Welcome to Synaesthesia research

Our research interests are many and varied. Read on to find out what we're up to.

Genetics of Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia often runs in families, yet little is known about its genetic origins. In collaboration with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, we are aiming to conduct the first genome wide association study (GWAS) into synaesthesia, which will hopefully shed light on the genetic basis of synaesthesia and help us understand how synaesthesia develops.

Sensory Substitution

Sensory substitution is a technique whereby information in one sense (usually vision) is "re-routed" through another sense. Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs) may be used by visually impaired people to regain some semblance of vision. This is part of the RM Phillips Network.  Our research focuses on visual-to-auditory sensory substitution, in which a visual signal is converted to a sound, which the brain can be trained to convert back into vision. We are primarily investigating the practical implementations and application. Additionally, we are exploring the relationship between sensory substitution and synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia across the Lifespan – the MULTISENSE project

Most research into synaesthesia has been carried out with (young) adult participants. As a consequence, not much is known about synaesthesia in childhood or later in life. Our MULTISENSE project seeks to explore how synaesthesia develops in childhood and how it may change in later life. To complement this research into synaesthesia, we are also investigating lifespan development of multisensory processing in non-synaesthetes, which will allow us to make comparisons between synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes.

Synaesthesia and Language

Our research in this area focuses on the psycholinguistic aspects of synaesthesia: we are studying the colours that synaesthetes experience for letters and words and the linguistic aspects that influence those colours. Currently, we are working on two aspects of linguistics: morphology and semantics. In morphology, we are investigating whether the morphological structure of a word influences the concurrent synaesthetic colours - for example, whether a word that only has one morpheme (like rescue) is more likely to have one synaesthetic colour than a word of similar form that has two morphemes (like refill) - along with other psycholinguistic variables such as frequency. As for semantics, this work will examine whether words that evoke specific colours also elicit those colours synaesthetically - both colour terms (e.g. red) and high-imageability content words (e.g. fire).

We are also working on how grapheme-colour synaesthesia develops, and if some of the oft-reported trends in grapheme-colour associations in both synaesthete and non-synaesthete populations may be influenced by associative learning (e.g. A is red because apples are red and A is for apple).

Synaesthesia and Memory

Another aspect of our research is concerned with synaesthesia and its influence on learning and memory. Previous research has shown that under certain conditions synaesthetic experiences lead to a memory performance advantage. However, to date not much is known about the specific affected memory systems and processes or the underlying mechanisms by which synaesthesia influences memory performance. It is therefore our aim to further this research which on a more general level shapes a new understanding of the interaction between individual differences in perception and memory processes.

Synaesthesia and Savantism

Our research focuses on investigating the links between Savant Syndrome and Synaesthesia. Savant Syndrome is a term used to describe individuals who have exceptional ‘islets of ability’ (e.g. prodigious talents in art, music, memory etc.) which stand in stark contrast to an otherwise life-restricting disability such as autism. We hope to find out how certain types of synaesthesia (e.g. sequence space synaesthesia) may facilitate the development of prodigious skills like those observed in Savant Syndrome. More broadly, our research focuses on how different variants of synaesthesia interact with different variants of savant syndrome, exceptional memory in savant syndrome, memory athletes, and neurotypical individuals.

Vicarious Perception of Pain and Touch

Until the beginning of the last decade the human perception of touch and pain were thought to be private perceptual processes. However, through the use of imaging and neural stimulation techniques, research has shown that regions of the somatosensory cortex and of the pain matrix may follow a mirror based model of vicarious perception. Whereby observations of other people experiencing touch and pain elicit activation in corresponding neural regions involved in private processing. Although it has been established there is still much debate as to how and why this vicarious activation operates. The study of individuals with related neurological conditions, specifically mirror-touch synaesthesia and pain synaesthesia, may help better us understand this vicarious perception. Individuals with these conditions vividly experience observed pain and touch as if it where emanating from their own bodies. At Sussex we are attempting to build on knowledge in the field through development of techniques to reveal the nature of vicarious touch, pain and emotional pain. This includes; the exploration of neural regions involved, the influence of contexts and individual differences and the prevalence and characteristics of mirror-touch and pain synesthetes.