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Real color captures attention and overrides spatial cues in grapheme-color synesthetes but not in controls


Hagoort,  Peter
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Van Leeuwen, T. M., Hagoort, P., & Händel, B. F. (2013). Real color captures attention and overrides spatial cues in grapheme-color synesthetes but not in controls. Neuropsychologia, 51(10), 1802-1813. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.06.024.

Grapheme-color synesthetes perceive color when reading letters or digits. We investigated oscillatory brain signals of synesthetes vs. controls using magnetoencephalography. Brain oscillations specifically in the alpha band (∼10 Hz) have two interesting features: alpha has been linked to inhibitory processes and can act as a marker for attention. The possible role of reduced inhibition as an underlying cause of synesthesia, as well as the precise role of attention in synesthesia is widely discussed. To assess alpha power effects due to synesthesia, synesthetes as well as matched controls viewed synesthesia-inducing graphemes, colored control graphemes, and non-colored control graphemes while brain activity was recorded. Subjects had to report a color change at the end of each trial which allowed us to assess the strength of synesthesia in each synesthete. Since color (synesthetic or real) might allocate attention we also included an attentional cue in our paradigm which could direct covert attention. In controls the attentional cue always caused a lateralization of alpha power with a contralateral decrease and ipsilateral alpha increase over occipital sensors. In synesthetes, however, the influence of the cue was overruled by color: independent of the attentional cue, alpha power decreased contralateral to the color (synesthetic or real). This indicates that in synesthetes color guides attention. This was confirmed by reaction time effects due to color, i.e. faster RTs for the color side independent of the cue. Finally, the stronger the observed color dependent alpha lateralization, the stronger was the manifestation of synesthesia as measured by congruency effects of synesthetic colors on RTs. Behavioral and imaging results indicate that color induces a location-specific, automatic shift of attention towards color in synesthetes but not in controls. We hypothesize that this mechanism can facilitate coupling of grapheme and color during the development of synesthesia.