Cathleen O’Grady: A new study highlights a fascinating idea for using a multisensory neurological condition to explore bigger psychological questions
So far, there’s been very little work done in this particular niche. There’s already quite a lot of research on synaesthesia in its own right, but it’s an unusual idea to study people whose brains are inarguably atypical in order to draw conclusions about human cognition in general. There’s a risk that synaesthetes’ brains are different in ways other than their synaesthetic associations, which could mean that we can’t really extrapolate from them to the general population.
That said, there isn’t currently much reason to think that synaesthetes have important cognitive differences from non-synaesthetes, other than their particular associations. An earlier paper that explores the potential usefulness of synaesthesia for cognitive science points out that most people seem to have some degree of synaesthetic association going on in their heads, but that synaesthetes are just unusually aware of the experience. For example, cognitive scientists who study the brain’s processing of numbers posit a “mental number line” that people all use when dealing with numbers – it’s just that only synaesthetes are aware of having spatial associations with numbers.
If this is true, it might be that synaesthetes provide us with an unusual amount of conscious access to what are usually unconscious processes. And that, undoubtedly, is a psycholinguist’s dream come true. There’s a lot of work to be done assessing the usefulness of the idea and working out ways to implement it, but given how useful it could turn out to be, it’s definitely worth that exploration.