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4. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia

4.2 Global scale effects on grapheme-colour synaesthesia

For many individuals, a word’s first letter dominates the rest of the sequence, whereas others discern a blending in which all the letters influence one another.

Some report that vowels tend to fade into the back-ground under the dominating influence of neighboring consonants; in other cases, vowels inherit the shade of nearby colors. Some letters have more influence than others when appearing at the beginning of a word. (Cytowic and Eagleman 2009, 67)

With this quote, I now finally enter the psycholinguistic field surrounding the discussed neurological condition. Considering that grapheme-colour synaesthesia is indeed grounded in the local level regarding the coloured letters separately, I must point out the importance of the fact that the letters are rarely seen – or registered – separately when encountering a text; the combining of letters into words is a great factor when it comes to synaesthetic experiences. The following are some of the synaesthetic effects connected to grapheme-colour synaesthesia on the global scale when reading.

16 One such occurrence called “unitization” is addressed by Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001, 13).

They showed a sentence to their test subjects in which they had to identify all f’s: “Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years." Non-synaesthetes mostly reported only three f-s, having trouble with locating them in the function words which are treated differently in the terms of cognition as lexical units. Synaesthetes also had trouble locating all six graphemes, which proves that “the unitization constrains the emergence of the synaesthetic colour.” This means that once again, the top-down influences such as expectation – being used to seeing the function words as units and not often analysing them – can affect the synaesthetic concurrents depending on the perception of the inducer. (This test is probably not as efficient nowadays due to many people already aware of this test/trick, which would make them pay more attention to non-lexical words.)

Another such interesting phenomenon occurring on the global scale of the word is the whole-word colour effect. Rich et al. (2005, 74) note that many of their synaesthete subjects reported seeing the words having one colour: usually the colour of the first letter:

Many of our synaesthetes reported that the first letter of a word determines its synaesthetic colour, and that most (if not all) words that start with that letter elicit the same colour. This implies that either letters and words with the same initial sound become linked to the same synaesthetic colour, or letters are linked to colours and then these generalise to words when spelling is learned. (Rich et al. 2005, 74)

Mankin (2017b, 70-71) further investigates the effect of letters on the whole-word colour. Her findings show that the colour of the source letter, which dominates the whole-word colour, is not always identical to the whole-word colour. This means that the adjacent letters can considerably affect the colour hue based on their colour intensity. Furthermore, Mankin (2017b, 82) also shows that there exists a systematic preference for the source letters’ position: 67 percent of the participants in her study said that the initial letter was the dominant one (consonant in all examples) whereas for the 16 percent, the source letter was the first vowel appearing in the word.

17 Additionally, Simner et al. (2006a, 287) address the finding that the main factor in determining the whole-word colour is also syllable stress and that the letter position is only of secondary influence; their case study proves that the whole-word colour was not dependent on the initial letter in words like “cadet”, where the second syllable carries the stress. However, they come to the conclusion that such effect of lexical stress is more common in the perceptions of synaesthetes for whom the first vowel is the dominant letter, since syllables are grounded in vowels.

Furthermore, Simner et al. (2006a, 282) ask themselves two questions: firstly, whether the position of the letters is critical concerning the dominance of certain graphemes in a word; and secondly, what role is played by the non-dominating graphemes in the word? They establish that the dominance of the initial letter – or first vowel/consonant for some synaesthetes – in a word is connected to the word-recognition process. The following are the three main reasons why:

a) initial letters are easier to recognize because they are not crowded by other letters (at least when reading/writing from left-to-right),

b) when reading, the initial letter is processed first, and

c) initial letter is a primary component of the lexical code (the syllable which activates the mental lexicon and accesses the meaning of the word in question)

Mankin (2017b, 50-51) argues that although there exist many models of visual word recognition in the English language, of which among the main ones are the serial model (processing words from left to right and the word is not recognized until the last letter is scanned) and the parallel model (all of the letters are processed simultaneously, which is contradictory in nature to the effect of initial letters dominating the whole-word colour), given that words in English are indeed read in a left-to-right fashion, the letters in the area where the eye’s focus lands first have more dominance in the colour establishing of the word. In addition, if one scrambled the sequence of the letters in a word without changing the initial and last one, the word would still be processed – although a bit more slowly; however, if the initial letter was displaced, the speed of the recognition process would be severely slowed, if not even halted completely. This demonstrates the power of the initial letters – and thus their dominant effect on the whole-word colour can be accepted.

