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Unconscious priming eliminates automatic binding of colour and alphanumeric form in synaesthesia

Nature volume 410, pages 580582 (29 March 2001) | Download Citation



Synaesthesia is an unusual perceptual phenomenon in which events in one sensory modality induce vivid sensations in another1,2. Individuals may ‘taste’ shapes3, ‘hear’ colours4, or ‘feel’ sounds5. Synaesthesia was first described over a century ago6, but little is known about its underlying causes or its effects on cognition. Most reports have been anecdotal or have focused on isolated unusual cases3,7,8,9. Here we report an investigation of 15 individuals with colour-graphemic synaesthesia, each of whom experiences idiosyncratic but highly consistent colours for letters and digits. Using a colour–form interference paradigm, we show that induced synaesthetic experiences cannot be consciously suppressed even when detrimental to task performance. In contrast, if letters and digits are presented briefly and masked, so that they are processed but unavailable for overt report, the synaesthesia is eliminated. These results show that synaesthetic experiences can be prevented despite substantial processing of the sensory stimuli that otherwise trigger them. We conclude that automatic binding of colour and alphanumeric form in synaesthesia arises after initial processes of letter and digit recognition are complete.

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We wish to thank A. Kritikos, M. O'Boyle, P. Wilken and M. Williams for their comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council to J.B.M.

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  1. *School of Behavioural Science, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Jason B. Mattingley
    •  & Anina N. Rich
  2. †Department of Psychology, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

    • Greg Yelland
    •  & John L. Bradshaw


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Correspondence to Jason B. Mattingley.

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