Rare condition may allow hearing motions


Melissa Saenz is a neurobiologist at Cal Tech. She said she will never forget the first time she showed a silent video to a group of students.

"Out of the blue, one of those students asked: Does anybody hear something," said Saenz.

But Saenz realized that Johannes Pulst-Korenberg might have a cross-wiring of the senses -- a condition called synesthesia.

His is a newly identified form of the condition: he hears motion, and when looking at normally silent things, like birds hopping, he hears sounds.

Saenz interviewed hundreds of people to find others with the same condition, and then tested them.

"My goal was to devise a task for which these people with synesthesia would have an advantage if their sound perceptions were real," said Saenz.

In a dark room, she asked people with and without the condition to listens to pairs of beeps and decide whether they were the same.

Both groups scored equally well. But when asked to differentiate between pairs of visual flashes, the people with the condition outperformed those without it.

"The people with synesthesia could still do the task very well, because they not only saw the visual flashes, they heard them," said Saenz.

Researchers at Cal Tech plan continued studies to learn if the advantages seen in the lab could translate to other enhanced capabilities for subjects like Johannes.

Related links:

  • American Synesthesia Association
    MIT the synesthesia experiment

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