Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An old quote sure to raise the eyebrows or the hackles of synaesthetes

"An individual whose conscious awareness is such that a sound becomes fused with a sense of color and taste; for whom each fleeting impression engenders a vivid, inextinguishable image; for whom words have quite different meanings than they do for us—such a person cannot mature in the same way others do, nor will his inner world, his life history tend to be like others'."


Luria, A. R. & Solotaroff, Lynn (translator) (1968) The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Jonathan Cape.
[This book is a case study of Solomon Shereshevskii, whose name is given as “S” in this book. Shereshevskii was a Russian Jewish journalist and mnemonist synaesthete active in 1920s (try saying that fast!). The author’s name is sometimes spelt Aleksandr Luriia]

It appears that the supposedly great Soviet neuropsychologist Aleaxander Luria took the view that synaesthesia necessarily makes synaesthetes in some way impaired in development or subnormal, a view which is not generally held today by synesthesia researchers, a view which I imagine most synaesthetes would object to and also a view which is at odds with the fact that the world of science and psychology has displayed little awareness of how common synaesthesia actually is, presumably because synaesthetes do not generally present with disability or disorder related to their synaesthesia, and thus do not draw attention to their synaesthesia.

So, how did Luria, a clinician and writer apparently held in great regard by many Western contemporary writers and researchers in the area of neuropsychology, make such a monumental blunder? I think the great Luria lacked some very basic skills in critical thinking and statistical reasoning, skills which ordinary people without careers in science or medicine need to have and apply in their everyday lives, let alone researchers and doctors. What was Luria's mistake? I think he failed to reflect upon the potential biasing influence of his sampling method. What sample did Luria take? He took a sample of one synaesthete from the entire population of synesthetes, and he chose to write about only the one synaesthete person who he had sampled and tested and examined and gotten to know, ignoring the rest of the synaesthetes who were potentially out there in the world unexamined, unidentified and unknown by Luria. One could stretch the definition of good scientific research practice by counter-arguing that it is not unknown for scientific studies of single cases to be published in science or medical journals, so it isn't necessarily a bad thing to write single case studies. I'd reply that it is a bad thing to take the sample in a potentially biasing manner, and then hold up the result of the study as in any way representative of the rest of the potential group of subjects who have the same characteristic. How was Luria's sampling method biased? It was hugely biased, because "S" the Jewish mnemonist journalist synaesthete did not come to the attention of Luria on the basis of his synaesthesia alone. S was not selected for attention or study by Luria as a synaesthete representative of all synaesthetes in an organized study of synaesthesia. As I recall the text of the Luria's book The Mind of a Mnemonist (please correct me if I am wrong), S came to the attention of Luria when S's employer almost by accident noticed that S was using an extraordinary memory ability in his ordinary working day, and then the employer contacted Luria about S. It's very obvious that this is not the normal procedure for recruiting study subjects!

I am sure that there are many people in the worlds of science and memory sport who might wonder whether S's synaesthesia was just an interesting feature of his mind found coincidentally in a mind that had also been affected by training in long-established and widely-known memory techniques. S was selected for study by Luria because of his extraordinary memory. Perhaps his synaesthesia was not as important to this ability as some have claimed, but was just found by coincidence. It is true that synaesthesia is now known to be a fairly common mental trait, possibly as common as a feature of 12% of the population, so there's a good chance that any person randomly chosen off the street will experience some type of synaesthesia. But on the other hand, there have been a number of studies and case studies that have found an association between superior memory and synaesthesia, so the question of the relationship between synaesthesia and memory is a live one, and an interesting one.

