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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

October 2009, Vol. 21, No. 10, Pages 1869-1881
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21134)
© 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Seeing Sounds and Hearing Colors: An Event-related Potential Study of Auditory–Visual Synesthesia
Article PDF (275.65 KB)

In auditory–visual synesthesia, sounds automatically elicit conscious and reliable visual experiences. It is presently unknown whether this reflects early or late processes in the brain. It is also unknown whether adult audiovisual synesthesia resembles auditory-induced visual illusions that can sometimes occur in the general population or whether it resembles the electrophysiological deflection over occipital sites that has been noted in infancy and has been likened to synesthesia. Electrical brain activity was recorded from adult synesthetes and control participants who were played brief tones and required to monitor for an infrequent auditory target. The synesthetes were instructed to attend either to the auditory or to the visual (i.e., synesthetic) dimension of the tone, whereas the controls attended to the auditory dimension alone. There were clear differences between synesthetes and controls that emerged early (100 msec after tone onset). These differences tended to lie in deflections of the auditory-evoked potential (e.g., the auditory N1, P2, and N2) rather than the presence of an additional posterior deflection. The differences occurred irrespective of what the synesthetes attended to (although attention had a late effect). The results suggest that differences between synesthetes and others occur early in time, and that synesthesia is qualitatively different from similar effects found in infants and certain auditory-induced visual illusions in adults. In addition, we report two novel cases of synesthesia in which colors elicit sounds, and vice versa.