Science

People trained to experience an overlap in senses also receive IQ boost

New research suggests synesthesia, a condition that sees people experience an overlapping of the senses, can be induced through specific training (Photo: Shutterstock)
New research suggests synesthesia, a condition that sees people experience an overlapping of the senses, can be induced through specific training (Photo: Shutterstock)
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New research suggests synesthesia, a condition that sees people experience an overlapping of the senses, can be induced through specific training (Photo: Shutterstock)
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New research suggests synesthesia, a condition that sees people experience an overlapping of the senses, can be induced through specific training (Photo: Shutterstock)

Tasting lemons when they see a number seven, regarding a certain letter as being yellow in color. Not a great deal is known about why some people experience an overlapping of the senses, a phenomena known as synesthesia. But a new study conducted at the University of Sussex has suggested that specific training of the mind can induce the effects of the condition. The study even suggests that such training can boost a person's IQ.

It is believed that around one in 23 people experience synesthesia. One of the big question marks surrounding the neurological condition is whether it is a result of our genes, or induced through behavior, such as the use of those colored magnetic letters found on fridges around the globe.

Psychologists at the University of Sussex's Sackler Center for Consciousness Science subjected a group of 14 adults to a nine week program designed to incite traits of synesthesia. They found that by the project's end, the participants had strong enough letter-to-color associations to pass standard testing for synesthesia. The majority also reported the letters themselves seeming "colored" and possessing certain personalities, such as "x" being boring and "w" being calm, for example.

Even more remarkably, the participants also experienced a boost in IQ by an average of 12 points, compared to a control group that wasn't subjected to the training.

"The cognitive boost, although provisional, may eventually lead to clinical cognitive training tools to support mental function in vulnerable groups, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD) children, or adults starting to suffer from dementia,” says Dr Daniel Bor, one of the study's co-authors.

Though the findings suggest that synesthesia can be developed through behavior or training, the scientists say the two aren't mutually exclusive and this doesn't rule out the possibility that the condition has a genetic component.

“It should be emphasized that we are not claiming to have trained non-synesthetes to become genuine synesthetes," says Dr Nicolas Rothen, the study's other co-author. "When we retested our participants three months after training, they had largely lost the experience of seeing colors when thinking about the letters. But it does show that synesthesia is likely to have a major developmental component, starting for many people in childhood.”

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of Sussex

9 comments
Elijah Sherv
12?! That's a huge increase. I'm really surprised by this. This can't possibly be a permanent increase though right? Surely it'd waver off over time. Increasing somebodies IQ by around 12 is a huge breakthrough. I'm sort of doubting the whole thing..
Mel Tisdale
The work of Wieslaw Limont , a Polish professor (based in Torun, if I am not out of date), would seem to be related to this content of this article. Her work centred on getting primary level children to combine different notions, such as a pencil snake or a woolly house. I only worked with her on her presentation materials for a conference, but was sufficiently impressed to still remember it after some 15 years. What I remember most was that she showed that compared to a control group, there was not only an increase in IQ, this increase was maintained up to university age (the then maximum age possible since the time she began her work.)
Mark Gibb
I've had the most common form of synesthesia (letters-colors) from my earliest memories. I don't think it was induced by environmental factors like colored magnetic letters. I enjoy having this "condition" and it has been helpful to me. This study is interesting, but I suspect it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The sample group is tiny, and like Elijah said, the IQ increase is huge. I think an interesting and fairly easy-to-answer question would be how does the average IQ of large numbers of synesthetes compare to the population at large.
Adam Beutler
I would love a Chrome extension or windows app that would make every (A, a) green on every page for instance. Then any time you're on the web or using your computer you would be slowly giving yourself synesthesia. Someone with some programing abilities please make this!
Don Duncan
At 72 I really need something like this training. I find my memory fading. I watch Jeopardy to test myself and find I have good days/bad days. The most frustrating part of is when I know the answer but can't say it. I suggest the reason the trained synesthesia faded was do to lack of use, much as a learned language in adulthood fades without usage.
B. Stott
I would hazard that the mental training and stimulus was the cause of the increase of IQ rather than the specific type of exercises. These peoples brains were exercised for 9 weeks (two months). They were now all used to increased mental activity. It seems only clear that they then would be more apt to perform better on thinking.
StWils
When I was a sophomore in High School I got into an energetic dispute with the teacher, Brother DeLibro, about neural plasticity and brain development. The medical community "school" opinion was that brains became fixed by about age five and simply decline thereafter. I disagreed strongly. Brother DeLibro maintained that he had to teach to New York state standards and that on a test the next day there would be a question on this topic. I answered the way I was certain was correct and was marked wrong, as I expected. It took about twenty years for medical research to catch up. This use of brain training is interesting but not that surprising. Any athlete, mathematician, writer, artist, etc, emphasizes an array of physical and intellectual skills as they work and train. Each of their brains will show changes as this happens. To me, the bigger question is how to make good use of this effect?
christopher
I can "see" sound, but only in the brief minutes just before falling asleep.
William Carr
Well, yes, I have the letter/color thing. What I’m finding interesting is the idea that making new associations increases IQ. Somebody quick, figure out a computer game to do brain-training for this. We desperately need to be smarter, and the smarter you are already, the more you feel the need for it. Like Christopher says, when I’m half asleep I can visualize projects and build things in my mind. I NEED to be able to do this on demand. I started practicing visualization twenty years ago, with imagining two dots on a white background, and worked my way up. Somebody come up with a breakthrough SOON, please !