People with synesthesia, a cognitive condition that mixes up the senses, live in a much more interesting world than the rest of us. They “see” certain letters as specific colors, they “taste” words or “hear” numbers, for example. The condition isn’t uncommon, affecting an estimated 1 in 23 people, though scientists aren’t sure what causes it. But now a team of researchers in the U.K. believe they can teach it, according to a new study in Nature.
The training involved 30-minute sessions of four or five tasks per day that were designed to link a certain letter with a particular color in the individual’s mind. (In one of the tasks, the participants were given a paragraph in which 13 letters were always printed in a distinct color; by the end of the nine weeks, the letters were replaced with colored squares.) And after nine weeks of it, 8 out of the 14 study participants reported experiencing synesthesia; for example, one said in an interview with the research team, “When reading a sign on campus I saw all the letter E’s colored green.”
So, okay: We have here a very small sample size, and the end results relied mostly on self-reports, so it’s possible that the people in the study were exaggerating their newfound synesthesia skills. Also, when the study volunteers were retested three months later, they’d lost most of the letter-color associations they’d learned. But the researchers say their work gives us a clue about the cause of synesthesia; if it can be taught, then this suggests that some people develop it in childhood and are not born with it, as has been suggested. Either way, I am tempted to spend the rest of the year hunkered down in synesthesia training, until I teach myself to taste the color purple, or whatever.