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Scientists Think Synaesthesia Is Something You Can Learn

Subjects taught to see 13 letters in specific colors.

Scientists Think Synaesthesia Is Something You Can Learn
[Illustration: Cienpies Design via Shutterstock]

A recent experiment by conducted by the University of Sussex suggests it may be possible to learn to experience synesthesia, a rare condition that mixes up brain signals and leads people to hear colors or taste words. Researcher David Bor had volunteers read ebooks with 13 letters consistently written in a specific color. In addition, the volunteers spent 30 minutes every day associating the letters and colors, working on increasingly difficult tasks.

By week five of the nine-week course, many subjects were already seeing results, with nine out of fourteen reporting seeing the colors when reading all-black text. At the end of the experiment, the effects had become strong for most participants.

“The color immediately pops into my head,” one of the subjects said of looking at road signs while driving, according to New Scientist. “When I look at a sign the whole word appears according to the training colors.”


But it didn’t last: a few months later, none of the people involved in the experiment were seeing the trained colors anymore. However, they still scored higher than nonparticipants on the tests.

The experiments results further the hypothesis that synesthesia can be learned in childhood, and perhaps is even used by the brain as a learning tool when children are just getting the hang of recognizing letters. Additionally, the study found that subjects’ IQ scores increased by 12 points after the experiment.

While it’s possible this is merely a result of the memory training the volunteers received, but Bor cautioned that it’s “it’s very rare to report such a large IQ jump so our suspicion is it’s something to do with synaesthesia.” He is considering making the training tools available online, for people who want to give this brain boost a try themselves.

[h/t: New Scientist]

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I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.

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