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The Future of Synesthesia Research

UC Berkeley's Candita Wager is part of the next generation's promise

The Palmer Lab for Visual Aesthetics at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the premier research institutions in our nation studying visual perception and aesthetics -- and therein, the synesthesias. Headed by Stephen Palmer, Ph.D., one of its rising stars is undergraduate research assistant Candita Wager. Ms. Wager is herself a synesthete and a gifted vocalist and songwriter. She has some very interesting things to say about the connection between left-handedness and synesthesia -- at first in vogue, then dismissed and now being reconsidered -- among other things.

Courtesy Candita Wager
Source: Courtesy Candita Wager

Can you tell me about your research and that of the laboratory re: synesthesia?

CW: I work in the UC Berkeley Palmer Lab for Visual Aesthetics as a research apprentice. The Palmer Lab is working on projects that investigate the link between sound and color. Currently, I am designing a project that examines the possible link between synesthesia, handedness, and brain differences.

What do you think of -handedness in synesthesia? Are they linked? (Disclosure: I am a left-handed synesthete!)

CW: As a synesthete, researcher, and musician, I feel that I am connected to a large number of people who have synesthesia. Musicians tend to sympathize with my experiences when I talk about my sound-color associations, and they tend to be left-handed. I, myself, am not left-handed, but I began using my left hand to write when I was 12 years old due to chronic hand pain. After going to physical therapy for a hand injury that was unrelated to the chronic pain I experienced as a child, I had my hand strength tested, and my left hand was about 1.5 times stronger than my right.

Although I am not a true lefty, I do have synesthesia, and an overwhelming number of fellow synesthetes I know are left-handed. I cannot ignore the rarity of left-handedness in the neurotypical population and its overwhelming presence in the synesthetic community. To me, they are linked, but I don’t think we have the research to know how yet.

Why do you think synesthesia research is booming now?

I think it's because more people are realizing that they have some form of synesthetic associations, even if they don’t have synesthesia. Even the social sciences are coining terms like “social synesthesia” to link associations and racial biases. Psychologically speaking, however, I think the scientific community is really turned on by these uncanny experiences because they represent a new realm in consciousness. It makes me question what quaila really is. It causes me to think more critically about the Hard Problem [coined by philosopher David Chalmers, who interestingly, outgrew his own synesthesia]: how do physical brain processes translate into subjectivity? I know that I am interested as a researcher in synesthesia because I believe knowing more about what causes it and how it truly functions has the potential to revolutionize the way clinical psychologists and researchers understand certain forms of brain differences.

What is the value (if any) of the synesthesias?

CW: I personally feel that synesthesia is an advantage in many ways. When I first found out that others did not share my sound-color and colored-letter associations, I was shocked! It forced me to think about how non-synesthetes remember dates, names, or anything for that matter. Everything that I remember is a set of color combinations whether it is the key that a song is in or a phone number.

What are your plans for future research and your career?

CW: Currently, I am looking for synesthetes, both left- and right-handed and control matches. In my past, I worked with The Recording Academy (GRAMMYs), and I intend on reconnecting with some of these people for my research. Now, I am gearing up for my stay in the Netherlands for further research. Later, I would like to publish this data and begin a career as an author as I try to incorporate my backgrounds in music and science into my writing efforts.