Synaesthesia Research Laboratory
Brunel University, Department of Psychology
Lab Director: Dr. Noam Sagiv
PhD Students: Alireza Ilbeigi, Monika Sobczak
MSc Students: Sean Williams
Lab Alumni: Giles Hamilton-Fletcher, Maina Amin, Olufemi Olu-Lafe.
Collaborating Researchers: Dr. Adrian Williams (Brunel), Dr. Jamie Ward (Sussex).
If you wish to tell us about your synaesthesia, please fill out our structured questionnaire. To download it and learn more about participating in research, please follow this link.
Synaesthesia on BBC Horizon (available until Nov 23, 2010):
What is Synaesthesia?
What is the colour of the letter M, the number 6, or a prelude in E-minor? How do red circles taste or sound? If you know the answer to one of these questions you probably have synaesthesia. Most of us, however, do not!
We rarely stop to think about it and typically assume that everyone sees the world just like we do, but some people’s perceptual experience is richer than others’. In some individuals, the senses are linked in such a way that stimuli in one sense also evoke a sensory experience in another sense. This unusual linking of the senses is called synaesthesia. Some examples include visualising colours when listening to music, experiencing different tastes associated with different words, or other sensory combinations. Seeing black and white letters and numbers as coloured is also considered a type of synaesthesia (although this often happens within one sense – vision).
We used to think that synaesthesia is quite rare, but according to a recent survey, 4% of individuals may have one variant of synaesthesia or another. It is quite common to experience synaesthetic colour induced by sequences like letters, numbers, days of the week or months of the year. Some people also associate gender/personality with letters/numbers (e.g. 4 is a shy boy) or objects (we are currently studying these variants – so please get in touch in you’d like to take part in research and fill out our questionnaire). At least 1 in 10 individuals will associate letters, numbers or time units with a spatial pattern (such as circular or spiral calendars, straight number lines, or more complex ones.
Synaesthesia can be thought of as a union of the senses, as suggested by the origin of the term (Greek, syn = together + aisthesis = perception). We often use synaesthetic metaphors to describe sensations, for example, we might describe colours as warm, or music as bright. Having synaesthesia is taking it one step further and actually experiencing it this way (for example visualising brighter colours when the violin plays higher pitch notes; or experiencing other sensory combination). Individuals who have synaesthesia will experience this automatically and do not have to make an effort to visualise/imagine these extra images/experiences.
Although synaesthesia is sometimes referred to as a condition, it is not harmful and synaesthetes (individuals who have synaesthesia) would not want to give it up... In fact, given how common it is, you probably know someone who has synaesthesia. There are many famous synaesthetes including Pythagoras, David Hockney, Kandinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Vladimir Nabokov, and Nobel laureate – the physicist Richard Feynman. We now think that synaesthesia should not be thought of as an abnormality but rather as reflecting cognitive processes common to us all. For a review of the scientific evidence supporting this position, please see this review.
The specific sensory combinations each synaesthete perceives are usually stable and consistent across time, although synaesthetes may disagree (e.g., which colours go with which sounds). The following animations demonstrate this well (the visual experiences perceived by 5 different synaesthetes in response to the same sounds).
Taking part in research
Please follow this link to find out more about current research projects and whether you can take part.
Articles and books of interest
· A review of our recent work (full text available)
· Synesthesia: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience (2005) Find out what scientists have learned about synesthesia in the last few years. See also Table of Contents or read the blurbs.
· Synesthesia Resource Center - links to many articles