We are a group of researchers in St. Louis with collaborators in Denmark, Finland, London and Vancouver. Our research seeks to understand the connection between the three related neurological conditions of synesthesia, savant syndrome and autism. Synesthesia involves a mixing of the senses—stimulation in one sensory or cognitive stream involuntarily, or automatically, leads to associated internal or external (illusory or hallucinatory) experiences in a second unstimulated sensory or cognitive system. Savant syndrome is a condition whereby an individual gains abnormal skills limited to one particular domain. Autism is a disorder that involves deficits in social interaction and communication. Although an individual may have only one of these conditions, many savants are synesthetes and exhibit autistic traits. Likewise, savantism is highly prevalent among autists. We believe that exploring the link between synesthesia, savant syndrome and autism may advance our understanding of cognitive talent and lead to a cure.
One of the most common forms of the condition is grapheme-color synesthesia, whereby looking at or thinking about letters or numbers induces an associated experience of color, texture and even personality. Other syntesthetes may experience sounds when they see motions, tastes when they read words, or tactile sensations when listening to music. Some synesthetes, known as "projectors," experience their synesthesia much like other real perceptual experiences. For example, projector grapheme-color synesthetes may see colored letters and numbers floating above the actual letters and numbers that induce the synesthetic experience. Other synesthetes, known as "associators," do not experience their association out in the world, but in their "mind's eye." That is, they cannot help but think of a color when they think about a particular letter. Although most cases of synesthesia are developmental, the condition can be acquired. Learn More
Savants typically exhibit exceptional skills in one domain, such as mathematics. For example, the savant, Daniel Tammet, has become famous for his multiplication skills. Daniel is able to multiply five-digit numbers faster than they can be typed into a calculator. How does he do it? Daniel has a particular 3D shape he associates with each number. To multiply two numbers, he simply imagines the associated shapes next to each other. The 3D shape that fits between the other two corresponds with the answer to the problem. Another savant, Derek Amato, woke up able to play the piano after a head injury despite having musical training. He says little black and white blocks flow across his field of vision and these blocks tell his fingers where to go. Other cases of savantism include superhuman memory and exceptional artistic skill. Learn More
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum of disorders that are
constituted by social deficits, such as a lack of ability to communicate properly, impairments in forming judgments about others' emotional states, and repetitive or ritualistic behavior. Most autistic individuals exhibit symptoms during the early stages of life, usually before three years old. Others develop typically and then go through a period of regress. While the exact causes of autism are not known, there is speculation about the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to autism spectrum disorders. Our research investigates Intense World Theory, which advocates that autism is caused by painful over-stimulation, leading to the autistic individual to de-couple themselves from the environment and to engage in ritualistic, repetitive behaviors as a coping mechanism. Learn more