I think that Luria's characterization of S as in some way impaired or disabled lacks evidence and is questionable, but let's just take Luria's depiction of S at face value, and then ask whether we can be sure that the supposed impairment of S as due to his synaesthesia and not some other factor. We can't be sure at all, because S, like all synaesthetes had other characteristics besides synaesthesia that might have altered his life or the way he was allowed to live his life. I believe he was Jewish and I suspect that Russia has a history of anti-Semitism. He was also a mnemonist, in that he at one time did a stage show based on his memory feats. I believe that these days, (with the exception of Daniel Tammet), mnemonists are understood to be psychologically pretty-much normal people who have chosen to train themselves (there are no institutions that offer such training) in memory techniques. I don't think there are many people who bother to do this, as memory sport and mnemonist performances are not big business and offer little obvious financial or social reward. I hope that memory sport competitiors and present-day mnemonists will not be offended by my assertion that it is a pretty unusual thing to wish to be a mnemonist and to devote the time and effort required to becoming adept and successful in memory techniques. Such people are necessarily autodidacts who are motivated by things in life other than wealth, and are willing to sacrifice a large chunk of their life to cultivating a skill that offers little financial reward, to the possible exclusion of more personally useful and lucrative activities. Such people are certianly unusual. You could call them nerds, outsiders, a bit autistic, or maybe too smart or too competitive for their own good. Maybe they are wealthy people out to prove a point about the superiority of their own minds. I have no idea, as I have no connection or personal experience of memory sport. It is certainly an unusual idea to wish to apply the structure of sport to mental processes, but not a bad idea, in my opinion. One could certainly argue that if Luria studied a synaesthete mnemonist and found him to be a bit odd, the reason for this was that only a person who was a bit odd or socially disadvantaged in some way would be bothered with the training required to become a mnemonist, and that the oddness motivated the training which was the basis of the extreme memory ability, while the synaesthesia was unrelated to all of these things. Luria should have gone looking for other synaesthetes to study, using unbiased sampling methods, to see whether they were also odd or had incredible memories or were in any way distinguishable from non-synaesthetes. But I don't think he did. As they say "Too much like hard work".


Anonymous said...

I share your skeptism about Luria's descriptions of S's apparent impairments.

A fundamental issue for a memory performer claiming to have amazing abilities is to explain why they haven't done something more useful with their lives. If someone can really remember anything on sight, how come they haven't become a doctor, academic, linguist, lawyer or expert in some other field where an ability to remember would give a compelling advantage?

Of course, the reality is that learning the skills of a memory performer (memorising playing cards etc) doesn't directly translate to being able to memorise academic subjects. But if a performer wants to convince an audience that they have general genius abilities, they have to invent some other reason why they don't have impressive achievements in life. So there's an incentive to come up with some creative excuses.

The whole section in Luria's book on S's personality is full of examples of S using Synaesthesia and personality descriptions as an excuse for ordinary everyday failings.

There's the childhood incident he describes where S was late to school because he had imagined he was at school so vividly he thought he was already there. Really? I think any teacher or parent would be rather skeptical of that excuse and we should be too!

Then there's incidents like when he got a job as a broker because of his head for figures, but didn't stick with it. Luria puts this down to personality, but I think it's equally plausible that his employer had overestimated S's abilities because of his memory techniques, and his actual job performance was much more ordinary and didn't live up to expectations.

Another example is S's descriptions of difficulty in recognising faces as "changeable". I suspect this is simply S's way to explain away the fact that he often forgets faces, just as any normal person would, which is nonetheless not what the audience would expect of a memory performer.

Basically it looks likely that Luria is simply describing S's creative excuses for his ordinary performance at everyday life.


Lili Marlene said...

It's true that there are many conclusions in Luria's book about Shereshevskii that can be questioned, and evidence given that can be interpreted in different ways. I did read the book through quite a while ago, and I wish I had the time to go over it again with a fine-toothed comb, noting exactly how much testing of "S" Luria did, and the results of the studies. As I recall it, the testing was mostly of S's memory feats, not other things such as face memory or reading age etc. I may be wrong. The book was written a very long time ago in Russia I think, and I guess I can't assume Luria had access to valid testing instruments.

I've recently re-read many parts of the interesting book Superior Memory by Wilding and Valentine, and it's really interesting to see their comparison between Shereshevskii and TM, who is almost certainly Tom Morton. It seems that both men are or were at one time rather aimless and not settled into a satisfying career, but is this similarity simply due to them both being mnemonists, is this a job that only a misfit or a loner might wish to do, or is there something about the synaesthete brain that sets a person apart from a settled career, or was there another hidden factor in play?

