Monday, 27 April 2015

The ABCs of Alphabet-Magnet Synesthesia

By Elizabeth Preston

Is it cool or existentially disturbing to think that your personal brain quirks might come from the toys you played with as a toddler?

In a study published earlier this month, psychologists asked 6,588 American synesthetes what colors they associate with each letter of the alphabet. Then they compared these associations to a certain vintage set of Fisher-Price alphabet magnets. They found that at least 6% of their synesthetes had improbably close matches to the colors of the magnets.

The researchers defined a statistically unlikely match as anyone with more than 10 letters corresponding to the colors of the toy. At least one person had a 26-for-26 correlation, though. For people born between 1970 and 1985, around when the magnet set was manufactured, more like 15% of synesthetes were Fisher-Price matches.

You can see the whole study for free online, or read more about it at Discover’s D-Brief blog. The psychologists—Nathan Witthoft, Jonathan Winawer, and David Eagleman—stress that no one’s synesthesia (as far as they know) is caused by a toy. Rather, people who are already prone to associating letters with colors may learn those associations from something in their environment.

Longtime Inkfish readers will not be surprised that I gasped in excitement when I saw this paper, because I wrote about a preliminary version of the study (with only 11 subjects) back in January 2013. I was also excited to realize that I’m part of the new data set, since I completed a survey at a shortly afterward.

I am not a Fisher Price six-percenter. But my own internal alphabet does seem like an uncanny match to an old set of Playskool magnets, which my mom kindly dug up and photographed a couple years ago (above). Maybe I’ll see these in the next study?

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