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Synesthesia: Scientists trained people's brains to see letters as having distinct colors, and it improved IQ by 12 points


(NaturalNews) Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to train people to exhibit some of the characteristics of synesthesia, causing them to experience letters of the alphabet as associated with specific colors. Perhaps most surprisingly, this training led to a 12-point boost in IQ.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Sussex and published in the journal Scientific Reports in November.

"The main implication of our study is that radically new ways of experiencing the world can be brought about simply through extensive perceptual training," co-lead author Dr. Daniel Bor said.

"The cognitive boost, although provisional, may eventually lead to clinical cognitive training tools to support mental function in vulnerable groups, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD) children, or adults starting to suffer from dementia."

Training 100 percent successful

Synesthesia, a condition that affects an estimated one in 23 people, is defined as an overlap between different senses. This may cause words to have a certain "taste," or colors to have a certain "sound."

One of the most well-studied forms of synesthesia involves a sense that letters or numbers have certain colors. In the new study, researchers developed a nine-week training program to teach this trait to 14 adults without synesthesia. The training was successful in developing this trait; in addition, most participants reported perceiving letters as having personas (such as x being "boring," or w being "calm.")

At the end of the training, all 14 participants passed the standard tests given to identify synesthesia. They also tested an average of 12 points higher on an IQ test than they had at the beginning of the study, in comparison with a control group that had not undergone the training whose IQ scores remained the same.

Researchers have long argued over the extent to which synesthesia is an inherited trait versus one that emerges due to environmental factors. The new findings lend extra weight to the contribution of the environment.

"It should be emphasised that we are not claiming to have trained non-synaesthetes to become genuine synesthetes," co-lead author Dr. Nicolas Rothen said in the study's press release. "When we retested our participants three months after training, they had largely lost the experience of 'seeing' colours when thinking about the letters. But it does show that synaesthesia is likely to have a major developmental component, starting for many people in childhood."

Uncovering the mysteries of synesthesia

The study supports the findings of two other recent studies into synesthesia. In the first, conducted by researchers from Stanford University and published in Psychological Science in January 2013, researchers found that 11 synesthetes who perceived connections between letters or numerals and particular colors had owned the same set of magnetic colored letters and numbers as children. The colors they perceived the symbols as having were consistent over time, and were the same as those found in the magnetic set.

The findings do not mean that the magnetic letters caused synesthesia, the researchers emphasized, but they do suggest an important role of early childhood experience in causing the condition to manifest.

The second study, conducted by researchers from the University of San Diego and published in the journal Neurocase in May, compared four people who experience letters as having particular colors with a non-synesthete control group. The study participants were asked to complete children's puzzles consisting of words made from obscured or backwards letters. The synesthetes were able to complete the puzzles three times faster than the control participants. They told researchers that even when backwards or obscured, the letters still had the same colors they normally would. This enabled the synesthetes to identify the letters much faster.

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