Synaesthesia: learned or lost?


Address for correspondence: Roi Cohen Kadosh, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience & Department of Psychology, University College London, 17 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AR, UK; e-mail:


The question why synaesthesia, an atypical binding within or between modalities, occurs is both enduring and important. Two explanations have been provided: (1) a congenital explanation: we are all born as synaesthetes but most of us subsequently lose the experience due to brain development; (2) a learning explanation: synaesthesia is related to some learning process during childhood. Three recent studies provide conflicting support for these explanations. Two studies supported the idea that synaesthesia is learned by showing that the frequency of everyday language implicitly modulates the synaesthetic experience. Another study argued that synaesthesia reflects basic, innate magnitude representations. In this paper we reassess these points of view, and show that it is possible for both to be valid. These findings are integrated into an interactive specialization account of development in order to explain the neuronal mechanism underlying synaesthesia.