Can you learn to taste numbers, smell words, or hear colors?

Do you know anybody who experiences synesthesia? Also known as "synesthetes," they're people whose cognitive pathways have become jumbled, such that they associate seemingly unrelated senses or mental states with other senses or experiences — hearing colors, for example, or tasting sounds.

Scientists still aren't sure what gives rise to this strange phenomenon and its various iterations, but new research suggests that people who experience grapheme → color synesthesia (one of the more common forms of the condition, wherein letters and numbers are associated with specific hues), may have Fischer Price to thank for their entangled sensory experiences.

Elizabeth Preston explains over on Inkfish:

Can you learn to taste numbers, smell words, or hear colors?S

Stanford researchers Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer discovered, through word of mouth and from synesthetes contacting them online, a group of people who share a "startlingly similar" set of letter-color associations. Out of the eleven subjects, ten remembered owning (or still owned) a particular set of alphabet refrigerator magnets that was manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s.

The leftmost column below (labeled "set") shows the actual colors of this toy. The colors that the eleven subjects associate with the alphabet are listed as S1 through S11, in order of how well they match the magnetic letters. (And to the right are the magnets themselves.)

Subject S1 was carrying around mentally a perfect replica of the Fisher-Price letters, as [psychologists Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer] report in Psychological Science. The others had some differences-but were close enough to the toy's colors that, the researchers figure, it can't be a coincidence.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that letter/color associations and other forms of synesthesia, can be learned, or nurtured by psychologically external cultural influences. This has been a long-standing suspicion among some synesthesia researchers, though many have remained skeptical. "The first objection," write Witthoft and Winawer, "is that synesthesia is perception rather than memory. The second is that learning alone cannot explain why only some people become synesthetes. Finally, it can be objected that most synesthetic pairings are not learned."

In the discussion section of their paper, Witthoft and Winawer make a compelling (and pleasantly lucid) case for the role of learning and memory in synesthesia. You can check it out in the latest issue of Psychological Science — free of charge!

Read more from Preston over on Inkfish.