory nature while inducer is semantic. Research on ideasthesia bears important implications for solving the mystery of human conscious experience, which according to ideasthesia, is grounded in how we activate concepts.
Even this, I suppose, doesn’t explain why the concept of W is an only woman: only why the concept of W is purple. But it’s closer than synaesthesia.
And actually, some researchers have suggested that most people experience some form of ideaesthesia. Take the Bouba/Kiki experiment, for instance. Subjects are shown two different shapes and are told that one is named Bouba and one is named Kiki. The subject has to decide which is which. Try it out: here are the two shapes. Which one is Bouba and which one is Kiki?
If you are like 95-98% of both English-speaking American college students and Tamil-speakers in India, you probably said that the one of the left was Kiki and the one on the right was Bouba. Something about those shapes lends itself to those sounds–perhaps the rounded shape of the figure on the right reminding us of the rounded shape of our mouths when we pronounce “Bouba”.
Some researchers have suggested that ideaesthesia is related to how we learn new information:
We have proposed (Mroczko-Wąsowicz and Nikolić 2014) that kids create synesthesia when they face a semantic vacuum. Semantic vacuum is when you cannot easily place new information within the existing knowledge in your head. For example, if you have to learn the word Raznolikost and you are being told that it means Variety, and you are not familiar with Slavic languages, you may have no existing knowledge to which you could “anchor” that new information. You may only learn the word from scratch, by applying a slow process of rote learning. This is a situation of semantic vacuum.
Using semantic vacuum hypothesis we have proposed an answer to the otherwise mysterious question of why graphemes and time units are the most common inducers in synesthesia. By some accounts these two groups of inducers are responsible for more than half of all synesthetic associations out there. But why these two? And why not others? The answer is that graphemes and time units present the kids in our civilization with the first concepts that require a semantic leap from a well-connected and sensory-rich world of concrete objects (e.g., toys) to a world of abstract mental tools that they will later need in adulthood (e.g., one needs a concept of Tuesday but it is impossible to see or feel a Tuesday). This brings the kids into a situation of a semantic vacuum. We propose that synesthetic kids cope with that vacuum by adding concrete sensory-like experiences to those abstract concepts (e.g., adding a color or a spatial location). (Source: Dr. Danko Nikolic)
This makes a lot of sense: and in fact, one of the most useful ways I have used my ideaesthesia is in rote memorization tasks. I first realized I could do this in tenth grade, when I had to memorize the “charges” of the elements. (Don’t ask me why they were asking tenth graders to memorize those things for a chemistry class. That course was insane.) I could NOT memorize them, and putting them on flashcards didn’t help, partly because I was putting the “question” and the “answer” on two different visual fields, so I wasn’t able to connect them. Frustrated, I finally got out my crayons and colored my notes. Elements with a charge of -1 were colored silver. Elements with +1 were peach. +3 were yellow. +3/-3 were striped in yellow and green. And so forth. And I managed it! By linking the colors of the numbers visually in my mind with the shape of the words, I managed to memorize those colors with those words, and then remember which colors went with which numbers.
It sounds complicated, but it was a hell of a lot easier than the flashcards.
Anyway, it turns out that ideaesthesia may be a universal experience–even if colored graphemes are not:
We’ve already explored the idea that perceptions are strongly affected by conceptual backgrounds in the post on color perception: people from cultures that did not have a concept of “blue” were physically unable to distinguish blue from green.
The whole thing is simply fascinating–and this new research, moving from synaesthesia to ideaesthesia, really satisfies the part of me that felt that something was wrong with the original theory and that there were a LOT of other concepts that needed to be linked to it.