Digital synesthesia: Tricking your brain into experiencing smell as temperature in virtual reality

Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, computer scientist Jas Brooks and colleagues from the University of Chicago are creating a kind of digital synesthesia by using odors to trick your brain into experiencing different temperatures in virtual reality. For example, capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers, triggers a warm feeling while eucalyptol elicits a cool sensation. Evan Ackerman explains in IEEE Spectrum:

The trigeminal nerve [in your nose] connects your brain to most of your face, and it carries a bunch of sensory information, including both smell and temperature. The actual temperature-sensing mechanism comes from transient receptor potential (TRP) ion channels, and while we can skip over exactly how these work, the important thing to understand is that some of these TRP channels can get triggered by either skin temperature or certain kinds of aerosolized chemicals. You’ve almost certainly experienced this for yourself: When you smell peppermint, it feels cold, because the menthol in the peppermint is triggering a receptor in your trigeminal nerve called TRPM8 that responds to both the menthol and temperatures under 25 °C. On the other end of things, capsaicin (which you can find in hot peppers) triggers the TRPV1 receptor, which also responds to temperatures above 42 °C. That’s the key: One receptor that can be triggered by temperature or a chemical, but sends the same temperature sensory message to your brain. The researchers describe this as “a perceptual duality,” and if you aerosolize one of these chemicals and puff it up your nose, you’ll feel a temperature change.[...]

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Online generator answers "What color is your name?"

"What Color is Your Name?" is a website that associates your name, or any name, with blocks of colors. The project's creator, Bernadette Sheridan, has grapheme–color synaesthesia, which means her brain perceives numerals and letters as very specific colors.

She explains:

...I am terrible at remembering names. I hear the name, but my mind is distracted. In my head, I am calculating the number of letters in the name, and visualizing the colors of each letter. Your name may be Emily, but to me, you’re a bright, happy swath of five letters with an “E” and an “I". When I meet you again later, I may think your name is Emily or Jille or Ellie. Five letters, with an “I” and an “e.”

Sheridan also offers, at a reasonable price, your name-color portraits as prints.

(Coudal Partners)

screengrab via "What Color is Your Name?"

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Digital synesthesia

Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman invented the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), a wearable tactile display that translates myriad kinds of information, from speech to sounds to digital data, into patterns of vibrations on the skin. The device was inspired by Eagleman's study of synesthesia, the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. From Smithsonian:

The neuroscientist believes that the versatility and plasticity of the brain make it fundamentally receptive to forming new pathways of sensory input. “The brain gets this information from the world, but the brain doesn’t actually have any way of knowing: were these photons, were these sound compression aids, was this pressure?” Eagleman says. As he explains it, the brain simply transforms these diverse stimuli into electrochemical spikes and uses these signals to create a mental representation of the world. The VEST would do this same work for all sorts of data by translating it into interpretable vibrations—giving its wearer a veritable “sixth sense.”

Eagleman is developing the VEST with an open API, so that others can experiment with the types of data it can convert into vibrations. “We’ve thought of 20 really cool things to feed in, which we’ve been experimenting with, but the community will think of 20,000 streams of data to feed in,” he says.

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Prototype device lets users smell colors

Swiss art school Ecole cantonale d'art de Lausanne (ECAL) just created a nifty little device called Bouquet that lets users smell colors while looking at visual art. Read the rest

Can you "hear" flashes of light? Do you have synesthesia? Take a test.

Can you "hear" motion or light flashes? If so, according to new research from City University London, you may be experiencing a not-so-rare form of synaesthesia. Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. For example, a synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. (In this study, 8 out of 40 participants, a very high percentage, were considered to have hearing-motion synaesthesia.) Here is their test for you to take yourself. From The Guardian:

(This new study) suggests that many more of us experience a less intrusive version of (synesthesia) in which visual movements or flashes are accompanied by an internal soundtrack of hums, buzzes or swooshes. Since movements are very frequently accompanied by sounds in everyday life, the effect is likely to be barely discernible.

When tested under laboratory conditions, the “hearing motion” effect appeared to enhance a person’s ability to interpret fine visual movements, but also interfered with the ability to hear real sounds when visual and audio signals were mis-matched.

“These internal sounds seem to be perceptually real enough to interfere with the detection of externally-generated sounds,” said Freeman. “The finding that this ‘hearing-motion’ phenomenon seems to be much more prevalent compared to other synaesthesias might occur due to the strength of the natural connection between sound and vision.”

In a separate study, the team tested for the phenomenon in trained musicians and found that it was much more common in the group. It is not clear if this is due to a natural disposition to link sounds and visual cues or whether thousands of hours of training might have strengthened the neural circuitry behind the effect.

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What people with "calendar synesthesia" reveal about how our minds deal with time

Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, leading synesthesia researcher VS Rakmachandran at the University of California, San Diego is studying "calendar synesthetes" who see very clear images of calendars in their mind's eye when they think about months that have passed or are in the future. For example, according to New Scientist, one participant in the research "sees her months as occupying an asymmetrical “V” shape. Along this V, she sees each month written in Helvetica font." From New Scientist:

The idea that calendars are literally laid out in space for some people suggests that we are all hardwired to some extent to map time in space.

The concepts of time and numbers are something we acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history, says Ramachandran, but the brain wouldn’t have had time to evolve a specific area to deal with it.

“Given the opportunistic nature of evolution, perhaps the most convenient way to represent the abstract idea of sequences of numbers and time might have been to map them onto a preexisting map of visual space, already present in the brain,” he says.

Indeed, imaging scans show connections between areas of the brain involved in numbers and those involved with mapping the world, memories and our sense of self. The team suggest that when these areas act together, they enable us to navigate mentally through space and time, while being firmly anchored in the present.

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Video about the real cyborg who "hears colors" via his antenna implant

Neil Harbisson is totally color blind, so he "hears colors" via an antenna implanted in his skull that translates light frequencies into audible vibrations. Read the rest

Pianist with synesthesia performs Bach "in color" (video)

[Video Link] BB pal Joe Sabia points us to this incredible video by Evan Shinners, Julliard-trained pianist and "best Bach player around." In the video, Shinners shows the world the colors he sees when he plays: he has synesthesia. You can follow him on Twitter, and check him out live on one of his upcoming tour dates. Read the rest