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Cognition. 2019 May;186:72-81. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.02.003. Epub 2019 Feb 11.

Superior learning in synesthetes: Consistent grapheme-color associations facilitate statistical learning.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, 4th Floor, Sidney Smith Hall, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada.
2
Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, Room 3210 Tolman Hall #1650, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650, USA.
3
Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, 4th Floor, Sidney Smith Hall, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada. Electronic address: finn@psych.utoronto.ca.

Abstract

In synesthesia activation in one sensory domain, such as smell or sound, triggers an involuntary and unusual secondary sensory or cognitive experience. In the present study, we ask whether the added sensory experience of synesthesia can aid statistical learning-the ability to track environmental regularities in order to segment continuous information. To investigate this, we measured statistical learning outcomes, using an aurally presented artificial language, in two groups of synesthetes alongside controls and simulated the multimodal experience of synesthesia in non-synesthetes. One group of synesthetes exclusively had grapheme-color (GC) synesthesia, in which the experience of color is automatically triggered by exposure to written or spoken graphemes. The other group had both grapheme-color and sound-color (SC+) synesthesia, in which the experience of color is also triggered by the waveform properties of a voice, such as pitch, timbre, and/or musical chords. Unlike GC-only synesthetes, the experience of color in the SC+ group is not perfectly consistent with the statistics that signal word boundaries. We showed that GC-only synesthetes outperformed both non-synesthetes and SC+ synesthetes, likely because the visual concurrents for GC-only synesthetes are highly consistent with the artificial language. We further observed that our simulations of GC synesthesia, but not SC+ synesthesia produced superior statistical learning, showing that synesthesia likely boosts learning outcomes by providing a consistent secondary cue. Findings are discussed with regard to how multimodal experience can improve learning, with the present data indicating that this boost is more likely to occur through explicit, as opposed to implicit, learning systems.

KEYWORDS:

Language; Learning; Multimodal; Statistical learning; Synesthesia

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