Extensive Phenomenological Overlap between Induced and Naturally-Occurring Synaesthetic Experiences


Grapheme-colour synaesthesia (GCS) is defined by additional perceptual experiences, which are automatically and consistently triggered by specific inducing stimuli. The associative nature of GCS has motivated attempts to induce synaesthesia by means of associative learning. Two recent studies have shown that extensive associative training can generate not only behavioural (consistency and automaticity) and neurophysiological markers of GCS, but also synaesthesia-like phenomenology [1,2]. However, these studies provided only superficial descriptions regarding the training-related changes in subjective experience: they did not directly assess how closely induced synaesthetic experiences mirror those found in natural GCS. Here we report an extended qualitative analysis of the transcripts of the semi-structured interviews obtained following the completion of the associative training protocol used by [2]. In addition, we performed a comparable analysis of responses to an interview with a new population of natural occurring grapheme-colour synaesthetes (NOS), allowing us to directly compare the phenomenological dimensions of induced and naturally occurring synaesthetic experience. Our results provide an extensive addition to the description of the phenomenology of NOS experience, revealing a high degree of heterogeneity both within and across all experiential categories. Capitalising on this unique level of detail, we identified a number of shared experiential categories between NOS and induced synaesthesia-like (ISL) groups, including: stability of experience, location of colour experience, shape of co-occurring colour experience, relative strength of colour experience and automaticity of colour experience . Only the automaticity of colour experience differed significantly between the two groups: NOS experience was reported as being mostly automatic, whereas induced ISL were mostly described as being ‘wilful’. We observed three additional experiential categories relating to the automaticity of synaesthetic experience within the NOS group: contextually varied experience, semi-automatic experience and reflective association , which suggests that, as with other experiential categories, the automaticity of synaesthetic experience is also highly heterogeneous. Our results provide new evidence that that intensive training of letter-colour associations can alter conscious perceptual experiences in non-synaesthetes, and that such alterations produce synaesthesia-like phenomenology which substantially resembles similarities to natural grapheme-colour synaesthesia.