The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

Synesthesia Isn't a Kind of Useless, New Age Oddity

Interview with James Wannerton, part II

By John Camacho, affiliate member of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research

James Wannerton is the President of the UK Synesthesia Association. In this post I continue an interview with him, specifically addressing questions concerning the UK Synesthesia Association.

What are the goals of the UK Synesthesia Association and what is your role as President?

The UKSA was the world’s first association aimed specifically at and for the burgeoning synaesthesia community. Conceived in 1989 by pioneering synaesthesia researchers Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and John Harrison at Cambridge University, its initial purpose was to provide a starting point for researchers to discuss and exchange information and ideas and also to connect together researchers and new subjects for study. Under its present guise the UK Synaesthesia Association has expanded with demand as interest in synaesthesia has grown and it is now an available first stop for information and further contact regarding all things synaesthetic. Our goals include continuing to disseminate accurate and reliable information to all who ask and to actively encourage the study of synaesthesia in schools, Universities and specialist research centers as well as increasing our support for independent public arts projects involving synaesthesia.

Has the UKSA been successful in encouraging synesthesia in elementary or high schools?

The UK Synaesthesia Association is very proactive in its efforts to bring synaesthesia to the attention of those who work within the education system. We do this by providing updates on any relevant research findings to sources such as the Times Educational Supplement (TES)—a publication network aimed at teachers from all over the world. We also provide information to schools on any available documentary material across all media platforms and when requested, can supplement such material with personal appearances in order to introduce the why’s and wherefore’s of synaesthesia in situ for schoolchildren of all ages. This is certainly a very rewarding and efficient method of getting the correct message across and, presented in the right format and context, often produces an entertaining and memorable lesson that will long be remembered. I often hear back from students who have sat through one of these presentations dating back over the last seven years. It’s an approach that has produced a lot of positive results in terms of general awareness and understanding. One of our longer term aims is to establish a firm link between UKSA and other synaesthesia associations from across the world in order for us to work together to share information and knowledge and to hopefully create a truly international community.

My role as President requires me to keep up to speed with the latest synaesthesia research and to be available as a point of contact for enquiries from academics, researchers, artists, writers, musicians, journalists and most importantly, synaesthetes themselves. I help set up and organize annual Synaesthesia conferences at venues here in the UK and I endeavour to represent the UK Synaesthesia Association at various overseas conferences. Other duties involve establishing regular contact with other synaesthesia associations in order to keep up with events and developments, being available to discuss synaesthesia in media interviews and providing comment on any misinterpretations and misconceptions that tend to crop up on a regular basis. I am also on a number of synaesthesia related committees and forums.

Are certain misinterpretations or misconceptions more common than others?

In my experience the vast majority of misconceptions occur because of a lack of basic background research on the part of the interviewer. This invariably leads to the wrong kind of questions being asked which in turn can quickly balloon into misrepresentation. Most of the TV and radio stuff that I’m involved with tends to be live so before going on I make sure I’m up to speed with the programme style and target audience. As in all walks of life, misconception is born from erroneous or no knowledge at all mixed in with an unhealthy dose of incredulity so it’s pretty essential to take control of an interview early on. I think the worst kind of misconception I’ve come across here is that synaesthesia is sometimes seen as a kind of useless, New Age oddity, a lot of which could be explained away by the likes of coloured fridge magnet letters or something similar. Another long-standing misconception is that most synaesthetes are on the whole, attention-seeking arty people who spend most of their time with their heads in the clouds and so what if they can see swirls of multi-coloured mist when they’re listening to music.

Can you give an example of one that interests you most?

Presently I’m working on seven different projects from three different countries involving synaesthesia for the media, arts and teachers associations.Out of my current crop of projects the one that interests me the most is an art installation that concentrates on recreating the gustatory synaesthetic experience in a way that audiences can genuinely relate to. Synaesthesia as we all know, is a very subjective experience and being able to effectively get that subjective experience across to an objective non-synaesthete can prove to be a little difficult at times. After being “Road Tested” at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, this installation appears to bridge the gap and it also serves in a very small way to bring together the science and art as well as help humanise this fascinating condition.

What are the UK Synesthesia Association’s outreach and/or media activities in the United Kingdom? Do you believe that some outreach strategies have been more effective than others? If so, how can other organizations avoid those mistakes?

Throughout most of the year our media activities are limited to responding rather than initiating. We are contacted on a regular basis by the media and we consider it our primary duty to ensure that the right information is given out in the correct form as accurately as possible. If we hear of any cases of erroneous reporting then we react accordingly. There was a situation recently when a guest on a daytime TV chat show was told that she was “slightly mad” after remarking that she saw numbers as colours. Our response was to approach the programme makers with a brief explanation of the cause and effect of synaesthesia together with an offer to appear on a subsequent programme to “balance” things up a little. The end result was a whole heap of positive publicity all emanating from one flippant remark.

As of late, my approach has been to focus efforts on educating the educators rather than feeding information directly to the mainstream media. My small part in all this is to make people aware that synaesthesia exists, is real and does have a tangible impact on how we all as individuals perceive and process information. Journalists on the whole, tend only to be interested in what curries favour with their immediate superiors therefore some sort of compromise is constantly sought. So, depending on the target audience, the telling of the story is adjusted accordingly. The best way I’ve found to get immediate and effective coverage is to take a story to a mass market publication or midday TV show, remove large chunks of the science and concentrate on humanizing the experience in a way that people can readily relate to with little effort on their part. Leaving a tiny bit of science within the story then attracts the more serious publications at a later date. All the quality broadsheets scan supermarket magazines for stories that may be hiding a bigger picture—I know, I used to do it as a holiday job. Contacting niche publications is all well and good for establishing credibility but it doesn’t get the average person talking about synaesthesia in their coffee breaks.

Recent campaigns have included the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Mid school and University projects, language schools, and publications aimed primarily at the teaching profession (Times Educational Supplement). A school teacher reading a well written, informative, entertaining article in the TES will bring it into the classroom. We have a recognized “silly season” in the UK media—we’re in the middle of it right now—and experience has taught us that this is the easiest and best time to get any synaesthesia related story in the popular press.

How come this makes this the easiest and best time to get any synesthesia related story in the popular press?

Within the UK media the “Silly Season” is simply a time of year in the summer (August through September) which the industry has long recognised as a slow period due in part to Parliament not being in session along with it being in the middle of the UK holiday season. This creates a mini news-vacuum which still needs filling so journalists are charged with going out to find stories rather than the other way around. In the USA I think it’s known as the rather more prosaic “slow news season”. So, if you’re sitting on a story about a one legged, skateboarding hamster, now’s the time to push it out there.

I’ve seen quite a number of synaesthetes crash and burn while being taken apart by an underprepared interviewer intent on getting across their own agenda within a brief time frame and we are here if needed to advise on how to avoid that kind of situation and, if it does occur, how to go about correcting it.

If synesthetes want to share their story with the media, are there some steps to avoid?

Rather than steps to avoid, my advice is to simply be prepared. Know the media style and target audience. Take control early on and create questions rather than wait for prepared ones that probably won’t have much relevance. Humanise the experience in a way that has resonance and you’ll have them eating out of your hands in no time at all!

Thanks to James Wannerton for this fascinating interview!

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in Philosophy, Psychology and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She directs the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab. more...

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