Sign Language Helps to Understand Synaesthesia


Synaesthesia is a form of perception in which the different senses are mixed up. For example, a synaesthete may see colours when listening to music or feel flavours when touching different textures. A 2016 research found that Sign Language can also provide synaesthetic sensations.

Cuadro del pintor Kandinsky que algunos expertos creen sinestésico
Painting 'Composition VI' by Kandinsky. Some experts believe that the Russian painter Kandinsky was synaesthetic.

The Research

The study involved researchers from three universities: University College London (UK), University of Sussex (UK) and Baylor School of Medicine (USA).

Fifty synaesthetes, aged 16-59 years, who normally see colours in letters, participated voluntarily, half of whom were proficient in Sign Language and learned it as adults. All of them watched a video in Sign Language and were asked if watching it activated any colours. Some of the Sign Language proficient people saw colours when fingerprint letters appeared in the Sign Language video and the colour activated was the same as the corresponding letter in the written language. However, people who did not understand Sign Language did not experience any synaesthetic sensation when watching the signed video.

Prueba de números que una persona sinestésica vería en diferentes colores
This image is usually used to detect whether a person has synaesthesia with the letters. For a synaesthetic person who sees the image on the left, different colours are activated for the 'S' and the '2' as in the image on the right (source: Student Society for Science)

The Findings

The research shows, on the one hand, that synaesthesia with letters is not exclusive to spoken languages and that synaesthesia is not activated simply by the shape of the letter but by the meaning of the letter, since people who learned Sign Language in adulthood had transferred synaesthetic sensations to Sign Language. On the other hand, it shows that the person is not born synaesthete but becomes synaesthete and new forms of synaesthesia can emerge.

The researchers conclude that the implications of these results are very important because they show that future research on synaesthesia in Sign Language can provide new data to understand synaesthesia in general.


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