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Archive for February, 2012

Ever since I can remember, the boundaries between the senses were not clear cut. I had no reason to think about or identify this as a discrete phenomenon, mention it to other people or give it a label as a small child – it was simply the way my perceptions worked. The first time it was actually brought to my attention was when a friend of the family was visiting, and he asked my mother and me if, when we thought of a certain letter, a colour came to mind. We said we did, and had fun comparing our various colour alphabets.

Because two members of the same household as well as this family friend all apparently experienced some form of synaesthesia, I didn’t realise until recently what a rare condition it actually is. Researchers estimate that anywhere between 1 in 200 and 1 in 2000 people experience the world in this way.

Recently, I volunteered to participate in a synaesthesia study online. The study asks participants to fill out a quiz at the beginning asking them what types of synaesthesia they have, and then depending on the answers, the participant is directed to various tests designed to collect data about each type of synaesthesia.

I recall reading an earlier article somewhere that included what was supposedly a synaesthesia test consisting of random 2’s and 5’s that had been printed with the curves as angles so that to most people they would be hard to distinguish without careful examination. The way it was supposed to work was that if you had number-colour synaesthesia, the colours you saw in your mind’s eye would make the different digits stand out. It was instantly clear to me that this test had not been devised by someone with the ability, as then he/she would have realised that if you change the shape of the digits, it also affects other perceptions of them. In my case, the squaring off of the curves made the colours (yellow and red respectively) look all black. I would have flunked this particular “test”.

So, upon hearing that this new test battery gave participants the chance to submit their personal “library” of colours, etc. I signed up and took the initial quiz.

The first test was the “grapheme colour picker test”. Each letter of the alphabet and digits 0-9 appeared in random sequence, three times each. There was a palette for picking the exact hue seen in the mind’s eye of the participant for each one. The site then analyses responses to see how consistent the participant’s responses are. Exactly matched hues would result in a perfect score of 0.0. A score below 1.0 is ranked as synaesthetic. Non-synaesthetes asked to use memory or free association to complete the same task typically score in the range of a 2.0. Mine was 0.56.

Next, there was the “speed-congruency test”, the purpose of which, it would seem, was to double check the results of the above. A random number or letter would appear, either presented in “your” colour or some other random colour, and the task was to click “Match” or “Doesn’t match” as quickly as possible. Accuracy and reaction time were both recorded. An accuracy percentage of 85% or greater typically indicates synaesthetic association between the graphemes and colours. Mine was 95.83%, although I’m not sure where I made a mistake. Perhaps some of the colours presented were very close, but not exact, and on a highly speeded test there wasn’t time to deliberate on “close but no cigar” items.

There followed tests to establish colours for weekdays and months, which were similar in format. Again, scores below 1.0 are deemed to by synaesthetic. Mine were 0.41 and 0.59 respectively.

The issue I have with these tests is that they assume that the person has a single synaesthetic colour-association for each one, and that these never vary. I see digits 2-9 as having a single, bright unvarying colour, but there it stops. 1 and 0, when seen individually or juxtaposed with other digits, tend to look black. When next to each other, however, the 1’s look black and the 0’s look white. Letters, weekdays and months tend to have not only a primary colour, but often secondary and tertiary ones too, and any of these can shift depending on what other letters etc. they are next to. The researchers are assuming that they have a single colour, and that these are absolute and not relative.

Next up were various music-colour tests, and I actually had to skip over every question of these without answering them. The researchers again assumed that musical notes, chords and instrument sounds had a single, fixed colour. I only know that I do experience colour, shapes, images etc. when I listen to music, but beyond that, I really cannot be any more specific. The problem in trying to describe them, I think, lies in the fact that they are totally relative. Perhaps this note, or this instrument, sounds “yellower” than that one, but I can’t say that the note itself is yellow.

Chords are definitely not a single colour (as that part of the test again assumed), but each individual note within the chord has a colour. Again, I can’t say which note is which, and they tend to change according to the chords against which they are juxtaposed and the position (inversion) in which the chord is played. All I can say is that major triads tend to be bright spectral colours, like red, orange and yellow, while minor triads tend more to the cool end of the spectrum. The 7th note in a 7th chord sort of sticks out in varying shades of blue, lilac or bluey purple, while the chord having 4 notes rather than 3 makes the overall effect more subtle. The more complex the chord, the more subtle the colours. Very complex jazz chords might lose the colours altogether. I daresay my taste in music has been shaped by this phenomena, and is possibly the reason I’ve never understood what people mean when they say pop is “bland” – the simple melodies and chords evoke the brightest, strongest colours. Thrash metal, atonal classical music, overly complex jazz and people screaming unintelligible things over record scratches just appear like harsh, monochromatic shapes. I made sure I pointed all this out in the feedback, as my internal experiences were clearly more sophisticated than the test allowed for.

After answering the various “About Yourself” type questions that followed, the questionnaire took me to the “3D Month Picker Test”. There was an image of a person standing in the middle of a grid-patterned floor, and you were supposed to place tiles with the names of the months on them in the locations you synaesthetically “saw” them in space. Unfortunately, the controls didn’t seem to work too well, and only resulted in tilting or panning the floor, rather than placing the tile where I wanted it to go. I think that the researchers had assumed that we would spatially locate the months in relation to our body or the environment, whereas in my case, both are irrelevant – I only see them as spatially located in relation to each other. I see both months and weeks like wires suspended between rows of poles, with Christmas and the New Year and the weekends at the “poles”, and the summer months and Wednesdays at the lowest point of the wire’s suspension in the middle. I have an early memory of telling my mother that, “Saturday is a hill day” (i.e. it was near the highest point), and she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.

For those interested, here is a document about synaesthesia research by David Eagleman, on which this web questionnaire appears to be based.

While I completed this questionnaire for fun, and didn’t expect anything overly sophisticated, I hope that my feedback makes it back to the office of some serious researchers so that some of the more subtle manifestations can be taken into account for future test designs.

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Dominic says that to his knowledge, no one has ever entered or won a memory championship having completed or used the Pmemory course.

It has not slipped his notice that he is berated on the Pmemory forum, along with Tony Buzan. (To be fair, it seems to have been mainly one poster – Procompleter – doing the berating.)

He believes that there is no more powerful memory system than the one he teaches, and says that if Pmemory were that powerful, then someone would have let him know about it.

Ed Cooke, the guy who trained Josh Foer, the author of “Moonwalking with Einstein” (see the previous post), learned the memory strategies he uses from books written by Dominic. Dominic also gave Josh a day’s training taking him through all the techniques as well Brainwave Training and AVS. He also mentions that the current World Champion and world ranked one memoriser, Wang Feng, uses exactly the same strategy too.

 Dominic says, “If anyone has a better method I will drop mine immediately and adopt theirs – I’m still waiting!”

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