science of us

Want Synesthesia? Try Learning a New Language

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Researchers are constantly identifying new ways that bilingualism can change your brain: Among other things, knowing a second language can make you a more efficient thinker and a more rational arguer, affect your sense of morality, and help you to be better at dealing with ambiguity. According to one study, speaking another language can even make you feel like a different person.

And, as Live Science reported in a recent article, some scientists also believe that it ups your odds of developing synesthesia, that mysterious blending of the senses that leads to things like tasting colors or linking emotion to tactile sensation. The cause of synesthesia remains unclear, though many believe it has to do with connections in the brain that are ordinarily pruned away, quite possibly the result of a person’s genetic makeup. But as Live Science noted, “most people with the associated genetics do not exhibit the trait, so why, exactly, does it occur?”

One theory holds that synesthesia develops as a learning aid. For instance, when kindergartners begin tackling phonics, mapping letters to specific colors could help them differentiate between similar-looking letters, such as an “R” and a “P.” Similarly, seeing color in music could aid in tone differentiation.

New research supports the idea of synesthesia as learning tool: In a study recently published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, scientists surveyed around 11,000 Czech and Canadian college students about their language abilities and whether or not they had certain types of synesthesia. Across both student populations, those who picked up a second language in school were likelier to have synesthesia than their peers — including students who had always been bilingual.

The reason, the researchers speculated, is that learning another language becomes harder as childhood progresses; the synesthesia of the later learners may have been their brains’ way of giving them a boost. And a pretty cool one at that — Spanish homework may be a drag, but the ability to read in color sounds like a decent way to spice things up.

Want Synesthesia? Try Learning a New Language