Anonymous said...

Interesting research on synaesthesia published last month - Pseudo-Synesthesia through Reading Books with Colored Letters, Olympia Colizoli, Jaap M. J. Murre, Romke Rouw.


Lili Marlene said...

Hmmmm, I've seen synaesthesia research before in which researchers have claimed to have induced synaesthesia in non-synaesthetes, and in my opinion it isn't really the same thing as genuine synaesthesia. I'll have a look. Is Tammet mentioned in the paper?

Lili Marlene said...

Had a quick look. It does show that coloured letters can be memorized, and Tammet could well have done this, but that shouldn't surprise anyone really.

It appears that in the study there is a difference in the level of memorization of the colours between upper and lower case letters, due to different exposure to learning of the colours due to difference in the frequency of encountering these types of letters in text. I doubt that this would be true of a genuine synaesthete, because it is the CONCEPT of the letter evoked by the visual shape of the letter that synaesthesia is based on, at least in my case, and the concept of A is the just as applicable to upper and lower case. Like many synaesthetes I do experience lower case letters as paler colours of the upper case letters, but the hue is the same. The tinting of the letters for the lower case is also an example of conceptual thinking giving ride to syanesthesia - the concept of "lower case" causes this effect. It is possible that some types of synesthesia operate from the visual appearance of letters, not the concepts of letters, but this certainly doesn't account for all cases, so I can say that the learned syanesthesia in this study isn't conceptual synaesthesia, and it isn't the same as my coloured letters.

Tomas, have you ever bothered to make a record of Tammet's coloured alphabet? I admit I haven't done that yet. There are some things to look for in an alphabet that can give a clue as to whether it is fake or genuine synaesthesia. After viewing a YouTube video that the controversial Amanda Baggs made of her claimed coloured letters, I became even more convinced that she is a faker.

Anonymous said...

Here's my notes about Tammet's coloured alphabet from various sources:

a red
f blue
g green
h white and soft
j yellow
l blue and shiny
o clear and shiny
r red
t orange
v purple
w dark blue
y yellow

Some follow the very obvious pattern of standing for a colour (r for red, y for yellow); others don't have an obvious reason.

Lili Marlene said...

Y being yellow is actually found more often in synaesthetes than you'd expect by chance, and apparently G is often yellow for German syns, so this aspect of Tammet's syn looks authentic. His A is red, which complies with another effect often found in genuine syns. A clear or white O follows another effect often found in syns. His purple V follows another effect common to syns. It is a pity his colour for the letter E can't be found, but I've got to say that his alphabet so far looks quite authentic. My only reservation is that it perhaps lacks dull, pale, unsaturated and dark colours, but maybe this kind of detail has been lost from the descriptions. An alphabet that consists of glowing, vibrant, beautiful colours is bulls*** in my opinion.

Lili Marlene said...

We should also possibly bear in mind that non-syns apparently reproduce the same patterns as syns more often than chance if asked to colour an alphabet, so the patterns in Tammet's alphabet don't prove he's a syn at all. New Scientist published on May 19th 2007 an article about syn that included typical colours of the alphabet, but sadly it is now behind a paywall. His colours probably only tell us that his alphabet wasn't a thing created with the aim of entertaining others with pretty colours.

I've noticed that the magazine illustration's source has been given as "Cognitive Neuropsychology Vol 22 P1069" in teeny, tiny letters. I wonder whether that paper was published before Tammet's forst book was written?

Lili Marlene said...

It should go without saying that inconsistency in descriptions is the best indication that a person is faking syn, but even this criteria has some qualifications.

Lili Marlene said...

The original source of the coloured alphabet is an journal paper that came out in 2005. I guess that makes it possible that Tammet could have used it in researching his first book, which was published in 2006. It really depends on when his manuscript was handed in to his publisher.
His alphabet is not a direct copy of the alphabet found by researchers.