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Ask Steffie Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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So does Eric taste like earwax to you?

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Q: Donna Constanzo

Hi Steffie.

If we looked at a blue shape (such as square) and agreed we both see it as “blue”, how would you see a colored letter “A” that I see as the as the same shade of blue as the block? Both a square and an A are essentially shapes, but we are conditioned that a character made from lines /-\ is a “Letter” and a character made from lines | -_ | is a “shape” Does the way you catergorize the image you see make a difference on how/where in the brain you process the image & how you see it? Hope this makes sense.

A: Steffie Tomson

Great question – the meaning of the lines do matter. One misconception about synesthesia is that synesthetes can just glance at a page and see colors. In fact, synesthetes don’t perceive color until they can perceive the identity of the letter or number (or shape, in your case). Let’s imagine that the symbols /-\ could be either an A or an H. If I write C/-\T and T/-\E, those three lines could mean either A or H depending on context, and for a synesthete that means the difference between two colors.

Q: Regis A James

I think that this is a fascinating field! Do you think that having associations between physical sensations and color perception could also be classified as synesthesia? I ask because I felt the color black when I broke my hand in high school.

A: Steffie Tomson

We measure synesthesia using consistency. So if you ‘feel’ black every time you pinch your hand (for example), then that might be an automatic association between a tactile sensation and a color, which many people have.

Q: Ms. Naymark’s science classes

Hi Steffie:

My students were facinated by your videos. Here are some of their questions:
1. Did you ever feel you were different as a kid?
2. Do numbers have colors to you?
3. Have you ever tried the “Stroop Effect” test to see how your synesthesia affects the results?
4. Is it confusing if more than one letter has the same color?
5. Does anyone else in your family have this condition?

Thank you for answering our questions!

A: Steffie Tomson

Hi Ms. Naymark and Class!

1. Absolutely. I quickly learned not to mention my colored letters/numbers/weekdays/months at school because my classmates thought it was weird. Instead, I used it as a secret weapon to ace all my spelling tests!
2. Yes.
3. Several studies have shown that synesthetes do experience the Stroop Effect (longer reaction times) if they are shown a letter in an incongruent synesthetic color. Meaning, if you show me a purple ‘B’ it will take me longer to respond in a task because my ‘B’ is actually orange.
4. Sometimes it’s helpful! For example, 3 and 9 are bright pink, which helped me remember that 3 is the square root of 9.
5. Nope – just me! The fact that not all synesthetes have affected relatives makes it even tougher to establish genetic inheritance patterns. For now, our data suggests it might be autosomal dominant with incomplete penetrance.