Monthly Archives: May 2011

Stroop Da Whoop

on: You see that color in the Shoop da Whoop mouth? Name it.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to recognize that specificity comes into play when reporting the “correct” color inside the mouth. Do we mean the color signified by the meaning of the word “BLUE” or the actual color of the letters making up the word? A phenomenon known as the Stroop Effect emerges when this issue is tested as a cognitive science experiment; when asked to report the color of the letters, experimental subjects tend to take longer when the color of the word doesn’t match its meaning. Basically, through competitive top-down networks of neurons, the brain takes a little extra time resolving the simultaneous signaling of pathways that activate color-related neuronal clusters. One of these pathways relates visual information about color (without relation to words) and the other relates semantic information about what words mean– in this case, the color blue.

Let’s switch gears for a moment. You’re probably familiar with synesthesia, a condition wherein perceptual sensory modalities and/or semantic networks are switched, linked, or otherwise bizarrely experienced. In the condition, there are stimuli called inducers and resultant synesthetic experiences known as concurrents. A number of famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt, and Olivier Messiaen were synesthetes, and reportedly experienced music-generated perception of colors, which serves as an excellent example of an inducer→concurrent relation. Another example is Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant to whom numbers are perceptually represented as shapes, which lends him extraordinary arithmetic abilities. Synesthesia is even implicated in at least one study as the underlying mechanism behind the ordinal linguistic personification, a condition in which personalities are concurrents to ordered sequences, like days of the week.

Technologies, art, and so on enable forms of “artificial” synesthesia. Any medium which relies on the simultaneous presentation of “unnatural” multimodal stimuli hearkens to synesthesia– from Carmen to Fantasia to the light organ and even those animal-themed alphabets we are so accustomed to seeing in elementary schools. The letter ‘Z’ must be forever entangled with semantic networks devoted to zebras across the United States.

found on: what is meant by “unnatural” combination of sensory modalities, anyhow? ‘Z’ really is for zebra; it’s not a spontaneous, unbidden association of concepts. Trees really do rustle. Cats meow. Brains form these associations on the basis of learning. But how does this differ from something like grapheme→color synesthesia, where indviduals see colors as concurrents to letters? Letters, after all, must be learned, but the colors associated are not inherent qualities of letters. In synesthetes, such colors are only seen in the “mind’s eye”, as it is called; for whatever reason, as a concept or sensation is learned and perceived, it becomes inordinately associated with another. Association is a staple hinge of neurological change underlying learning in all brains, so it can exhibit abnormalities like any other property of the brain. In this case, the abnormality exists in extravagant co-activation of networks without an external precedent. The association is formed largely on the basis of internal inclinations to strongly associate certain networks with others (since synesthesia is familial, it’s fair to call it an internal inclination).

So, let’s switch gears one more time before synthesizing (heh) the Stroop Effect with synesthesia. If you have not already relished the joy of watching Office Space, you should. It’s just one of many reasons 1999 was the best year ever. In any case, Office Space involves a bit o’ hypnotherapy, which is an odd, interesting means of altering “highly suggestible” people’s cognitive processes. It almost seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does.

In fact, according to some studies, hypnosis can completely disrupt synesthetic experiences in synesthetes as well as generate them in non-synesthetes, suggesting that disinhibition of associative pathways may influence synesthesia, not necessarily hyperconnectivity. And here’s the synthesis: the reaction time lag characteristic of the Stroop Effect, too, can be suspended via hypnosis.


"You're beginning to feel less Stroopy."

What’s most fascinating about these studies is the fact that they represent total top-down manipulation of associative networks normally considered unconscious. Daniel Tammet can’t help the fact that he perceives π as visually beautiful; it’s an unconscious, unbidden association. But in these studies, the competition for different pathways and the hyperconnectivty or hyper-disinhibition of networks is arrested through conscious means (certainly, being hypnotized is a different state of consciousness, to say the least, but it is a conscious state). To be able to meddle with such pathway connectivity is… it’s Bene Gesserit shenaniganry, that’s what it is. All we need to do now is convince highly suggestible individuals with HIV to quit having AIDs.

So, when I snap my fingers, you’re going to stop thinking about debauchery and rape when you hear Beethoven’s 9th. You’re also going to leave a nice an insightful comment to this post. And give me my stapler back. Aaaaand buy this shirt. Ooooooh *snap*