Acquiring Synaesthesia: Insights from Training Studies


Synaesthesia denotes a condition of remarkable individual differences in experience characterized by specific additional experiences in response to normal sensory input. Synaesthesia seems to (i) run in families which suggests a genetic component, (ii) is associated with marked structural and functional neural differences, and (iii) is usually reported to exist from early childhood. Hence, synaesthesia is generally regarded as a congenital phenomenon. However, most synaesthetic experiences are triggered by cultural artifacts (e.g., letters, musical sounds). Evidence exists to suggest that synaesthetic experiences are triggered by the conceptual representation of their inducer stimuli. Cases were identified for which the specific synaesthetic associations are related to prior experiences and large scale studies show that grapheme-color associations in synaesthesia are not completely random. Hence, a learning component is inherently involved in the development of specific synaesthetic associations. Researchers have hypothesized that associative learning is the critical mechanism. Recently, it has become of scientific and public interest if synaesthetic experiences may be acquired by means of associative training procedures and whether the gains of these trainings are associated with similar cognitive benefits as genuine synaesthetic experiences. In order to shed light on these issues and inform synaesthesia researchers and the general interested public alike, we provide a comprehensive literature review on developmental aspects of synaesthesia and specific training procedures in non-synaesthetes. Under the light of a clear working definition of synaesthesia, we come to the conclusion that synaesthesia can potentially be learned by the appropriate training.

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience