A very inspiring paper has been released after its embargo: “Synesthesia” by R. Williams, S. Gumtau and J. Mackness. The authors report on two case studies, but the paper offers much more insight.

The case studies cover two opposing extreme situations in which cross-modal environments can help children with issues: in a Montessori kindergarten, children incrementally approach abstract concepts, while in the “Mediate” project, autistic children interact with adaptive environments.

Trinomial Cube

Trinomial Cube

But after reading the paper, you have not only learned about extreme situations, or about “some people’s quirky imaginations”, as the title might suggest. Rather, a wide spectrum of the cognitive development appears very clear and suggests how all the pieces fit together: From embodied cognition, synesthetic abilities, metaphors, to generalizations and abstractions. (And in my view, of course, from RH mode all the way through LH mode.)

The authors plausibly describe “the progression and extrapolation

  • from involuntary synesthetic perception across senses
  • to involuntary synesthetic perception across senses and concepts,
  • to broader synesthetic ability, which identifies and creates completely new, modality-free abstractions.”

and I think this is a great new way to think about abstractions.

I have long been intrigued by the role of cross-modality (most recently here) and metaphors for our language and cognition. And now the same line of thought leads to generalization and abstraction at one end, and at the other end to direct and enactive perception (Gibson) and embodied cognition!

There is just one point that is difficult for me to agree: Their quote from Ramachandran speaks of

“other types of abstraction that [we] excel in, be it metaphor or any other type”

i.e., metaphor is seen as abstraction. Is the metaphor that bridges two domains (or often two senses), really withdrawn, removed, abstracted from the two domains, is it no longer grounded in any of them? Or is still grounded in both of the domains or senses? In none of the contexts or in both of the contexts? One could argue that this is also the difference between abstraction (none) and generalization (both) — and perhaps that it is the reason why so many pupils have issues with the great generalizations of mathematical thinking: because they perceive them as only abstract and applicable to nothing rather than to many cases. In the case study, however, abstraction was approached via multi-modality and cross-modality generalizations, such that, in the end, totally abstract (modality-free) concepts were easier to bear? Lots to speculate.

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One Response to Synesthesia

  1. Roy Williams says:

    Thanks Matthias for your review. Metaphors … my (recently) late tutor, Johann Degenaar, said metaphors were a ‘deliberate category mistake’, which does it all for me. In synaesthesia terms, its a deliberate cross-modal innovation (or even intellectual ‘joke’) that invites you to fine the modality-free abstraction embedded in a cross-modal challenge. Its up to you whether you keep it as a paradox, or try to resolve it. I like to live with the frisson of paradox.

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