Calendar Synaesthesia Hoax (I Wish)

hulaI wish it were a hoax, because then I could cachinnate without guilt. As it is, I still laugh, but with trouble in the belly. I am sorry about the gullibility in the world.

I learned about it from Cari Romm’s piece in New York Magazine. The title grabbed me: “There’s a Form of Synesthesia Where People Literally See Time in Front of Them.” I thought: That’s quite something, seeing time! I imagined some kind of visual perception of a non-spatial continuum of events. Some sort of visible yet invisible flow.

Instead, the “calendar synaesthete”–one subject in a study with eight controls–could picture the months of the year in geometrical arrangement. For this subject, they took a V shape;  for a subject of a previous experiment, the shape of a hula-hoop.

The authors call their paper (published in Neurocase) the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. Really? This got published in Neurocase and reported in New Scientist and New York Magazine?

Synaesthesia (also spelled “synesthesia”) is the name for what happens when an event that stimulates an experience in one sensory or cognitive pathway also stimulates it in a second (and unexpected) one. For instance, some synaesthetes see sounds, associate letters of the alphabet with specific colors, or smell numbers. The phenomenon exists. But does this particular study tell us anything about it?

This is one of several experiments that led to their “clear unambiguous proof” (the quote below is from the New Scientist article):

Next they asked ML and eight non-synaesthetes to name the months of the year backwards, skipping one or two months each time – a task most people find challenging. They figured that ML should be able to complete the task quicker than the others as she could read it from her calendar. Indeed, ML was much quicker at the task: when reciting every three months backwards, she took 1.88 seconds per month compared with 4.48 seconds in non-synaesthetes.

First of all, what does any of this have to do with visualizing time? From what I can tell, it’s about recalling and manipulating the sequence of months. There may or may not be a visual component in such calculation; either way, this experiment shows no synaesthesia per se. Second, who takes 4.48 seconds to recite every third month backwards? I can do it in under 2 seconds per month, without seeing any V shape, donut, hula-hoop, or Moebius strip.

Here’s what the paper says:

In control subjects, the average RT for reciting all of the months backward (n = 8) was 1.46 s/month. For skipping 1 or 2 months – the average was 2.54 and 4.48 s/month respectively. For ML, the average RT for the same 3 tasks were (A) 0.58 s/month, (B) 1.63 s/month, and (C) 1.88 s/month (see legends in Figure 2).

There were eight controls and one subject. Yes, just one. (Nor does the study explain how the subject and controls were selected.) Their study of  a second subject, HP, was incomplete: “We then studied the second subject – HP – but for practical reasons – were only able to conduct a subset of the experiments that we had performed on ML.” (She was able to recite the months as quickly as ML, though.)

To supplement the findings, perhaps, they mention EA, a subject from a previous study:

Indeed, on a previous occasion, we had informally tested a synesthete EA, who might have qualified as a higher calendar synesthete. Her calendar form was shaped like a hula-hoop (the most common manifestation of calendar forms) in the transverse plane in front of her chest. Unlike ML, though, when EA turned her head rightward or leftward, the calendar remained stuck to the body, suggesting that it was being computed in body-centered, rather than head (and eye) centered coordinates. The variation across calendar synesthetes, in this regard, reminds us that even in neurotypical brains there are probably multiple parallel representations of body in space that can be independently accessed depending on immediate task demands.

How did they get from the hula-hoop to “multiple parallel representations of body in space”–and from any of this to “clear unambiguous proof” of the existence of calendar synaesthesia?

I do not doubt that people can picture calendars; people can picture all sorts of things, and calendars are already visual representations of a model of time. I see no synaesthesia in the ability to picture something that is already a picture.

I recognize that this is the authors’ very point: that for this subject, the calendar  is something more than a strong mental picture. Yet the experiments do not prove this.

Note: I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it–and deleted one sentence that in retrospect seemed excessively sarcastic. Also see Shravan Vasishth’s comment and my response. I may have been too caustic overall–but I hold to my view that the researchers went too far in declaring “proof.” See my followup post.

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4 Comments

  1. The first author has done some very important work on phantom limbs, he’s not the usual lightweight neuroscientist publishing 25 articles a year. This study seems like a case report, and does not seems to go all the way to statistical inference the way that all this other mediocre neuroscience BS does. I would see his work more like that other neuroscientist’s (The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat). But obviously I don’t know much about this area, so could be wrong.

    Reply
    • Shravan,

      What bothers me is that the authors “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. Isn’t that overreach, given the nature of the experiments (with a month-counting test, a spiral illusion test, and a test to see how well the subject could retrace the calendar)?

      The month-counting test doesn’t tell us much, as far as I am concerned. If you are counting every third month, there are three possible sets of months. I can picture the months arranged like hours on a clock. I know the December-September-June-March set just by thinking of the image; if given a different month, I just rotate the initial set accordingly. This involves visualization, but I see no reason to posit synaesthesia; I can also do this without picturing them in clock-like arrangement. (Counting backwards every two months or one month–also part of the experiment–is even easier. I see no reason for the controls to have taken as long as they did with it.)

      The researchers had the subject draw her calendar with a laser pointer several times over the course of a month. They found that the lengths and angles were exactly the same each time. It also expanded and contracted according to how far she stood away from the screen. But again, I see many unresolved questions here. I would expect the image to shift slightly over the course of a month, reflecting the progression of the month itself. A calendar consisting of static months seems little more than a strong mental image to me. Since a calendar is already an image or mental construct, it seems to me that the subject may simply have an unusually strong capacity to visualize it.

      Then there was a spiral illusion experiment. They had her stare at moving spirals. When you look at an object afterward, the object expands; when you look at a blank screen, nothing happens. First they showed her contracting spirals for 20 seconds. After showing her complete darkness, they showed her a (barely visual) actual image of her calendar; it expanded. They then had her imagine her calendar; it also expanded. They repeated this twice with the same result.

      They then showed her the spirals again, stopped, and had her visualize an apple. (They don’t say that they first showed her an image of an apple.) It did not expand. But I think you’d have to try a few more things before drawing conclusions from this. If they didn’t show her an image of an apple before asking her to picture it, that in itself could account for the difference. Also, diffuse images may expand more obviously than solid and compact ones. I just tried it with both sides of my measuring tape case; both sides expanded, but it was much more obvious with the text-bearing side. The outer edges do not move; the expansion is from the center to the periphery.

      The selection methodology (as described in the paper) is a bit vague, too; they state that the subject was a 20-year-old undergraduate, but they don’t explain how they selected her or the eight controls.

      All in all, the experiments are interesting but seem far from proving anything. If they had not declared “clear unambiguous proof” (within the text of the study itself) my response would have been different. To me it makes all the difference what a study claims or doesn’t claim to show. This is potentially an interesting exploratory study; given the nature of the experiments, I cannot see it as proof.

      Reply
  2. Sure, agreed. Proof is a weird word to use in *any* such situation. Nothing that psychologists or the like do prove anything. There are only degrees of uncertainty.

    Reply
  1. Interesting Studies with Hasty Conclusions | Take Away the Takeaway

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