1. Sensory links between autism and synesthesia pinpointed

    March 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Sussex press release:

    Concrete links between the symptoms of autism and synaesthesia have been discovered and clarified for the first time, according to new research by psychologists at the University of Sussex.

    The study, conducted by world-leading experts in both conditions at Sussex and the University of Cambridge and published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that both groups experience remarkably similar heightened sensory sensitivity, despite clear differences in communicative ability and social skills.

    Two previous studies had found an increased prevalence of synaesthesia in autistic subjects, suggesting that although they are not always found in conjunction, the two conditions occur together more often than would be expected by chance alone. However, this is the first study that has attempted to draw a definitive symptomatic link between the two.

    Synaesthesia and autism seem on the surface to be rather different things, with synaesthesia defined as a ‘joining of the senses’ in which music may trigger colours or words may trigger tastes, and autism defined by impaired social understanding and communication.

    The new research shows that both groups report heightened sensory sensitivity, such as an aversion to certain sounds and lights, as well as reporting differences in their tendency to attend to detail. However, the synaesthetes tended not to report difficulties on the traditional communicative symptoms that usually define autism. While the research shows that there are certainly links between the two conditions, these appear to be sensory rather than social.

    The study was led by Professor Jamie Ward, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Co-Director Sussex Neuroscience group, alongside Sussex Psychology colleague, Professor Julia Simner; and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Autism Research Centre.

    Commenting on the research, Prof Ward said: “Synaesthesia has traditionally been considered more of a gift than an impairment, whereas the opposite could often be said of autism. Our research suggests that the two have much more in common than was previously thought, and that many of the sensory traits that autistic people possess are also found in those who experience synaesthesia.

    “Though further research is required, our understanding of autism in the context of synaesthetic abilities may help us unlock the secrets of some of the more positive aspects of autism, such as savantism, while also uncovering further neurological links between the two conditions.”

    Another research paper by the group of researchers, looking more closely at the question of savantism in people with autism, is also due to be published soon.

    Reinforcing their initial research, it shows that synaesthesia tends to be particularly prevalent in people with autism who also have unexpected ‘savant’ abilities, such as superior abilities in arithmetic, memory and art.

    Prof Ward added: “Though some theories propose a causal link between increased sensory sensitivity and impaired social functioning in people with autism, our research so far demonstrates the value of considering synaesthesia on the same spectrum as autism from a sensory point of view.

    We hope in future to be able to continue to explore the relationship between perceptual, cognitive and social symptoms and abilities in autistic and synaesthetic people.”


  2. Study examines link between music and colours

    May 21, 2013 by Ashley

    From the UC Berkeley press release via EurekAlert!:

    Brain MusicWhether we’re listening to Bach or the blues, our brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the melodies make us feel, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

    For instance, Mozart’s jaunty Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major is most often associated with bright yellow and orange, whereas his dour Requiem in D minor is more likely to be linked to dark, bluish gray.

    Moreover, people in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors. This suggests that humans share a common emotional palette – when it comes to music and color – that appears to be intuitive and can cross cultural barriers, UC Berkeley researchers said.

    “The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors,” said UC Berkeley vision scientist Stephen Palmer, lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Using a 37-color palette, the UC Berkeley study found that people tend to pair faster-paced music in a major key with lighter, more vivid, yellow colors, whereas slower-paced music in a minor key is more likely to be teamed up with darker, grayer, bluer colors.

    “Surprisingly, we can predict with 95 percent accuracy how happy or sad the colors people pick will be based on how happy or sad the music is that they are listening to,” said Palmer, who will present these and related findings at the International Association of Colour conference at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. on July 8.  At the conference, a color light show will accompany a performance by the Northern Sinfonia orchestra to demonstrate “the patterns aroused by music and color converging on the neural circuits that register emotion,” he said.

    The findings may have implications for creative therapies, advertising and even music player gadgetry. For example, they could be used to create more emotionally engaging electronic music visualizers, computer software that generates animated imagery synchronized to the music being played. Right now, the colors and patterns appear to be randomly generated and do not take emotion into account, researchers said.

    They may also provide insight into synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one perceptual pathway, such as hearing music, leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a different perceptual pathway, such as seeing colors.  An example of sound-to-color synesthesia was portrayed in the 2009 movie The Soloist when cellist Nathaniel Ayers experiences a mesmerizing interplay of swirling colors while listening to the Los Angeles symphony. Artists such as Wassily Kandinksky and Paul Klee may have used music-to-color synesthesia in their creative endeavors.

    Nearly 100 men and women participated in the UC Berkeley music-color study, of which half resided in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other half in Guadalajara, Mexico. In three experiments, they listened to 18 classical music pieces by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms that varied in tempo (slow, medium, fast) and in major versus minor keys.

    In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of the 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple.

    Participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.

    Two subsequent experiments studying music-to-face and face-to-color associations supported the researchers’ hypothesis that “common emotions are responsible for music-to-color associations,” said Karen Schloss, a postdoctoral researchers at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper.

    For example, the same pattern occurred when participants chose the facial expressions that “went best” with the music selections, Schloss said. Upbeat music in major keys was consistently paired with happy-looking faces while subdued music in minor keys was paired with sad-looking faces. Similarly, happy faces were paired with yellow and other bright colors and angry faces with dark red hues.

    Next, Palmer and his research team plan to study participants in Turkey where traditional music employs a wider range of scales than just major and minor. “We know that in Mexico and the U.S. the responses are very similar,” he said. “But we don’t yet know about China or Turkey.

    Other co-authors of the study are Zoe Xu of UC Berkeley and Lilia Prado-Leon of the University of Guadalajara, Mexico.