Provide an overview of the neurological condition, synesthesia, especially the form called grapheme-color synesthesia, as well as any information on researchers working on this condition.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which individuals experience involuntary mixed sensory responses from external stimuli. Grapheme-color synesthesia is the most common subtype of the condition, and it involves the perception of letters or numbers as having a color associated with them. Though researchers have been studying this condition throughout the years, new research and findings may help to forward the understanding of this condition in the future.
In grapheme-color synesthesia there are actually two further subtypes of individuals. The first type are called projectors, and they are individuals who actually see the color in front of their eyes; in other words, projectors see the corresponding color directly on the page when looking at written numbers or letters. The second type of individuals are called associators. They are the more common of the two, and they internally associate the letters or numbers with particular colors but do not see them physically on the page.
Current Research on Synesthesia
A recent study by Oliver Chesley on grapheme-color synesthesia focused on the role of the individuals' attention in this condition. Through his research, Chesley has found that color associations of synesthetes seem to occur before they focus intensely or directly on the grapheme. He states that "[l]ittle is currently known about the neural basis of grapheme-color synesthesia, but headway is being made through the use of brain imaging techniques." Perhaps this avenue of research will help further understanding of this condition.
Positive Effects of Grapheme-Color Synesthesia
Researchers Julia Simner and Angela E. Bain offer a study that examines whether grapheme-color synesthesia can offer cognitive benefits to the children who experience this neurological condition. Their findings suggest that synesthete children actually can show many cognitive benefits over children who are not synesthetes. Simner and Bain propose that these individuals may "perform better because their memory traces for graphemes are more richly encoded," or that they may also perform better cognitively because their "perceptual organization" is different and more efficient than that of non-synesthetes. In this way, grapheme-color synesthesia can actually be seen as having positive effects in individuals lives, as they are better able to memorize and recall numbers and words due to their additional association of color to those words. Simner and Bain state that research such as theirs can and should have implications for children in schools. If children with synesthesia perform or learn differently from non-synesthete children, then they "suggest that the full range of influences on learning and cognition that accompany synaesthesia should be identified in full so that the performance of these children is better understood in educational settings."
Negative Effects of Grapheme-Color Synesthesia
While in the majority of cases synesthesia is seen as offering unique benefits to the synesthete, in some cases individuals can suffer from negative effects. These effects generally stem from the individual experiencing their synesthetic perception in a way that feels especially intense and disruptive to their days. Though synesthetic experiences are involuntary, individuals can try to reduce the intense and disruptive synesthetic reaction by trying to focus less on the triggering grapheme.
Living with Synesthesia
While synesthesia only affects about four percent of the population, findings suggest that the average elementary school in the United Kingdom "has a handful of synaesthetic pupils at any given time." With these numbers, it may be possible to connect children with this neurological condition with other synesthetes in their own school, therefore fostering a sense of community and belonging for the children. It is possible to make contact through "national synaesthesia associations" which exist throughout the world including in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and the Netherlands. There are also online synesthesia groups where individuals can meet and support each other in adjusting to life with this condition.
Much research has been carried out on grapheme-color synesthesia, however the studies are still ongoing to help understand the causes of this condition. While there can be negative and positive effects of this condition, the positive tend to be more common and synesthetes may actually gain come superior cognitive abilities when compared to non-synesthetes. In living with this condition, resources exist which can help to connect people and families dealing with synesthesia. This can aid in fostering a sense of community and help to guide individuals through understanding the effects the condition might have on their lives.