Monthly Archives: April 2014

“A Taste of Blue”: an exploration of synaestheisa.

I went to several talks during the science festival, some of which I might write about; but one which has really stuck in my mind was about synaesthesia, “A Taste of Blue”.

People with synaesthesia experience a cross over between their senses: things they see may cause them to hear something, or sounds may have a taste, or words a colour.

How they experience the world – their whole life, even – is thus very different from those without synaesthesia. It is also something I find incomprehensible, and I went along hoping to understand more.

It really was a fascinating evening. I found myself sitting next to the one synaesthete in the audience, who expressed her sorrow that most people can’t experience the world the way she does – she felt it added so much to her life.

There were three speakers: a geneticist, an interactive sound engineer, and an animator.

Kate Kucera works on the genetics of synaesthesia, and she talked about the science behind the condition. About 5% of the population are synaesthetic (other sources say about 1%, others that it is much rarer). It might be that there is a continuum in the way we experience the environment, with only those at one extreme of the continuum being synaesthetic.

Indeed, the way we respond to sounds suggests that everyone may be partly synaesthetic: nonsense words that Kucera tried out on the audience had a definite feel, with most people idetifying the same or similar characteristics to the sounds. (Perhaps onomatapoeia is in part an expression of synaesthesia?)

There is certainly a genetic component to synaesthesia: the condition runs in families. But the genetics is very complex, not surprising if one considers the complexity of our sensory systems and their processing in the brain.

The cause of synaesthesia is not understood, though it is believed to involve connections between different parts of the brain used for processing different senses. It has been suggested that everyone is born with synaesthesia and that babies are all synaesthetic – which may explain the dazzled way they look at the world! – but that most people lose the ability as their brains develop, just to enable them to adequately cope with all the sensory data they receive.

Augoustinos Tsiros looks at the way people use common sensory metaphors. This might suggest that we are all partly synaesthetic. For instance, we all use spatial metaphors to describe sound – such as “high” and “low”; we also use touch describe sound – hard, soft, rough, smooth. (I often talk about some jazz being jagged and angular.) We talk about someone having a “sweet voice”.

In experiments involving a variety of visual representations of sounds, it is easy to fit a specific sequence of sounds to an image

I’m not sure whether these are simply learnt metaphors – so common to have mass understanding – or an actual demonstration latent synaesthesia.

The star of the evening for me was animator Sam Moore. She has worked with several synaesthetes to produce an animation showing what it is like to have synaesthesia. It was stunning.

She was also full of great stories, such as one subject who had two forms of synaesthesia: colours produced sounds, sounds produced colours; but not the same sounds or colours. A red object, such as a traffic light, produced a specific sound, but that sound then created the experience of a different colour, producing a cascade of synaesthetic feedback.

Apparently a lot of synaesthetes are creative people: all of those that worked with Sam were, particular musicians. One of her subjects, a woodwind player, saw the sounds of string instruments as sludge-brown, which must have made orchestral playing unpleasant experience!

Moore’s film, “An Eyeful of Sound” was amazing. The world it visualised is how I imagine an LSD trip to be. It was gorgeous.

Synaesthesia poses a lot of questions of the way we perceive the world. We have a common assumption that share our senses – that when I see a colour you see the same thing. We have no way of knowing if that is true. Apparently synaesthetes are often not aware as they are growing up that they experience world in ways that may be greatly different their peers. Then they may learn to keep quiet about it, when as children they are told not to be stupid after describing their experience. It certainly sounds as if synaesthetes experience a richer world.

An Eyeful of Sound from Samantha Moore on Vimeo.

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“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Last year I read Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“. It took me a long time – definitely reading slow, for me – but I think that was down to his style rather than the book’s content. I read it because two people from very different backgrounds recommended it in the since of a week, and despite being somewhat hard work, bits of it have stuck: they keep recurring in my thoughts.

So I thought I’d share some of those, and recommend it, too. (I haven’t looked at the book for the last six months, and I am deliberately writing from memory. So please don’t take these examples as gospel, and before quoting them, please look to Kahneman’s original text!)

Kahneman’s work can be considered an academic counterweight to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Gladwell set out, I think, to suggest that we should trust our intuition (albeit that many of the examples he wrote about seemed to be based around what happens when intuition goes wrong. Policemen shooting innocent men, for instance).

Kahneman, a prolifically able psychologist (and Nobel prize winner in economics, for his work on behavioural economics), sets out to describe how the mind works, describing the unconscious, instinctive, intuitive brain – his “system 1” – and the conscious, analytical brain – “system 2”. System 1 is much faster and cheaper to run than system 2, and this is why for most things we are happy to let system 1 get on with it. His book is full of fascinating stories that illustrate how system 1 can lead us to make some very counter-intuitive decisions, often his own expense.

I started the book very sceptical. Despite all the evidence Kahneman provides, what he describes just didn’t sound like me. I’m analytical, rational, sensible. But he also describes how just about everyone thinks that, too. And left to its own devices, system 1 seems to get us into several bad habits.

For instance, it makes us bad at estimating things, particularly our own (and others’) expertise. Kahneman tells a story of how he was part of a team writing a new curriculum for a psychology course. After several months when they though they were making good progress, he asked another member of the team, who had a lot of experience of the process, how long it should take. The answer was something like “a good team will take a couple of years”; and when asked whether this was a good team, the answer was a resounding “no”! This was a team made up of very rational people – psychologists and educationalists – who frankly should have stopped right there and seen what they could change to achieve a better result. But instead, despite the insight they had received, they ploughed on as if nothing had changed. When Kahneman left the project several years later, it still hadn’t been completed.

In another situation, he describes undertaking leadership assessments for the Israeli army. He understandably decided to validate the process, to see whether the assessments predicted future success as a leader in the army. They didn’t. The predictions were no better than chance. And yet Kahneman continued his work assessing candidates, despite knowing that it was a complete waste of time.

His work in behavioural economics lead to Kahneman working with some stockbrokers. He looked at the firm’s remuneration and bonus structure. Analysing individuals’ results, he showed that success was random: and hence the large bonuses paid for results were completely unwarranted. He told the board, producing his evidence. The board, of course, did nothing, because their whole belief system (and the firm’s culture) was based rewarding success. No one accepted his evidence; they – the experts – knew better than the statistics.

Another story that really stuck with me it’s how bad system 1 is at assessing memories. It only recalls the last experience of something, rather than the totality of that experience. So if you’ve been listening to a piece of music on vinyl, for instance, and it ends with a scratch, you remember the scratch and not the forty minutes of pleasure that came before it. In an experiment to test this, subjects preferred an extended period of pain that ended in a reduction of pain rather than a much shorter period of pain that ended suddenly. System 1 remembers the pain at the end rather than the totality of the pain. The lessons here for anyone designing any process involving customers are rampant. Make it end with a smile!

I think these four simple stories illustrate how irrational even seemingly rational, analytical people can be. This is painful – these are people like me – but it is a valuable lesson, too.

I think the best lesson is to stop and think. This brings the conscious, rational system 2 to the fore. It is harder work, and slower, than letting system 1 determine our actions, and maybe not always appropriate. But it also leads to better, more mindful outcomes. (For instance, it may well be why people who keep “gratitude lists” report being happier – because they are bringing their conscious mind to bear, rather than letting system 1 remember only those last painful moments. There seem to be real benefits to keeping a journal or diary: it helps us to bring an active dimension to our otherwise irrational intuitive minds.)