By Jennifer Mankin
This spring, my first paper on synaesthesia and language appears in an upcoming edition of Cognition. While I know that getting a paper published is always a rigorous and difficult process – as indeed it should be – I am not only excited and nervous for this paper to appear because it’s my first, but because it represents a major milestone in a journey that has thus far spanned ten years.
When I was seventeen, I happened to mention in a German language class that someone’s name was orange because it began with an M. The interest and confusion this comment elicited from my classmates surprised me; it had never before occurred to me that some people might not experience colour with letters. That evening, I sat down at the dining room table and eagerly searched online for some hint of what these impressions might be called, which is when I first learned the word synaesthesia.
Seven years later, two years after an unsuccessful attempt to do my undergraduate project on synaesthesia, I found Julia Simner’s Synaesthesia and Sensory Integration (SASI) lab at the University of Edinburgh and knew I had found my first choice university for my Master’s degree. The first chance I had to meet Dr Simner, I paced the corridors of the psychology building for twenty minutes before I could work up the courage to step through the door and introduce myself. To my relief, she agreed to supervise my Master’s project studying the mental representations of compound words like rainbow (made of two words, rain + bow) using synaesthesia. This research was based on an unpublished study in German showing that the number of colours a synaesthete experienced for compound words was influenced by their frequency in the language. More common words were more likely to have one colour, implying they were stored as wholes rather than in their constituent pieces. My study found a similar effect in English-speaking synaesthetes, which pointed to the usefulness of synaesthesia for studying psycholinguistics and formed the groundwork for my successful PhD application.
Halfway through my first year of PhD study at Edinburgh, Dr Simner and the lab moved to Sussex, and my main project was to shape that compound-word study into a paper. Besides the frequency finding, we also reported a lack of colour effect for semantic transparency – that is, synaesthetes experience the same number of colours for compounds that are easy to understand from their parts (e.g. birdhouse) or not (e.g. hogwash). Our analyses even showed that the frequency of the first constituent of the compound increases with the luminance of the colour that synaesthetes experience for it. I was extraordinarily lucky not only to have two experienced and engaged
supervisors as co-authors to help me through the review and revision process for the first time, but also to have the paper reviewed by two of the primary researchers whose psycholinguistic theories I was testing. Although sharing a piece of work in which I have so much invested is nerve-wracking, I am confident in the expertise and guidance of these fellow scientists who worked tirelessly to shape the paper into its best iteration.
I know that this first publication is only a single step in my career as an academic, but it still feels like a momentous one. On the surface, the paper strengthens the case for synaesthesia as a psycholinguistic phenomenon by showing that the number and nature of colours that synaesthetes choose for compound words is predicted by their frequency. This first study functions as a proof-of-concept that I am now working on expanding to other word structures and linguistic characteristics. For me personally, however, in the slow and difficult paradigm shift from student to scientist, from learner to researcher, this paper is also a tangible and long-awaited milestone.
Jennifer Mankin is part of the Synaesthesia Research Group at the University of Sussex led by Prof Jamie Ward and Prof Julia Simner. You can read more about their research here: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/synaesthesia/