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Scramble of senses at heart of UC Berkeley synesthesia conference

– What does a prime number feel like? Can you taste Pachelbel's Canon? What color is the letter "R"?

The answers to those questions are easy for synesthetes, who perceive the world through a mix-and-match sensory experience unlike how most of us smell, see, touch, hear and taste. For people with synesthesia, which means "joined sensation," one sense will trigger an additional perception in a different sense or senses.

Synesthetes and the scientists and researchers who study their experiences are gathering Nov.5-7 at the University of California, Berkeley, for the Fourth Annual National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association.

The conference is being hosted by the UC Berkeley Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, directed by cognitive neuroscientist Richard Ivry.

"Synesthesia is a relatively common occurrence that has been ignored by the scientific community for a long time," said UC Berkeley Psychology Professor Lynn Robertson, who edited a book on synesthesia and studies synesthesia, among other visual phenomenon. "People need to realize that different people experience different perceptual events, and they are not always indicative of a problem, although sometimes they are. The trick is to know the difference."

Robertson's cognitive neuropsychology lab is one of just a handful in the world that studies synesthesia, which reportedly affects anywhere from one in 2,000 people to one in 10,000 people. Her research into synesthetes' experiences was sparked by a finding that patients with lesions on both sides of the brain, say from a stroke or other injury, would have severe spatial problems, confusing what color goes with what form - the reverse experience of people with color/form synesthesia who see a particular shape as having the same color all the time.

Among the speakers at the conference will be Carol Steen and Pat Duffy, two synesthetes who founded the American Synesthesia Association in 1995.

Steen, an artist and academic, has said numerous artists report synesthetic experiences: "The painter David Hockney talked of hearing the colors that he subsequently painted, and the writer Vladimir Nabokov saw colors in the words he wrote."

The keynote speaker is Professor Daphne Maurer from McGill University in Canada, an expert in cross-modal perceptual development in infants. She proposed in "The World of the Newborn"(1988) that infants experience "a sensual bouillabaisse" in which "sights have sounds, feelings have tastes," and that smells can make a baby feel dizzy. In her address, she will address this idea in light of recent evidence about brain development, on how infants respond when objects are presented to more than one sense, and on apparent remnants of this early synesthesia in adulthood.

A complete schedule of presenters and conference abstracts can be found at www.synesthesia.info. The conference will be held in Barrows Hall in the Lipman Room, located on the 8th floor.