captivate me.: Synesthesia and Dr. David Eagleman: Myths and Facts
I’ve seen some confusion about synesthesia and the work of Dr David Eagleman and his team. I’m hoping that I can clear some of it up. Disclaimer: I am a synesthetic student who has no relationship with these people and I am currently studying to work in the field of cognitive neurology to focus on perpetual genomics (how our genes change our perceptions). I have also read several books by Dr Eagleman and biographies about him, as well as completed several research projects about synesthesia.
- David Eagleman wants to find the synesthesia gene. TRUE In fact, according to book “Wednesday is Indigo Blue”, “synesthesia may well result from several genes, as well as the likelihood that different genes may be implicated in different families. These genetic details are the subject of current study in David’s laboratory” (p 227). It is also suggested that they have traced the gene(s) to chromosome 16 (source).
- Autism is related to synesthesia. TRUE. In fact, neural researches Eagleman and Cytowic propose that synesthesia could be the exact opposite! Here are some quotes: (keep in mind that both researches have agreed that this contains some speculation and will be refined by future data)
Autism is a genetic disorder. ”Autistics perform well when attention to detail is required… but poorly when the forest must be grasped in favor of the trees. This observed difference is in accordance with autobiographical accounts of autism that often recount a fragmentation of perception” (p 241). Autism researcher Francesca Happe “discovered that autistics do not perceive certain visual illusions” (p 241). Similar findings support this. According to Cytowic and Eagleman, this “suggests that normal neural cross talk … is reduced in autistic brains” (p 242). A big theory about why synesthesia occurs is that neural cross talk is apparently enhanced in synesthetic brains. Researchers believe that there is a connection and research is occurring today (source) (source). Understanding more about synesthesia could help us learn more about autism.
Wait, is this actually something people really think, the “autistics don’t see visual illusions” thing? Is that like “autistics don’t experience contagious yawning?” Because… I remember when I was 8, I ordered a book about optical illusions through one of those school book club things, and was really fascinated with it for awhile. And I managed to get all of the illusions to work for me except for one, which was an American flag with reversed colors, where if you stared at it for long enough, you were supposed to be able to close your eyes and see the afterimage with the right colors. I think it was because I was viewing it in the wrong kind of light.
My brain actually does do the “afterimage negative colors” thing, but it depends totally on the lighting conditions. It happens especially if I walk into a bright room from a dimly-lit room and then close my eyes. I also remember that when I was in elementary school, I used to deliberately stare at the bright lights on the cafeteria ceiling and then close my eyes because I thought the “photo negative” image was interesting, and because I thought it was cool that I could usually see the filament in the bulb in the negative image, when I couldn’t see it while staring at the light directly. (Back when they still used incandescent lights in schools…)
I don’t think it has much to do with sensory fragmentation for me, anyway. I couldn’t tell you what most of the objects around me are right now without concentrating on it.
Yes people do believe it. Except it’s not true. Research shows autistic people both seeing and not seeing illusions. In one case they looked over the research and found one big source of the discrepancy: The way the questions were worded. Autistic people respond differently to “Which line looks longer?” (research will then show we are susceptible to illusions) and “Which line is longer?” (at which point suddenly we don’t look susceptible).
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of what passes for autism science is complete and total bullshit. Francesca Happe and many researchers associated with her have a vested interest in creating research that appears to confirm their guesswork about autism. It should not be taken as seriously as most people seem to take it. There is plenty of evidence against their ideas about us if you examine the research closely.
Finally, if synesthesia and autism were truly opposites then there would not be such a large number of autistic synaesthetes.
Interestingly, I was on a mailing list about synaesthesia that Cytowic took part in. On that list, there were plenty of autistic synaesthetes. One thing many of us (and some others I knew outside of it) experienced was that when we became more overloaded, our senses blended more. Often in ways that were different from our ordinary, more stable synaesthesia. This personal experience also went against Cytowic’s “mandatory” criterion that synaestesia is wholly unchanging. So did the experience of many nonautistic synaesthetes on the list. Another of his mandatory criteria is that it is especially memorable. Many people there did not experience that one all the time either.
Bottom line: Both synaesthesia researchers and autism researchers have agendas of their own. Including the agenda to oversimplify real life experience in the service of pet theories and other intellectual and professional concerns. Never believe researchers describing our supposed direct experiences when it blatantly conflicts with lots of the direct experiences actually reported by the people they make a good living off researching. Research can uncover some things people are unaware of about ourselves, but it can’t tell us what we subjectively experience. And researchers often have reasons for their beliefs that aren’t just the pursuit of truth at all costs.
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