Nuggets from the Research Digest

What colour is your breast-stroke?

In the July issue of Cortex


People with synaesthesia experience odd sensations that make it seem as though their neural wires are crossed. A certain word might always come served with the same particular taste, or a letter or numeral might reliably evoke the same particular colour. But an emerging view among experts is that synaesthesia is grounded in concepts, not crossed senses. By this account, it’s certain ideas, regardless of which sense perceives them, that trigger a particular concurrent experience. The latest evidence for this comes from Danko Nikolic and his colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research. They’ve documented two synaesthetes, HT and UJ, who experience different swimming strokes, whether performing them, watching them or merely thinking about them, as always being a certain colour.


HT and UJ, both now aged 24, began swimming competitively at an early age, and the sport continues to be an important part of their lives. The first test that Nikolic’s team performed was to present the pair with four black and white close-up photos of different swimming strokes and have them say which colour the strokes triggered using a book of 5500 colour shades. This was repeated four weeks later for HT and three weeks later for UJ. Three non-synaesthete control participants, all swimmers, were recruited for comparison. They similarly reported which colours the photos made them think of and they repeated the exercise after just a two-week gap.


The clear finding was that the difference from the first test to the second test in the precise colours chosen for each stroke by the synaesthetes was eight times smaller than the test-retest difference shown by the controls, thus supporting the synaesthetes’ claim that different strokes always provoke the same colours.


Next the researchers administered a version of the Stroop test: the synaesthetes and controls were presented with the same swimming stroke photos as before, but this time they were shown with different coloured tones, for example in blue or yellow. The participants’ task was to name the colour. If certain swimming strokes really do evoke particular colours for the synaesthetes then their colour naming ought to have been affected by the precise stroke/colour pairing on any given trial, such that you’d expect them to be quicker if the photo’s colour matched the colour evoked by the stroke shown in the image. That’s exactly what was found – UJ, for example, was 101ms slower when naming incongruent colours versus congruent ones. No such effect was observed for two control participants.


According to the classic view of synaesthesia as cross-wiring between senses, you’d think that swimming-style synaesthesia would require the act of swimming (via proprioception) to evoke a concurrent experience, but this study suggested it was enough to merely activate the concept of the different swim strokes by looking at pictures. This is consonant with past research showing, for example, that letter/number-colour synaesthesia can be triggered merely by imagining the necessary letter or number. Other research has documented synaeshetic experiences devoid of any particular sensory element, including so-called time-unit-space synaesthesia, in which units of time are experienced as existing in particular locations relative to the body.


‘Hence, the original name of the presently investigated phenomenon syn + aesthesia (Greek for union of senses) may turn out to be misleading in respect of its true nature,’ the researchers said. ‘The term ideaesthesia (Greek for sensing concepts) may describe the phenomenon much more accurately.’ For more detailed discussion of how, when and why synaesthetic triggers and concurrent experiences are acquired, it’s worth checking out the full article (tinyurl.com/5sykudw).


Feeling lonely? Have a bath

In the May issue of Emotion


Wallowing in the bath, immersed in soothing warm water, the benefits are more than sensuous, they’re social too. That’s according to John Bargh and Idit Shalev, researchers at Yale University, whose new research shows that physical warmth can compensate for social isolation. Indeed, their study suggests that people subconsciously self-comfort against loneliness through the use of warm baths and showers.


Among 51 undergrads, those who reported being more lonely also tended to bath or shower more often, to do so for longer and with warmer water. Overall, 33.5 per cent of the variation in these measures was accounted for by loneliness. A similar result was found for a community sample. Perhaps lonely people simply have more time to take baths because they go out less, but the association with preferring warmer water is harder to explain away.


A second study confirmed the causal role that physical temperature can play in people’s sense of social warmth. Students conducted what they thought was a product test of a small therapeutic pack, which was either warm or cold. Those who evaluated the cold pack, holding it in their palm, subsequently reported feeling more lonely than those who tested a warm version of the pack.


What about a direct test of the therapeutic benefit of physical warmth? Another study had students recall a time they’d felt socially excluded, then they went on to perform the same product test of a warm or cold pack used before. Recalling being excluded had the expected effect of making students desire friendly company and comforting activities like shopping. But this effect was eradicated if they’d product tested the warm pack. ‘Warm physical experiences were found to significantly reduce the distress of social exclusion,’ the researchers said.


Our recognition of the link between physical and social warmth is reflected in our language – ‘a warm smile’, ‘a cold shoulder’ – and has been for centuries. Yet Bargh and Shalev think this understanding remains largely unconscious. Indeed, they found that participants rated a character in a short story as no more lonely if she took a bath and shower in the same day as those who read the version without the extra bathing.


These findings add to past research suggesting a specific link between physical and social/emotional warmth, and build on the embodied cognition literature, which has shown the effects of physical states on our thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa. But this new study is the first to provide causal evidence that physical warmth can ameliorate feelings of exclusion. Bargh and Shalev speculated their findings could even have practical applications: ‘…the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder,’ they said.


Toddlers won’t bother learning from you if you’re daft

In the April issue of Infant Behavior and Development


Infants of just 14 months already have a nonsense-detector that alerts them to unreliable people, from whom they’ll no longer bother taking lessons.


Diane Poulin-Dubois demonstrated this in a study with 60 infants. In one ‘reliable’ condition, the researcher smiled and exclaimed with delight on discovering a toy in a container, before then passing it to the infant to inspect. In the other ‘unreliable’ condition, the researcher similarly expressed delight but there was in fact no toy. This was repeated several times.


Next, the same researcher produced a touch-on light, placed it on the desk and switched it on by leaning forwards and using her forehead. She repeated this three times then passed the light to the infant. The key finding is that infants in the ‘unreliable’ condition were far less likely to bother imitating the researcher by switching on the light with their own forehead. Across two attempts, 34 per cent of infants in the unreliable condition used their forehead to turn the light on, compared with 61 per cent of infants in the reliable condition.


‘Infants seem to perceive reliable adults as capable of rational action, whose novel, unfamiliar behaviour is worth imitating,’ the researchers said. ‘In contrast, the same behaviour performed by a previously unreliable adult is interpreted as irrational or inefficient, thus not worthy of imitating.’


Other explanations for the finding were ruled out. For example, infants in both the reliable and unreliable conditions were equally attentive to the researcher’s demonstration with the light, so it’s not the case that they’d simply lost interest.


The new finding adds to a growing body of research showing children’s selectivity in who they choose to learn from. For example, children prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are familiar with and who appear more certain, confident and knowledgeable. Prior research with infants found they were less likely to follow the gaze of an unreliable adult who’d earlier expressed delight at an empty container.


‘These results add to a growing body of literature that suggests that infants are adept at generalising their knowledge about the reliability of other people across varying contexts,’ the researchers said. ‘The unique contribution of the present study shows that, similar to older children, infants are able to keep track of an individual’s history of being accurate or inaccurate and use this information to guide their subsequent learning.’


Research Digest

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Dr Catherine Loveday, Principal Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Westminster


The Society’s free Research Digest service, at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog and edited by psychologist and journalist Dr Christian Jarrett, won ‘best psychology blog’ in the 2010 international Research Blogging Awards. Visit now to see why. 


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