A. O’Dowd, S. Cooney, David P. McGovern
Sep 9, 2019
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
Synaesthesia has previously been linked with imagery abilities, although an understanding of a causal role for mental imagery in broader synaesthetic experiences remains elusive. This can be partly attributed to our relatively poor understanding of imagery in sensory domains beyond vision. Investigations into the neural and behavioural underpinnings of mental imagery have nevertheless identified an important role for imagery in perception, particularly in mediating cross-modal interactions. However, the phenomenology of synaesthesia gives rise to the assumption that associated cross-modal interactions may be encapsulated and specific to synaesthesia. As such, evidence for a link between imagery and perception may not generalize to synaesthesia. Here, we present results that challenge this idea: first, we found enhanced somatosensory imagery evoked by visual stimuli of body parts in mirror-touch synaesthetes, relative to other synaesthetes or controls. Moreover, this enhanced imagery generalized to tactile object properties not directly linked to their synaesthetic associations. Second, we report evidence that concurrent experience evoked in grapheme—colour synaesthesia was sufficient to trigger visual-to-tactile correspondences that are common to all. Together, these findings show that enhanced mental imagery is a consistent hallmark of synaesthesia, and suggest the intriguing possibility that imagery may facilitate the cross-modal interactions that underpin synaesthesic experiences. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘Bridging senses: novel insights from synaesthesia’.