Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Making sense of a colourful condition

The Times, Wednesday March 19, 2008

It inspired the vivid paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, and filled the thoughts of Olivier Messiaen, the composer, who experienced colours whenever he heard sounds. Now a study has found that synaesthesia, a little-known sensory condition, effects 500,000 children in Britain – equivalent to two in every primary school classroom in the country.

Derived from the Greek words for "sensation" (aisthesis) and "together" (syn), people with synaesthesia experience two or more of the five senses at the same time, “seeing” sounds, or “tasting” words.

The condition can both help or hinder academic performance, but despite its prevalence the research carried out at Edinburgh University demonstrated that that only five per cent of head teachers have heard of it, and fewer than 15 per cent of learning support teachers could provide an accurate definition.

Reactions to the condition vary, said Dr Julia Simner, the cognitive neuro-psychologist who led the research. “Some people with synaesthesia are completely euphoric about it, someone else might be really suffering,” she added.

Ann Wight, whose children James, 13 and Jenny, 9, have synaesthesia said her children had experienced some difficulties at school because of their condition, before teachers were made aware of their condition.

“When my daughter hears music and sound, the colours are projected in front of her, and are opaque, like a kaleidoscope. A boy sitting behind her absent-mindedly tapping a ruler creates purple streaks; someone humming creates yellow and green. Once the teachers are aware of it, it’s fine. They know now that if they have to test her at school, they have to test her in complete silence," Mrs Wight, from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, said.

The Edinburgh study showed clear but complex patterns among synaesthetes. From a group of 70, results demonstrated that most were likely to experience the letter A as red, S as yellow, X as black and O as black or white. Researchers also found that those with synaesthesia often had superior memory recall, provided that the conditions were right.

“If you showed them a large array of numbers, took the numbers away, and then asked what was there before, synaesthetes could do much better than the average person. But if you changed the colour of the numbers their memory performance collapsed, they really did flounder. That can be a problem in the classroom and it can give a sense of malaise and discomfort,” said Dr Simner.

In the 1990s, brain imaging showed how synaesthetes reacted to certain letters, words and sounds. Since then researchers have estimated that there are around 50 variants and have found the condition more prevalent among women than men.

Synaesthetes are wary of being described as “sufferers” and many show a marked predisposition to the arts – David Hockney has the condition, so did Duke Ellington and Vladimir Nabokov, the writer. However some undoubtedly experience discomfort.

One member of Dr Simner’s sample constantly experienced tastes whenever someone spoke to him. “If you put him in a brain imager you can see the taste areas of his brain light up. Taste happens every minute of his life. Some of them are unpleasant, like ear wax and vomit. He can’t pay attention. He has trouble reading road signs when he is driving,” said Dr Simner.

In another case investigated by researchers, a man loved ice cream, and the sound of his local ice-cream van – but the voice of the saleswoman made him feel sick.

Synaesthetes are born with the condition, and research to be presented at a conference in Edinburgh next week will suggest it is inherited through the X-chromosome.

Mrs Wight, who along with her mother and sisters has the condition and long regarded it as normal, only discovered her own synaesthesia in her mid thirties. She said: “I was reading New Scientist. I said to my husband, ‘This magazine says that not everyone has this colour-number thing. That’s nonsense. You know how my fives are orange, and yours are blue …’ He looked at me and said: ‘What on earth do you mean? My five doesn’t have any colour at all.’ I said: ‘We had better get you to a doctor.’”

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