Thursday, January 24, 2013

Synesthesia alert: No magnetic letters on your refrigerator!

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Especially if you have toddlers in the house! Well, not really. This study, by Witthoft and Winnawer of Stanford University, summarized by Science Daily, reports on what may well be a rather spurious or at least indirect correlation between the development of synesthesia and the presence on our refrigerators of those cute, plastic colored letters with magnets for young children to play with. What they found was that synesthetes, when given lists of colorless numbers and letters , tend to pick the same colors as those refrigerator magnet letters, whereas non-synesthetes' responses are pretty much random. How could that be? They don't say really, stopping short of suggesting that there is some direct relationship between the synesthesia and those letters being on the refrigerator during child development. Hmmm.  I just posted the following on an NLP discussion list:

"Interesting. Go to the website and take the test. When you do, before you respond to the query for your read on the "color" of the number or letter, say the number or letter out loud slowly, like a kid might. Note the overall felt sense of that articulation, where it lands in your head and vocal tract… and then pick your vowel. Better yet, look away from the grapheme when you do that. I can almost get to the synesthesia threshold that way . . . The research design neatly ignores controlling for how subjects get to making a decision, what cognitive and experiential process they lead with. (It is apparently done as a web-based survey only.) I am very suspicious of any direct link to childhood letters. That the letters happen to have been assigned those colors in the first place by the initial designers is probably more where it all leads."

So what does that have to do with haptic-integrated pronunciation work? Everything. The phonaesthetic   and somatic felt sense qualities of vowels, both in visual and articulatory terms, are well researched from several disciplines. Where the vowels are placed in the visual field in EHIEP and how the vowel sounds are presented and identified (or mis-identified) with letters in phonic characterizations, as in the "Refrigerator" study, does make a difference. (See earlier posts on the pedagogical application of vowel color such as this one.) Keep in touch.

1 comment:

Bill Acton said...

Have had several comments about this post. My point was that the manner in which the research was summarized in the media gave the impression that those innocuous little magnet letters may have somehow contributed to the development of synesthesia, that synesthesia may be, in some bizarre sense, "learned." Nonsense--at least based on what the research "discovered." My position was that the phonaesthetic qualities of the colors of the letters alone may more than account for the response differences between normals and synesthetes--not that the "near refrigerator" experience contributed to the neurological mis-wiring later. If you have followed the blog you know that I sometimes assign light weight research findings or summaries (especially by Science Daily) to a "Well . . . duh!" category. This one perhaps belonged in that pile as well.

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