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Department of Cognitive Science

Synaesthesia Research

What is Synaesthesia?

Do you see colours when you think of letters? Or remember music by the visual patterns you see? Do you smell sounds, feel tastes, or hear colours? If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes', you may have synaesthesia. This fascinating phenomenon can link any of the senses, although most commonly it is seen in vision and audition, and provides an unusual perspective on perception.

In synaesthesia, a stimulus in one sensory modality results in an unusual additional experience. For example, when hearing a sentence, a synaesthete may also see vivid colours accompanying each word. In other cases, the taste of certain foods might evoke specific tactile sensations. Estimates of prevalence within the adult population vary from 1 in 500 for the more common types of synaesthesia (e.g., letter-colour synaesthesia), to 1 in 25,000 for rarer forms (e.g., sound-odour synaesthesia).

As synaesthesia rarely interferes with daily life (it is not a disorder!), many people do not realise they are unusual. The extra experiences typically occur from a young age, and are usually consistent over time.

PaintingColoured Alphabet

Here is the alphabet of one well-known synaesthete, artist Carol Steen (New York, USA).

She has generously given us permission to display an image of one of her paintings, which is inspired by her synaesthetic experience from music.

"I made this painting one winter's evening after I heard a musician play an untitled piece on his Shakuhachi flute. Unlike the fast-tempo songs I usually work to because I like to watch the colours change quickly, the song he played had a very slow tempo. I call this painting "Clouds Rise Up" because this is exactly what I saw as I listened to him play his flute. Each note he played had two sounds and two red colours: red and orange, which is why the two colours you see move together as one shape on the slightly metallic green surface which is the colour of the flute itself when he played it.".

Our research

We have been studying synaesthesia since 1999. Initial studies were carried out at Monash University (with Profs. John Bradshaw & Jason Mattingley), and then further studies at the University of Melbourne (with Prof. Jason Mattingley). We have been studying synaesthesia at Macquarie University, where Associate Professor Anina Rich heads the Synaesthesia Research Group in the Department of Cognitive Science, since 2007.

Synaesthesia provides a unique opportunity to explore how we perceive the world. By looking at the way the synaesthetes' unusual experiences arise, we can find out more about how the brain processes incoming information from the senses, and puts together our conscious experience of the world. Synaesthesia may also provide insights into the role of learning and experience in our perception.

We use questionnaires, computer-based tasks, and non-invasive brain imaging to explore the experiences of synaesthetes. These techniques allow us to examine the characteristics of synaesthetes, regions of the brain involved in their experiences, and a host of other important questions, such as the role that attention and consciousness play in this fascinating phenomenon.'

Research Participation

If you would like to participate in our research, we have an online participant register which you can join by completing a short survey. We also have a study involving a more detailed and comprehensive questionnaire that can also be completed online. If you are interested in hearing more about synaesthesia research in the Department of Cognitive Science, or have any questions please email us at synaesthesia@mq.edu.au .

Paul BOURKE LECTURE 2014

As part of receiving the prestigious Paul Bourke Award in 2013 from the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, on 1st May 2014 Associate Professor Rich discussed her research on synaesthesia and the mappings we all have between our senses, giving insights into the way the brain integrates information for conscious perception of the world.

Contact Details

If you have any queries, please email us at synaesthesia@mq.edu.au (or you can call Associate Professor Anina Rich on 02 9850 9597)

Useful links

If you would like to learn more about synaesthesia, click on some of the following links:

Further Information

Seminars

Who is Visiting

  • Professor Jason Hollowell
  • Dr Olena Nikolenko
  • Dr Lianzhong Zheng
  • Dr Emmanual Chemla
  • Associate Professor Sara Hart
  • Dr Dona Jayakody
  • Dr Erik Chang
  • Dr Nichola Burton
  • Dr Clare Sutherland
  • Dielle Horne
  • Dr Amy Dawel
  • Ellen Bothe
  • Samantha-Kaye Johnston
  • Dr Ryan Balzan
  • Dr Teresa Schubert
  • Jemma Collova
  • Derek Swe
  • Professor Stefan Schweinberger
  • Chloe Giffard
  • Kaitlyn Turbett
  • Dr Britta Biedermann
  • Jonathon Love
  • Professor Ingo Bojak
  • Professor Sylvain Baillet
  • Dr Christos Pliatsikas
  • Professor James Douglas Saddy
  • Professor Tom Johnstone
  • Professor Matthew Lambon-Ralph
  • Dr Sharon Savage
  • Dr Donna Rose Addis
  • [Previous Visitors]

Contact Details

Telephone: (02) 9850 9599
Fax : (02) 9850 6059
Email : cogsci@mq.edu.au
Web : www.cogsci.mq.edu.au