New paper on the phenomenology of synesthesia

During my time as a postdoc at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science in Brighton I was conducting explicitation interviews to explore the experience of people with synesthesia. It was hard work to analyze the transcripts, but I’m happy that our perseverance has finally paid off.

An extended case study on the phenomenology of sequence-space synesthesia

C. Gould, T. Froese, A. B. Barrett, J. Ward and A. K. Seth

Investigation of synesthesia phenomenology in adults is needed to constrain accounts of developmental trajectories of this trait. We report an extended phenomenological investigation of sequence-space synesthesia in a single case (AB). We used the Elicitation Interview (EI) method to facilitate repeated exploration of AB’s synesthetic experience. During an EI the subject’s attention is selectively guided by the interviewer in order to reveal precise details about the experience. Detailed analysis of the resulting 9 h of interview transcripts provided a comprehensive description of AB’s synesthetic experience, including several novel observations. For example, we describe a specific spatial reference frame (a “mental room”) in which AB’s concurrents occur, and which overlays his perception of the real world (the “physical room”). AB is able to switch his attention voluntarily between this mental room and the physical room. Exemplifying the EI method, some of our observations were previously unknown even to AB. For example, AB initially reported to experience concurrents following visual presentation, yet we determined that in the majority of cases the concurrent followed an internal verbalization of the inducer, indicating an auditory component to sequence-space synesthesia. This finding is congruent with typical rehearsal of inducer sequences during development, implicating cross-modal interactions between auditory and visual systems in the genesis of this synesthetic form. To our knowledge, this paper describes the first application of an EI to synesthesia, and the first systematic longitudinal investigation of the first-person experience of synesthesia since the re-emergence of interest in this topic in the 1980’s. These descriptions move beyond rudimentary graphical or spatial representations of the synesthetic spatial form, thereby providing new targets for neurobehavioral analysis.

This paper is also available from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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