A new study from Stanford University has found that "synesthetes," or people whose brains associate one sensory stimulation with another (think: Viewing a picture of a bird triggers the taste of metal in the mouth), might have been influenced by playing with colorful Fisher-Price numbers and letters in childhood.
Is it a wild leap? Not so, according to researchers Nathan Wittoff and Jonathan Winawer in their report posted in Psychological Science.
The researchers found that a subset of 11 subjects with "grapheme-color synesthesia" (where certain colors are associated with certain letters and numbers — collectively known as graphemes), had remarkable associative similarities to the color and number sets sold by the toy company in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ten of the subjects remembered, or even still owned, sets of alphabet fridge magnets.
One of the subjects had exact matching in her mind of the Fisher-Price letters, while the others had minor differences.
That said, synesthesia should not be confused with memory recall, the researchers warn.
Synesthetes experience the dual trigger of their senses in a very different way — sometimes projecting the color of the numbers and letters simultaneously while they read them on a page.
The condition also tends to run in families, who often have commonalities in what color is triggered by a certain grapheme.
About 40 percent to 50 percent of English speakers with grapheme-color synesthesia associate the letter Y with the color yellow, according to Inkfish, a science blog written by Elizabeth G. Preston, editor of MUSE children's science magazine.
Many studies show folks who "see" red R's, blue B's and violet V's, an association obviously informed by language. The Stanford subset of synesthetes, however, showed the association could also be learned.
Synesthetes are not negatively affected by their condition.
In fact, many feel it is to their advantage, especially those with grapheme-color associations, according to a 2004 study by synesthesia expert Richard Cytowic, since the condition is particularly helpful in memorization of both words and number sequences.
Consider how much easier "there," "their" and "they're" would be to memorize if the colors popped out differently for each letter!
Synesthesia is thought to affect approximately 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000 people; estimates are not exact because testing of the condition is difficult.