Synesthesia and the Philosophy of Language

One of the reasons that synesthesia is so fascinating among researchers is the implications it has for the crossmodal perception, or interactions between different senses. However, in recent research it has also been proposed that there is a type of sensory-to-motor synesthesia (Ramachandran & Hubbard 2001). This proposal has a great deal of explanatory power, especially in the evolution of language.The philosopher Noam Chomsky argued for a “universal grammar” among human beings. He suggests that the ability to learn languages is innate for human beings, and that there are properties that all languages have in common. (See more about “universal grammar” here). The problem for confirming this thesis lies in giving an evolutionary account of the structure and components of the universal grammar. There seems to be some empirical evidence that could strengthen this hypothesis. The “Bouba-Kiki effect” is a phenomenon originally observed by Wolfgang Köhler, but more recently analyzed by Ramachandran and Hubbard. The experiment involves two shapes, and asks subjects to designate each object with a particular name. They asked “Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?” An overwhelming majority, 95%, named the figure on the left “kiki” and the figure on the right “bouba”. They argue that the reason for this inclination is that the sharp lines and edges of the figure on the left match the sharp sounds in “kiki”, while the rounded edges of the figure on the right match the auditory inflection of “bouba”. They argue that the proposed sensory-motor synesthesia can explain the “bootstrapping” of these two phenomenon in evolutionary history.In their paper, Ramachandran and Hubbard explore many other indications of this bootstrapping. One instance, originally noted by Charles Darwin, is the word “disgusting”. When we smell or taste something unpleasant, we scrunch up our noses and raise our hands towards our face. They explain that the olfactory bulb projects to the orbital-frontal cortex, and that disgust is mediated by the frontal lobes. They point out that the same behavior (and same area, the orbital-frontal cortex) is present when one observes behavior one finds morally disgusting as well. As mammals became more social, they may have used behavioral cues to discourage others from eating rotten food or coming near an awful smell. One can imagine that this sort of behavior could be used to discourage people from acting in a manner that they found immoral or unpleasant. From these examples, we can see how synesthesia and analysis of cross-modal perception can be useful in studying the origins of language and other components of human...

Read More
Are you a synesthete living in Miami? Take part in one of our current studies!I'm down!