Synaesthesia: From Extraordinary Experiences to Enhanced Abilities
People with synaesthesia experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways: words may have tastes, and music is an audio-visual spectacle. Everybody knows someone with synaesthesia (it affects a few percent of the population) but you may not know who has it because their extraordinary inner world is privately experienced and, to a synaesthete, it is the only reality they know (and so is perfectly ordinary to them!). Having synaesthesia is linked to certain cognitive advantages and this is the focus of this presentation. Synaesthesia is linked to enhanced memory. The enhancements are pervasive (affecting multiple aspects of memory, not just for stimuli that trigger synaesthesia) and meaningful (a 70-year old synaesthete has the memory ability of a 20-year old non-synaesthete). I shall discuss possible mechanisms for how better memory can, in some synaesthetes, lead to truly exceptional memory. In addition to differences in memory, synaesthetes have greater sensory sensitivity on certain objective measures of perception and also in terms of subjective sensitivity (a tendency to find sensory stimuli as aversive). In this regard, some of their symptoms resemble those found in autism spectrum conditions. It has been shown that the autism and synaesthesia co-occur more than expected by chance, and our recent research suggests that this may be particularly apparent in terms of abilities linked to autism (e.g. attention-to-detail) rather than the traditional focus on impairments. Indeed when synaesthesia and autistic tendencies do co-occur they tend to be linked to savant abilities (i.e. exceptional talents).