Personification-Based Synesthesia

Personification-Based Synesthesia
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Letters are given human-like qualities like personalities and gender

Personification-based synesthesia is a rare form of synesthesia that occurs when letters, numbers, objects and days are automatically associated with a specific personality or gender. In literature, three main types of personification were identified and these phenomena often co-occurred with other forms of synesthesia.[1] During this resurgence in synesthesia research, neural imaging has helped to identify the neural mechanisms that underlie this form of synesthesia.[2] Practical applications for personification have also been used to improve learning and memory.[23]

1. Ordinal Linguistic Personification

1.1 Background & Case Studies

"Three is such a jerk! He only thinks of himself. He does not care about any other numbers or anything.
All he wants is to better himself and he’ll use any sneaky, underhanded means necessary.
But he’s also pretty young; he doesn’t understand anything and he doesn’t have very much power …
So, he tries to hang out with Eight (who’s also a bad number) just so that he can feel better about himself.
But really, none of the numbers can stand him. He’s a real jerk."

~ From a synesthete named T. E.[2]

Sample Associations by A. P. [1]
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Letters/numbers/months involuntarily elicit these associations

Ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) is the automatic tendency to animate and personify numbers, letters, months, and days. In other words, this specific form of personification-based synesthesia involuntarily associates linguistic elements with human-like personalities and genders.[3] Similar to how synesthesia was initially dubbed as pseudo-chromesthesia, one of the earliest reports of OLP listed the personification phenomenon as a “Dramatization.”[4] According to various case studies, participants would be able to provide distinct characterizations for specific letters and numbers such as the letter K is a conscientious introvert while the letter D is a young and attractive joker.[5] In addition, based on the personalities prescribed to the ordered sequences, numbers will also evoke emotional associations such as pity for the number 11 and an aversion towards the prime numbers 11, 13 and 17.[4]

Case studies often illustrated the vividness of these backstory associations and the nature of how numbers and letters interact with each other. For Mme. L, 8 was described as a graceful even-tempered lady compared to her selfish domineering husband, 9, and ultimately, his disapproving attitude towards her created a verbally abusive marriage between the two numbers.[6] In the most recent case study of A. P., the report highlights the difference between individual characteristics and relational characteristics between numbers and letters. Individual traits include personality, appearance, job, gender and how the character thinks while relational descriptions depict the level of acquaintance between characters (eg. family, friends) or the nature of the relationship (eg. love, hate).[1]


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For one synesthete, J is quite a nice guy. [27]

1.2 Automaticity of the Grapheme Gender

An important aspect of synesthesia is the automatic nature of the multisensory interaction. As such, the Stroop task serves as a reliable indicator to confirm the involuntary animation and personification abilities of these synesthetes.[7] Using a variation on the experiment, the automatic tendency for genders to be ascribed to letters is shown to interfere with the categorization of names based on gender. Since the attributes displayed by the initial letter of the word spreads through the entire word, if the first letter is associated with a different gender than for which the name is traditionally for, then there is interference. OLP synesthetes react slower to incongruent names by 50msec for male names and 100msec for female names with the Stroop Task paradigm, suggesting a genuine involuntary tendency for the personification of letters.[1]

Using a gender judgement task, the involuntary nature of grapheme gender generation was also tested with the presentation of both a letter and a cartoon face. For matched trials, the personified gender of the letter is the same as the gender of the face while for incongruent trials, there was a mismatch.[8] Similar to the Stroop Task paradigm, interference occurs during the cross-modal interaction for mismatched trials which results in a slower reaction time.[9] The delay in judgements for the incongruent trials provide support for the automaticity of grapheme gender generation.[8]

Precuneus Activation for A. A. [8]
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Precuneus activation during personification indicates reflection and imagination.

