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Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Feb 28;8:98. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00098. eCollection 2014.

Synesthesia and learning: a critical review and novel theory.

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Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Child and Family Research Institute, University of British Columbia Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University Burnaby, BC, Canada.
Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia Vancouver, BC, Canada.


Learning and synesthesia are profoundly interconnected. On the one hand, the development of synesthesia is clearly influenced by learning. Synesthetic inducers - the stimuli that evoke these unusual experiences - often involve the perception of complex properties learned in early childhood, e.g., letters, musical notes, numbers, months of the year, and even swimming strokes. Further, recent research has shown that the associations individual synesthetes make with these learned inducers are not arbitrary, but are strongly influenced by the structure of the learned domain. For instance, the synesthetic colors of letters are partially determined by letter frequency and the relative positions of letters in the alphabet. On the other hand, there is also a small, but growing, body of literature which shows that synesthesia can influence or be helpful in learning. For instance, synesthetes appear to be able to use their unusual experiences as mnemonic devices and can even exploit them while learning novel abstract categories. Here we review these two directions of influence and argue that they are interconnected. We propose that synesthesia arises, at least in part, because of the cognitive demands of learning in childhood, and that it is used to aid perception and understanding of a variety of learned categories. Our thesis is that the structural similarities between synesthetic triggering stimuli and synesthetic experiences are the remnants, the fossilized traces, of past learning challenges for which synsethesia was helpful.


cognitive development; learning and memory; multisensory processing; perceptual development; plasticity and learning; synesthesia

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