18 Another observation made by Simner et al. (2006a) is that of the time of the concurrent’s colour appearance while reading. There is a certain distinction between lexical-chromatic synaesthesia and grapheme-colour synaesthesia – yet they are often both present in grapheme-colour synaesthetes:

a) Lexical-chromatic synaesthesia: the whole-word colour is only triggered after recognizing the word i.e. after accessing it in the mental lexicon. Therefore, even though the letters of

“sun” are for a certain synaesthete green, blue and red, respectively, the word would trigger the holistic colour yellow due to its association with the sun. Lexical semantics plays a large part in the whole-word colour of processed words and thus disregards the colour of the composing letters. It is better explained by the following quote:

“There is an effect of lexical semantics, in that high imagery words with inherent real-world colour (e.g. table = woody brown) give rise to interference in the naming of synaesthetic colours. The influence of such semantic features reinforces the assumption of high-level lexical processing in this particular manifestation.” (Simner et al. 2006a, 281)

Mankin (2017b, 116) also observes that high-imageability words (or concrete words) like

“apple,” “fire” or “grass” evoke a clearer mental image when reading, hearing or thinking about them, in contrary to low-imageability words (or abstract words) like “friendship,”

“establishment” or “transfer”. The closeness of the whole-word colour to the one of the mental image of the word, depends also on the word’s frequency, and on the synaesthete.

Mankin (2017b, 124) also follows on by identifying the effect of index words, which are the words most often used in associations when learning the alphabet sequence (“a” is for apple, “d” is for dog and “q” is for queen, therefore “a” is red as an apple, “d” is brown as a dog and “q” is purple like the queen’s royal colour).

b) Grapheme-colour synaesthesia: The colour of the letters constructing the word affects the whole-word colour; however, one grapheme is dominating the word with its own colour, which prevails over the whole word.

Cytowic and Eagleman (2009, 68) show an example of how the colour of the letters – and consequentially the whole-word colour – can change after the synaesthete learns the word’s meaning; the participant in their study first told what colours the word “phthalocyanine”

19 included, and then, after actually learning the word’s meaning (a blue-green pigment), he reported seeing the word differently coloured (see Figure 7).

The next global-scale effect also described and depicted by Cytowic and Eagleman (2009, 67), is that of the repetition of letters in a word affecting the whole-word colour. Their synaesthete study subject reported to experiencing a more intense whole-word colour in the word “synaesthesia”

due to the repetition of green “s”s. The repetition of the letter “s” therefore influences the adjacent letters, turning them more green (see Figure 9)

Since scientists have confirmed the existence of whole-word colour effect and discussed its inducers, Mankin (2017b, 45) had the idea of researching how grapheme-colour synaesthetes perceive compound words. She wondered whether the compounds are perceived in one (dominant) or more (secondary) colours. She deduces that high-frequency compound words (“football”) would be perceived as of one colour, whereas low-frequency compounds (“lifevest”) would force the brain to pick the word apart, and consequently see the constituents in two separate colours.

Here, the experimental part of my thesis shows the possibility of the second constituent in the compounds being less-successfully perceived due to their initial letter having a pale, non-vibrant

Figure 7 The synaesthete’s perception of the word before and after learning the word’s meaning (blue-green pigment) (Obtained from Cytowic and Eagleman (2009, 70)).

Figure 8: The synaesthete’s depiction of the word with the colour of separate letters (top) and as he sees it as a whole, with the repeating letters forcing the adjacent letters to adopt its colour (bottom) (Obtained from Cytowic and Eagleman (2009, 70)).

20 colour. It is known that colours are naturally associated with emotional responses, for example red triggering focus and blue having a calming effect (cf. Hurlbert and Ling 2017).

All of these perception effects are grounded in the synaesthete’s degree of awareness and focus.

When focusing on a separate letter, its colour is perceived as more distinct than when it is present in a word in combination with others. There is a misguided belief that grapheme-colour synaesthetes are aware of their perceptions all the time, for all of the graphemes while reading;

however, just like we are not always consciously aware of the colour of items surrounding us in our every-day life, so a synaesthete is not always registering their sensory experiences.

Synaesthesia may be involuntary, but a brain is quick to analyse and then ignore nonessential data (cf. Cytowic and Eagleman 2009, 74).

5. Multi-sensory teaching methods for teaching the English