1.3 Neurological Basis

Since OLP co-occurs with various forms of other synesthesia, it is speculated that OLP shares similar neurological underpinnings with variants such as grapheme-colour synesthesia.[3] Moreover, genetic inheritance may have added to the likelihood of cross-modal interactions between areas that would not have normally communicated.[10] In terms of personification, the attribution of human traits to non-human stimuli activates the occipital and fusiform gyrus, amygdala, medial frontal cortex, angular gyrus, and left interior frontal gyrus.[11] Activation in the latter brain area is closely associated with higher-order functions such verbal comprehension.[12] In the case study of A. A., activation was found in the precuneus which is an area for introspection and imagination suggesting an automatic nature to the personification of the graphemes.[8]


2. Object-Personality Synesthesia (Case Study of T. E.)

Categorizing Object-Personality Traits [2]
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Personality and relational traits are used most often

2.1 Object-Personality Associations

Serving as the most recent and well documented case of object personification, T. E. described vivid, stability and involuntary object-personality pairs that indicated a new form of personification-based synesthesia.[13] Object-personality synesthesia goes beyond the personification of graphemes and time units to allow for the animation of almost every object within her line of sight.[2] As consistency is an important aspect of synesthesia, [14][15] T. E. demonstrated a high level of accuracy for object-personality pairings for both familiar and novel objects at 91% and 80% respectively. Regardless of the amount of time spent with the object, the associations are generally consistent suggesting that the initial generation of the object-personality pairing remains intact and resistant to change over time.[2]

The description of the object-personality pairings provided by T. E. also highlights the distinct types of characteristics that are integrated into the associations. Traits were categorized as appearance, personality, relationship to other objects, and occupation. Characterizations of the personified object tend to focus mostly on personality traits and how objects interact with each other. In addition, experience with objects also plays a part in the associations.[2]

2.2 Influence on Visual Attention

Associations Influence Visual Attention [2]
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In comparison to positive stimuli, re-directing focus from a negative stimuli is quite difficult

As with OLP, personalities prescribed to objects can also evoke emotional associations or aversions towards particular objects.[4] For graphemes, T. E. finds the number “3” and the letter “S” as her least favored characters due to their unlikable personalities. Since emotion is a key player in directing visual attention, [16] T. E.’s vivid object-personality pairings will affect the length of time she spends viewing an object. It was noted that T. E. described the placement of graphemes as “dinner party” with random characters haphazardly placed together. Results show that T. E. fixated longer on graphemes that elicited a negative response compared to fixation times for positive stimuli.[4] Since previous research has shown that participants take longer to re-direct attention when viewing negative stimuli,[17] the associations constructed by T. E. consistently and appropriately influenced her attention which provides evidence for the authenticity of object-personality synesthesia.[4]

2.3 Neurological Basis

Previous research has shown activation in 5 essential areas during personification. Activation in the occipital and fusiform gyrus suggested the location for object discrimination.[11] In addition, angular gyrus activation is closely associated with the feeling of taking perspective and observing oneself from a different viewpoint.[18] For personification, the prefrontal cortical regions are important for making judgements, in particular, the medial frontal cortex has been implicated in personification.[19] Lastly, the amygdala is important in personification as emotions serve an important role in the pleasantness of the object personalities.[20] Due to the emotional response caused by the object-personality pairs and the increased fixation time on negative stimuli compared to positive stimuli, the amygdala is suggested to be a key player in visual attention.[21]

3. Co-occurance with Other Synesthesias

Synesthesia demonstrates a high level of co-occurance within its various forms and subtypes. Both A. P. and T. E. had grapheme-colour synesthesia combined with personification-based synesthesia.^[3] In fact, it was only after testing T. E. for grapheme colour synesthesia did researchers observe the signs of object-personality synesthesia.[2] Since linguistic units are the most prevalent forms of synesthtesia inducers, secondary synesthesias usually fall within the same domain resulting in both types serving as visual synethesia.[25][26]

4. Learning With Personification

The basis of personification synesthesia is the attribution of human-like qualities to non-humans such as grapheme characters or objects. Although personification synesthesia involuntarily elicits personality and gender associations with non-animate characters, voluntary personification can serve a purpose for nonsynesthetes within the classroom. Also known as “anthropomorphism,” personification can be used as a learning technique to help students improve memory retention.[23] Specifically within the realm of science, faculty professors have employed personification as a teaching strategy to help students better encode information.

By asking students to write biographies for each infectious microorganism, both faculty and students benefited from the experience in terms of classroom atmosphere and information integration. Entitled, “The Bug of the Week,” nursing students framed their learning regarding one microorganism each week by building a profile for each pathogen. Information included: reproductive history, employment skills, and travel history.[23] A similar approach was used in a pharmacodynamics class to frame the discussion on drugs. By creating an elaborate human-like profile of each drug, students and professors were thoroughly engaged with the material throughout the duration of the course.[24]

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