Title: A Colorful Advantage in Iconic Memory
Legend: Red = synesthetes ; Blue = non‐synesthetes. Large dots indicate group means, while small dots represent individual participants. Error bars indicate the standard error of the mean. Asterisks above each panel indicate delays with significant group differences.
Citation: Gosavi, R. & Hubbard E.M. (in press). A colorful advantage in iconic memory. Cognition
Abstract: Approximately 1 in 20 people experience a kind of “mixing of the senses”, known as synesthesia. In the type of synesthesia we are investigating here, “grapheme‐color synesthesia” letters and numbers (collectively referred to as graphemes) automatically and involuntarily elicit color experiences (top section). This type of synesthesia affects approximately 1% of the population. Interestingly, these extra color experiences seem to enhance memory for synesthetes. Most previous studies have examined how synesthesia improves long‐term memory, on the order of hours to weeks or even years. In our recent study, we examined whether synesthesia might also enhance an early stage of memory called iconic memory. Iconic memory lasts only about one second before information is lost. The left panel shows the iconic memory task we used. An array of letters or numbers is briefly presented, and then participants are cued by the pitch of a tone to report either the top (high tone), middle (medium tone) or bottom (low tone) row in the array. The delay between when the array is presented and when the cue is presented is varied so that we can chart the loss of information in iconic memory. By knowing how many letters someone can report from the cued row, we can estimate how much they had in memory from the entire array, even without asking them to report all of the letters on the screen. Using this task, we tested 20 people who experience grapheme‐color synesthesia (“synesthetes”) and 20 people who did not (“controls”). The right panel shows the results from this study. We found that synesthetes (red dots, big squares represent the average) had larger iconic memory capacity than controls (blue dots, big squares represent the average) across all of the delays. These results show that grapheme‐color synesthesia improves even the earliest stages of memory. We also suggest that the advantages that have been found in later stages of memory are due to this early synesthetic advantage in iconic memory.
About the Lab: The Educational Neuroscience Lab explores questions at the intersection of education and neuroscience, in the emerging field of Educational Neuroscience. Our research examines the neural underpinnings of cognitive processes that are relevant for education, and the role of educational experiences and enculturation as primary drivers of brain plasticity to create the neural circuits that underlie human-specific abilities. Our research combines the latest technological advances in understanding the human brain as a “learning organ” with insights from cognitive psychology and education to help build the emerging field of educational neuroscience.