Saturday, January 24, 2015

Synesthesia Revisted

I invite you to visit Alex's post and our comment about synesthesia and his skepticism therein. Too long, didn't read version: statistically, over a random sample population there is around a 4% population. Alex claims that there is a statistical unlikelihood that 3 out of the 9 people in our class have synesthesia. I retorted that we are not, statistically speaking, a random sample. We are nine students in the highest echelon of academia at a predominantly white, expensive, private school in Southern Louisiana. We are, as a sample, anything but random. Applying this information to a binary, yes-no hypothesis test, all you will conclude is that we are not a random sample. I also claimed that there might be a correlation between people who have an affinity for mathematics and synesthetes.

My experience with synesthesia is as follows: I have grapheme to color synesthesia, meaning that the numbers 0 through 9 appear to me with shades of distinct colors. Now, when I see a collection of numbers, it certainly does not look like a Jackson-Pollock painting. I'm sure (at least I hope) that's not how synesthesia affects anybody. That would be inhibitive. For most people (myself included), the numbers look a bit like this:

I am not affected regarding letters: just numbers. For me, the effect helps in expediting computation and proofs. During my overnight stay at Harvey Mudd College, I went to a TED talk given by a synesthete that attended HMC. She had been affected much more drastically than I am, for she stated that she saw all letters and numbers in color. She also mentioned something wild: she could train her synesthesia. When she took the SAT for the first time, she associated x, y, and z with different shades of grey. She scored a 480 on the mathematics portion simply because she could hardly see the letters. Fearing for her future, as her dream college HMC accepts very few people with less than perfect mathematics scores, she reassociated the letters with brighter colors, and scored an 800.

Another example is the autistic savant Daniel Tammant. For one, he knows over 10 languages, and he learned Icelandic (notorious for being the most difficult language to learn) in a week. He associates not only color with his numbers, but also personalities, size, formidability, etc. He wrote a book, Thinking in Numbers, which I plan to read when I get the chance. He claims that his synesthesia affects numbers up to the tens of thousands. So, a number like 10,001 would look something like "10,001" to me, the number would have a distinct color/personality than 10 or 101 or 1,001. Here's a video shortly summarizing his brilliance (I still don't fully understand the last example with the hare):

As always, enjoy!


alex Monier said...

While I agree that we definitely aren't a random group of students, I have a counter question for you. Why are "the highest echelon of academia at a predominantly white, expensive, private school in Souther Louisiana" more likely to have synesthesia than other people? Synesthesia, from what I understand, appears in people at random from a racial background and the only real tendency is that the people afflicted with synesthesia is that it is much more common in females. While I could definitely see an argument that it is more common among smarter people (which even then I have a doubt about since traditional schooling is not targeted at teaching people with synesthesia, a group of learners who would probably benefit from an alternate learning style than traditional schooling), it still seems unlikely that even our grade would have such a high proportion of people with synesthesia. Again, I am not saying that any of you don't have synesthesia, but it is easy to associate things in one's mind because of flashbulb memories and whatnot, and thereby have forced associations, not natural ones.

Joe D said...

I thought I posted a response, but it doesn't seem to have posted. Anyway, what I meant by the categorization of us as the private schooling, predominantly white, etc. is that our class (ie - Humanities itself) naturally distilled our grade down to us nine. We are, at the least, bright learners. There is absolutely no way you're going to get a random sample out of 1) Such a small group; and 2) Such a thoroughly selected group. Our class wasn't randomly sampled and assigned to this class--we earned it.

My argument for synesthetes being smart is not a matter of pedagogy, but a result from quicker, more efficient thought processes. In my example about graph theory: I wrote proofs directly, quickly, and (not all the time) correctly because of the easy with which I could distinguish and categorize the numbers. As a result, I got better grades on that section than most. Obviously, most people could take the time and get them correct anyway, but it was just that - they took longer.

So, I agree that no one teaches to synesthetes, but That wasn't the point I was trying to make: the synesthetes (especially the ones that are affected more than we are) have it easier in some cases.

Finally, I would not attribute my case to "flash memory," as I can recall a specific instance in Kindergarten that I made things awkward by saying something like "it looks good if we put the blue numbers together." As it was Kindergarten, I doubt there was enough time for colors on number lists to have made that significant an impact on me. I've had it my whole life: it's hasn't changed, and I doubt it's going away.