Synesthesia strengthens sound-symbolic cross-modal correspondences

Simon Lacey, Margaret Martinez, Kelly McCormick, K. Sathian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which an experience in one domain is accompanied by an involuntary secondary experience in another, unrelated domain; in classical synesthesia, these associations are arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Cross-modal correspondences refer to universal associations between seemingly unrelated sensory features, e.g., auditory pitch and visual size. Some argue that these phenomena form a continuum, with classical synesthesia being an exaggeration of universal cross-modal correspondences, whereas others contend that the two are quite different, since cross-modal correspondences are non-arbitrary, non-idiosyncratic, and do not involve secondary experiences. Here, we used the implicit association test to compare synesthetes’ and non-synesthetes’ sensitivity to cross-modal correspondences. We tested the associations between auditory pitch and visual elevation, auditory pitch and visual size, and sound-symbolic correspondences between auditory pseudowords and visual shapes. Synesthetes were more sensitive than non-synesthetes to cross-modal correspondences involving sound-symbolic, but not low-level sensory, associations. We conclude that synesthesia heightens universally experienced cross-modal correspondences, but only when these involve sound symbolism. This is only partly consistent with the idea of a continuum between synesthesia and cross-modal correspondences, but accords with the idea that synesthesia is a high-level, post-perceptual phenomenon, with spillover of the abilities of synesthetes into domains outside their synesthesias. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that synesthetes, relative to non-synesthetes, experience stronger cross-modal correspondences outside their synesthetic domains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2716-2721
Number of pages6
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


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