This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Why Does Evolution Allow Some People to Taste Words?

A neural condition that tangles the senses so that people hear colors and taste words could yield important clues to understanding how the brain is organized, according to a new review study.

This sensory merger, called synesthesia, was first scientifically documented in 1812 but was widely misunderstood for much of its history, with many experts thinking the condition was a form of mild insanity.

"It's not just that the number two is blue, but two is also a male number that wears a hat and is in love with the number seven," said study co-author David Brang, of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

"We're not sure if these personifications are [also a symptom of] synesthesia, but we think this is what derailed a lot of scientists from being interested in it. ... They thought these people were making it all up."

Over the past 30 years, though, a growing body of evidence has shown that synesthesia has a physical basis—for example, the brains of synesthetes are wired differently, and the condition is highly heritable, which indicates there is a genetic component.

In fact, the study authors think it's possible such a strange phenomenon has survived in an evolutionary sense because it offers people certain benefits to creative thinking.

"Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of synesthetes love their synesthesia and say it enhances their lives," Brang said.

Early misunderstandings of synesthesia were due in part because the associations that synesthetes described were very precise and detailed, prompting some experts at the time to link the condition with mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

Another early "view held that synesthesia was a 'throwback' to a more evolutionarily primitive state," said study co-author Vilayanur Ramachandran, also a neuroscientist at UCSD.

Today scientists have tools that allow them to probe the brain in ways that were impossible 200—or even 10—years ago.

Read more

TAGGED: BEHAVIOR, BIOLOGY, EVOLUTION


RELATED CONTENT

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

Richard Dawkins - RichardDawkins.net Comments

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

R. Elisabeth Cornwell at TAM 2012 -...

- - TAM 2012 - JREF Comments

R. Elisabeth Cornwell at TAM 2012 - Social Networks: Civilizing the Future

Grey parrots use reasoning where...

- - The Royal Society Comments

Research suggesting that grey parrots can reason about cause and effect from audio cues alone- a skill that monkeys and dogs lack- is presented in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today.

Modern culture emerged in Africa 20,000...

Thomas H. Maugh II - LA Times Comments

Modern culture emerged in southern Africa at least 44,000 years ago, more than 20,000 years earlier than anthropologists had previously believed

The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational

Michael Balter - Science Comments

Studies to examine how children learn tasks that are not obvious and can even be counterintuitive.

Gorilla Youngsters Seen Dismantling...

Ker Than - National Geographic News Comments

After a poacher's snare had killed one of their own, two young mountain gorillas worked together Tuesday to find and destroy traps in their Rwandan forest home

MORE

MORE BY KER THAN

Gorilla Youngsters Seen Dismantling...

Ker Than - National Geographic News Comments

After a poacher's snare had killed one of their own, two young mountain gorillas worked together Tuesday to find and destroy traps in their Rwandan forest home

Human Ancestors Ate Bark—Food in Teeth...

Ker Than - National Geographic News Comments

Bits of food stuck in the two-million-year-old teeth of a human ancestor suggest some of our forebears ate tree bark, a new study says.

Elephants Took 24 Million Generations...

Ker Than - National Geographic News 15 Comments


Large mammals such as the black rhino (pictured) take longer to evolve than do small mammals.

What Created Earth's Oceans? Comet...

Ker Than - National Geographic News 6 Comments

Densest Matter Created in Big-Bang...

Ker Than - National Geographic News 40 Comments

"Besides black holes, there's nothing denser" we've seen, physicist says.

MORE

Comments

Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment