Approximately 1 out of 100 people have a sixth sense, or rather, a condition where one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses. Synesthetes are real and walk among us. In fact, you probably know a few.

Doctor Stephanie Goodhew, Lead Researcher at ANU School of Psychology, explains that synesthesia (“union of the senses”) is thought of as a condition or trait where “a particular stimulus evokes an involuntary sensory experience for the individual”. For example, “a person affected by Grapheme-colour synesthesia may experience the colour green when reading the letter ‘A’ whereas an individual with sound-taste synesthesia can experience a salty taste in response to the sound of a friend’s voice”. Empirical studies indicate that a high prevalence of people who are creative, such as artists, writers, etc. are actually synesthetes.

Goodhew recently conducted research that focused on measuring the extent that people with synesthesia draw meaning between words. The most significant finding confirmed that that synesthetes showed greater semantic priming relative to their non-synesthete controls.

Furthermore, the results are yet another indication that synesthetes have a “qualitatively richer” or more vibrant perception of the world around them than the common populace. Presumably, this is the reason synesthetes are more likely to fall into artistic pursuits. Along with subjective reports of enhanced memory, Goodhew’s research adds to the accumulated evidence that “synesthetes can strategically use their experience to facilitate objective performance on memory task”.

Goodhew remarks that her research is broadly driven by the curiosity to understand these unusual sensory experiences (such as tasting colours) and what implications it might have for the cognitive processes of these individuals.

It is also surprising to note that there are probably many people who have the condition but do not realise what it is. Goodhew explains that there is “a substantial body of evidence demonstrating synesthetic sensations are genuine experiences that are involuntary consequences of perceiving the inducing stimulus”. However, there isn’t yet a medical test for synaesthesia. She explains that the synesthetic experience may be assessed by a number of cognitive tests, such as the Synesthesia battery which documents each individual’s experience and measures the reliability of reports.

At this point, you are all probably wondering if you can develop a sixth sense too. Goodhew tells that there isn’t compelling evidence synaesthesia can be learnt. It is, however, possible for non-synesthetes to learn particular associations, although it would appear not to be “equivalent to the true synesthetic experience”. For Goodhew, the future of this area of research seems to be clear: she hopes to better understand the qualities and attributes of synaesthetes and how to harness these capabilities.

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