Ideasthesia

Grapheme-color synesthesia

Ideasthesia is a neurological or cognitive phenomenon in which activation of a particular concept triggers a sensory-like experience. Specifically it is when activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes from Greek, meaning sensing concepts or sensing ideas.

The main reason for introducing the notion of ideaesthesia was the empirical evidence indicating that the related term synesthesia (i.e. union of senses) suggests incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading.

‘Synaesthesis’ denoting ‘co-perceiving,’ implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations (i.e., the meaning, of the stimulus) rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia. Recently, it has been shown that the Kiki-Booba phenomenon is a case of ideasthesia: When subjects are asked which of two shapes would be called ‘Booba’ and which ‘Kiki’? Responses are highly consistent among people. That spiky shape is almost always named Kiki and the rounder shape Booba. This is an example of ideasthesia as the conceptualization of the stimulus plays an important role.

A common example of ideasthesia is the association between graphemes (the smallest semantically distinguishing unit in a written language) and colors, usually referred to as grapheme-color synesthesia. Here, letters of the alphabet are associated with vivid experiences of color. Studies have indicated that the perceived color is context-dependent and is determined by the extracted meaning of a stimulus. For example, an ambiguous stimulus ‘5’ that can be interpreted either as ‘S’ or ‘5’ will have the color associated with ‘S’ or with ‘5’, depending on the context in which it is presented. If presented among numbers, it will be interpreted as ‘5’ and will associate the respective color. If presented among letters, it will be interpreted as ‘S’ and will associate the respective synesthetic color.

Evidence for grapheme-color ideasthesia comes also from the finding that colors can be flexibly associated to graphemes, as new meanings become assigned to those graphemes. In one study synesthetes were presented with Glagolitic letters that they have never seen before, and the meaning was acquired through a short writing exercise. The Glagolitic graphemes inherited the colors of the corresponding Latin graphemes as soon as the Glagolitic graphemes acquired the new meaning. For lexical-gustatory synesthesia (one of the rarer forms of synesthesia, in which spoken or written words evoke vivid sensations of taste) evidence also points towards ideasthesia: In lexical-gustatory synesthesia, verbalization of the stimulus is not necessary for the experience of concurrents.

Instead, it is sufficient to activate the concept. Another case of ideasthesia is swimming-style synesthesia in which each swimming style is associated with a vivid experience of a color. These synesthetes (ideasthetes) do not need to perform the actual movements of a corresponding swimming style. To activate the concurrent experiences, it is sufficient to activate the concept of a swimming style (e.g., by presenting a photograph of a swimmer or simply talking about swimming).

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