Language use statistics and prototypical grapheme colours predict synaesthetes' and non-synaesthetes' word-colour associations
Synaesthesia is the neuropsychological phenomenon in which individuals experience unusual sensory associations, such as experiencing particular colours in response to particular words. While it was once thought the particular pairings between stimuli were arbitrary and idiosyncratic to particular synaesthetes, there is now growing evidence for a systematic psycholinguistic basis to the associations. Here we sought to assess the explanatory value of quantifiable lexical association measures (via latent semantic analysis; LSA) in the pairings observed between words and colours in synaesthesia. To test this, we had synaesthetes report the particular colours they experienced in response to given concept words, and found that language association between the concept and colour words provided highly reliable predictors of the reported pairings. These results provide convergent evidence for a psycholinguistic basis to synaesthesia, but in a novel way, showing that exposure to particular patterns of associations in language can predict the formation of particular synaesthetic lexical-colour associations. Consistent with previous research, the prototypical synaesthetic colour for the first letter of the word also played a role in shaping the colour for the whole word, and this effect also interacted with language association, such that the effect of the colour for the first letter was stronger as the association between the concept word and the colour word in language increased. Moreover, when a group of non-synaesthetes were asked what colours they associated with the concept words, they produced very similar reports to the synaesthetes that were predicted by both language association and prototypical synaesthetic colour for the first letter of the word. This points to a shared linguistic experience generating the associations for both groups.
Publication typeJournal article