May 2002

From University of California - San Diego

UCSD to host Second Annual National Meeting of the American Synesthesia Association

People who taste shapes, see numbers in colors, or feel sounds, were often told, until recently, that they were alone in their perceptions or even imagining things. But, recent research has shown that at least one in 2,000 people may be synesthetes, people who experience a blending of the senses when they smell, see, touch, hear, or taste.

Synesthetes and the scientists and researchers who study their unique experiences, will gather at the University of California, San Diego, May 17-19, for the second annual national meeting of the American Synesthesia Association. The conference will be held at McGill Hall and is being hosted by the UCSD Center for Brain Cognition, directed by UCSD neurologist and synesthesia expert V.S. Ramachandran. Ramachandran and psychology graduate student Edward Hubbard are known for their recent research on synesthesia and what it reveals about the human mind.

Synesthesia, which means "joined sensation," is an automatic physical experience in which one sense appears to trigger an additional perception in a different sense or senses. For example, a synesthete might not only see a certain color but may actually smell it or taste it as well. While researchers are not sure why some people are synesthetes, the condition occurs more frequently in women and appears to run in families. In addition, synesthesia, which is considered to be a "gift" not a mere condition, seems to be more common among artists, writers, musicians and other creative individuals.

"Over the last century, numerous artists, musicians, and writers have reported having synesthetic experiences," said Carol Steen, an artist and a synesthete and a member of the ASA board. "The painter David Hockney talked of hearing the colors that he subsequently painted, and the writer Vladimir Nabokov saw colors in the words he wrote. The composer Franz Lizst reported seeing the musical notes he composed in color. Then, there were the many artists and writers who desperately wanted to be synesthetes, such as Baudelaire."

The UCSD conference will begin at 7:30 p.m., May 17, with a presentation by keynote speaker Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, a renowned neurologist and a top authority on synesthesia. Cytowic is the author of the acclaimed book The Man Who Tasted Shapes, and has spent more than a decade studying synesthesia. He thinks of synesthetes as "cognitive fossils," and believes that a greater understanding of synesthesia will lead to a new model of how the mind functions. Cytowic has another book on synesthesia, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, which will be available for the first time at the conference.

Other conference participants will includes neuroscientists, psychologists, artists, and synesthetes. Presenters will discuss new research findings on the genetics of synesthesia, major differences between synesthetes, and what magnetic resonance imaging of synesthesia reveals. The conference will also be a forum for artists, writers and researchers to share information about synesthesia.

The American Synesthesia Association (ASA), Inc. was founded in 1995 by two synesthetes, Carol Steen and Pat Duffy. Duffy is a writer and the author of the soon-to-be-released paperback, "Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds." They suspected there were many others like themselves who would greatly benefit from sharing their experiences and knowledge with other synesthetes. They also hoped to encourage researchers and scientists to find out more about synesthesia. Over the last seven years, ASA has grown into a not-for-profit corporation with a board of directors, officers, and a growing national membership.

The UCSD Center for Brain and Cognition, which until recently was known as the Center for Human Information Processing, brings together faculty, students, and researchers who share an interest in the neural mechanisms underlying human perception, cognition and emotions.

For more information about the May 17-19 conference, please visit the ASA web site at or call the UCSD Center for Brain and Cognition at 858-534-7907. Synesthetes and others interested in attending should register on the web site. The cost to attend for non-members is $85. UCSD students and faculty are invited to attend. Students can register at the door for a reduced price of $30.

Media Contact:
Dolores Davies, (858) 534-5994
or Edward Hubbard, (858) 534-7907

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004

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