Synesthesia vs. crossmodal illusions

In Ophelia Deroy (ed.), Sensory Blendings: New Essays on Synaesthesia. Oxford, UK: pp. 45-58 (2017)
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We can discern two opposing viewpoints regarding synesthesia. According to the first, it is an oddity, an outlier, or a disordered condition. According to the second, synesthesia is pervasive, driving creativity, metaphor, or language itself. Which is it? Ultimately, I favor the first perspective, according to which cross-sensory synesthesia is an outlying condition. But the second perspective is not wholly misguided. My discussion has three lessons. First, synesthesia is just one of a variety of effects in which one sense modality causally impacts and reshapes experience associated with another. These effects are utterly common. However, due to their unfamiliarity, and to their conflict with a widespread conception of the role of the senses in perception and perceptual experience, until recently they have been surprising. Second, synesthesia nevertheless must be distinguished from other inter-modal effects that lead to misperception, such as crossmodal illusions. Third, synesthesia also may be distinguished from the potentially much broader class of synesthetic effects, which could be common across the population and within individuals.

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Casey O'Callaghan
Washington University in St. Louis


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