Session 2.1.4: PANEL: Anthropology of Congenital Synaesthesia I

Track:
PANEL: Anthropology of Congenital Synaesthesia I
What:
Panel
When:
9:30, Friday 7 May 2021 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Breaks:
Break    11:00 AM to 11:30 AM (30 minutes)
Where:
  Virtual session
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Discussion:
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Organizers: Sean Day and Anton Dorso, International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists (IASAS)

Congenital synaesthesia is a condition simultaneously neurological, social, interpersonal and cultural. Its characteristic triggers (inducers) are either sets of semiotic systems (e.g., letters, maths, music units) or sensorial categories molded by the processes of experience-dependent sensory differentiation and unitization. Varieties need to be analyzed as specific implementations of interaction between neurobiological predispositions and cultural influences (e.g., education and nutrition). People with various types of congenital synaesthesia should be viewed not only as individuals, but as members of social groups and communities who act, displaying social competencies, advantages, opportunities, differences, and difficulties to socially and culturally ordered expectations of their subjectivities and behaviors. Here, we explore synaesthesia as being determined by social practices of upbringing, formative integration, early education, sensory socialization, cognitive development, and perceptual exposure, with implicit and cumulative effects. Sensory anthropology can provide tools for research into synaesthesia, from the question of whether it is a culture-specific phenomenon, through the matters of brain-culture attunement and resulting subjective manifestations, to the issues of culture-based construction of synaesthetes’ self-identities, practical applications, and social value.

Simon E. Fisher, Genomic investigations of the neurobiology of synaesthesia, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands


Descriptions of synaesthesia in the scientific literature date back to at least the late 1800s. Even in those early reports, it was already noted that synaesthesia tends to cluster in families, hinting at potential involvement of inherited factors. My talk will introduce methods since used to gain insights into synaesthesia genetics, ranging from twin studies and family-based linkage analysis, to employing large-scale case-control screens and next-generation DNA sequencing. It has become clear that the genomic architecture underlying synaesthesia is complex and multifactorial. Nonetheless, while there is significant heterogeneity between families/cases in terms of the specific genes involved, the first clues from studies of rare gene variants appear to highlight shared biological pathways. Ongoing investigations in extended families, along with large numbers of unrelated cases, should help clarify this point, as well as offering new insights into overlaps of synaesthesia and other brain-related traits. Crucially, the identification of genetic factors robustly associated with synaesthesia can open up entirely new avenues of research, giving novel entry points into neurobiological mechanisms that are important for the way we experience the world.

Helena Melero, Congenital synesthesia and theneuroanthropology of emotions, Complutense University of Madrid, Spain

The study of the neural basis of the so-called “universal emotions” has not been fully integrated with our knowledge about the neural networks underpinning the relational, communicative and cultural aspects of the self; nor with the processes of multisensory integration that characterize human experience. Nevertheless, the neuroscientific approach to the study of emotions has revolutionized our understanding of feelings and our ability to use them as adaptive tools. Moreover, the study of congenital synesthesia necessarily leads to blurring a) the border between the senses, b) the border between cognition and emotion and c) the border between universal and idiosyncratic experiences. By reviewing the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of emotions from the perspective of multisensory integration and in light of research on synesthesia, our definitions of these complex processes are to be updated. Emotions themselves might be the result of a dynamic process of multiple integration at different levels of our nervous system. This approach supports the theories of embodied cognition and challenges the traditional description of human development; furthermore, it defies our definition of adaptive social interaction and provides a new avenue for studying diseases in which perception and emotional communication are impaired.

Nicholas Root,The synesthetic experience in non-English languages, University of Amsterdam, NL

Most studies of grapheme-color synesthesia use only English-speaking synesthetes, but recent work has begun to explore how the synesthetic experience differs between languages. Here, we describe three preliminary results of an international collaboration between synesthesia researchers in more than fifteen countries. First, we demonstrate that diacritical marks (a linguistic feature not found in English) can shift the color of graphemes in a manner that can be predicted from their underlying linguistic function. Second, we show that cross-cultural differences in color boundaries (e.g., in Russian and Greek, light and dark blue are separate colors for which there is no superordinate category “blue”) are reflected in the “palette” of colors experienced by synesthetes. Finally, we explore the phenomenology of synesthesia in Bengali, an Indic language with a writing system quite different from English; we find that idiosyncratic experiences of Bengali synesthetes reflect unique properties of the Bengali writing system. We conclude that by studying synesthesia across different languages, we can gain insights into how linguistic variation shapes the brain’s representation of written language.

Moderator
International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists, Moscow State Pedagogical University
Senior Teacher
Panelist
University of California - San Diego
Panelist
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Panelist
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Moderator
International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists

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