Session 4.1.6: PANEL: Anthropology of Congenital Synaesthesia II

PANEL: Anthropology of Congenital Synaesthesia II
9:30, Sunday 9 May 2021 (1 hour 30 minutes)
Break    11:00 AM to 11:30 AM (30 minutes)
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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.

Synaesthesia, language, and learning

Noam Sagiv, Brunel University, UK

Synaesthesia is thought to be the result of genetically predetermined individual differences in brain connectivity. However, this does not preclude some role for motivation, attention, learning, and practice in modulating synaesthetic experience. Furthermore, it does not preclude deliberate or unconscious involvement of synaesthetic imagery in organising higher level cognition. Although a number of studies identified strengths associated with synaesthesia (e.g., memory, creativity), we rarely ask what synaesthesia is good for. To ask the question is antithetic to the view of synaesthesia that predominated until recently - that synaesthesia is some sort of neurological accident resulting in superfluous and seemingly random sensory experiences. The ghost of this pathologising view still haunts us today. In this talk, we will argue that synaesthesia can be useful beyond inspiring artwork or being utilised as a mnemonic device. We will present evidence consistent with the claim that synaesthesia plays a role in conceptualisation. Additionally, we will claim that although synaesthetic imagery seems to have little to do with embodied cognition at first glance, it actually provides good evidence to support the idea that higher level cognitive processes are grounded in perceptual processes.

Visual perception and sensory sensitivity in synaesthesia and autism

Tessa van Leeuwen, Radboud University, Netherlands

Synaesthesia is much more prevalent among individuals with autism (20%) than in the general population (~4%). This high co-occurrence suggests that underlying neural mechanisms are shared. Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon, and sensory processing and perception are altered in autism. I will explore whether sensory and perceptual characteristics are shared between synaesthesia and autism. In autism, sensory sensitivity to stimulation from the environment can be enhanced or diminished. Regarding visual perception, individuals with autism tend to process details faster than global elements of a display. I will present recent studies in which we assess sensory sensitivity and the visual perception of details vs global features in 1) synaesthetes and in 2) neurotypical individuals in relation to autistic traits. In synaesthetes, we find enhanced sensory sensitivity, increased autistic traits, and patterns of performance for motion coherence and embedded figures tasks suggesting enhanced processing of details, similar to findings for autism. In neurotypicals, synaesthesia consistency scores correlate with autistic traits, suggesting that the degree of synaesthesia and autism characteristics are to be regarded as continuous, dimensional traits in the general population. I will discuss these studies’ implications.

Why does synaesthesia exist? Making a case for a distinction between synaesthesia and a synaesthetic disposition

Jamie Ward, University of Sussex, UK

Why does synaesthesia exist, and is it likely to have been selected for because it has some adaptive features? One of the challenges in beginning to answer this question is that synaesthesia itself is very heterogeneous and the kinds of synaesthesia we frequently observe have been shaped by modern culture (e.g. literacy, the calendar). So did synaesthesia not exist before (e.g. in preliterate cultures) or did it exist but look very different? I will present evidence that synaesthesia is linked to a distinctive style of thinking which I term a synaesthetic disposition. This consists of advantageous differences in memory and perception that do not appear to be tied to the idiosyncratic ways in which synaesthesia manifests itself and may provide a common thread through time and across cultural differences. Dissociating synaesthesia (e.g., having a circular image for a calendar) from a synaesthetic disposition (a set of cognitive characteristics that reliably accompany synaesthesia) provides a new way of thinking of the origins of synaesthesia, because it may be the synaesthetic disposition itself that is the object of selection.

International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists, Moscow State Pedagogical University
Senior Teacher
University of Sussex
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
Brunel University London
International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists

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