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A More Colorful World

BySteffie TomsonThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Synesthesia is a truly fascinating condition. All of the synesthetes that I’ve worked with assume that everyone sees the world as they do, and they can’t understand how it could be any other way! This brings up an interesting question about a person’s internal representation of their world. How do you know what I see? And how do I know what you see?

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We accept the world that is presented to us, and it is often difficult to imagine it “any other way.” Sometimes synesthetic children get teased because their colored letters sounds too fantastical to be real. But as a grown-up, it makes everyone jealous! In the end, synesthetes learn to use their colorful associations to help remember phone numbers and names, among other things, and that gives us a leg up!

A More Colorful World-synesthesia_letters.jpg
That’s right… these are Steffie’s colors for “synesthesia.”

Not only do synesthetes have a more colorful world, but they also most likely have something in their genes that makes them synesthetic. We have known for years that synesthesia runs in families, but the genetic mechanism is unknown. Although many synesthetes have synesthetic siblings or parents, just as many synesthetes are the only affected person in their family, leaving the inheritance patterns unclear. In addition to our functional MRI (“Sesame Street”) research, we are also searching for the gene(s) responsible for synesthesia. We focus on one of the most common types called colored-sequence synesthesia, or CSS. So far, we’ve found a region on Chromosome 16 that might be involved, but it will be awhile before we have a definite answer. In the meantime, we’re always looking for more families! If you have synesthetes in your family, feel free to tell me about it in the comments. We’re also always looking for synesthetes in the Houston area to participate in our fMRI studies. If you are interested, let me know.