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Cognitive Synaesthesia:

When Wednesdays are blue, numbers are as cities, and 5 + 2 = yellow

After one of the ‘incidents’ (panic attacks), Alyosha attempted to give his explanation of what had happened: “In the shop I heard black, then the word broke down into pieces and they entered my eye. I became blind because everything was black.” At the time I was bewildered with his explanation, and placed his ‘reports’ into the category ‘confusing’.

However, in 2011, I came across the account by Brian King, a social worker who is on the spectrum himself, as well as father of three autistic children. King says that when he is listening to someone speak, he can see each word; words scroll through the air in front of him. If someone repeats a word in a conversation Brian sees it in a darker colour; and if his communicative partner emphasises that word while speaking, it literally jumps out at him like 3D.

So, Alyosha seems to see not only colours in response to sounds, but also words (yes, words) when he hears them. If he sees the ‘wrong word’ (or as he says his ‘eyes see the wrong word’), we are all in trouble. His panic attack is not far away, and the consequences may be unpredictable.

At present there is an increasing interest in synaesthesia and many new definitions, categories and hypotheses have emerged. (However, there is no unanimous consensus at how synaesthesia is defined, classified and explained).

In addition to sensory synaesthesia (also known as the lower form of synaesthesia), there are other forms of this condition, the main one being, cognitive synaesthesia, which combines sensory (usually colour) and semantic triggers – when letters/words/numbers are heard or read, they are experienced as colours; or numbers are experienced as shapes or form.

One of my first experiences of synaesthesia was during my teaching days at my school for autistic children. I brought some coloured alphabet blocks into the classroom for fun learning. But seven-year-old Lena definitely didn’t think this idea was much fun. She grabbed a block and threw it across the room: “The colour is wrong!” “C” isn’t yellow, it’s brown!” More blocks (with Lena’s commentaries) followed the first one.

There is a variant of the cognitive synaesthesia – a conceptual synaesthesia: when abstract concepts (for example, units of time, mathematical operations) are perceived as shapes or colours projected internally or into the environment (Carpenter 2001) or, for instance, when an arithmetic problem was presented: 5+2, the answer was ‘yellow’ (for 7) (Dixon et al. 2000).

Synaesthesia can indeed involve letters, words or numbers being experienced as colours. Sometimes numbers are experienced as shapes or forms. In the fascinating book Born on a Blue Day, mathematician Daniel Tammet (with Asperger syndrome) describes experiencing numbers as cities which he can walk through.

There are some other phenomena that some researchers consider as variants of synaesthesia, e.g.: pain synaesthesia: when pain is felt in colour (Taber’s 1981); and negative emotions of your communicative partner have metallic taste on your tongue.

Some synaesthetes have only one form of synaesthesia, while others have several forms or variants of it. There are many forms of synaesthesia, which we don’t know about yet.

General features of synaesthesia

Synaesthetes are observed to have uneven cognitive skills. They are reported to prefer order, neatness, symmetry and balance. They are more prone to unusual experiences such as déjà vu, clairvoyance, etc. Among their deficiencies the most commonly reported are right-left confusion (allochiria) and a poor sense of direction.

They remember conversations, verbal instructions, movie dialogues, text blocks in books, precise location of objects, furniture arrangements, etc. in every detail. However, this phenomenal experience, though very useful in remembering things, can lead to complications. Their understanding of spoken or written speech is literal. Each word evokes images that distracts them from the meaning of the sentence as a whole.

In some situations, when somebody says something, a child might see the word, but if more people are talking in the same room, blurs appear that break the word, making comprehension difficult.

Cytowic (2002) proposes the concept of synaesthesia as the premature display of a normal cognitive process. This implies that we are all synaesthetic, and that only a few people are consciously aware of the holistic nature of perception.

A unique cognitive style

It’s useful to see synaesthesia as a distinct cognitive style. Seeing sounds/ words /numbers in colours, feeling them as textures help them to remember information. Often their secondary perceptions are much more vivid and vibrant than the primary ones; so they provide additional cues to retrieve the information from memory. The combination of a sensory imagery and a verbal thinking styles provide original ways to solve problems.

Meier & Rothen (2013) have provided empirical evidence that synaesthesia is associated with a vivid imagery cognitive style. Graphemes involve serial, analytic processing (a verbal cognitive style), whereas colours are visual and involve parallel holistic processing (a visual cognitive style); the combination of a verbal and a vivid imagery visual styles and their ability to switch easily between the two may be the core of the cognitive benefits related to grapheme-colour synaesthesia.

There are many more unique experiences and interpretations of the environments which are hard to categorise as each individual develops his/her own systems and associations.

Listen to your child

Their experiences are very real. Listen to your child, don’t dismiss their attempts to explain what they experience. Many won’t talk about it either because they are not aware that their experiences are different from those around them, or because they don’t want to be considered ‘mad’/’psychic’, or because of their communication problems (inability/difficulty to express themselves), or lack of language altogether.

Yes, sometimes there are problems, but a synaesthetic experience of each autistic person with synaesthesia is a unique (and valid) way to perceive the world they live in. Yes, it’s puzzling for many others, but they must be puzzled as well – why can’t people see the range of colours in a noisy environment or the words floating between us?

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