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Understanding grapheme personification: A social synaesthesia?


Dr Noam Sagiv, Department of Psychology, Brunel University, Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK


Much of synaesthesia research focused on colour, but not all cross-domain correspondences reported by synaesthetes are strictly sensory. For example, some synaesthetes personify letters and numbers, in additional to visualizing them in colour. First reported in the 1890s, the phenomenon has been largely ignored by scientists for more than a century with the exception of a few single-case reports. In the present study, we collected detailed self-reports on grapheme personification using a questionnaire, providing us with a comprehensive description of the phenomenology of grapheme personification. Next, we documented the behavioural consequences of personifying graphemes using a congruity paradigm involving a gender judgement task; we also examined whether personification is associated with heightened empathy as measured using Empathy Quotient and found substantial individual differences within our sample. Lastly, we present the first neuroimaging case study of personification, indicating that the precuneus activation previously seen in other synaesthesia studies may be implicated in the process. We propose that frameworks for understanding synaesthesia could be extended into other domains of cognition and that grapheme personification shares more in common with normal cognition than may be readily apparent. This benign form of hyper-mentalizing may provide a unique point of view on one of the most central problems in human cognition – understanding others’ state of mind.