Multisensory integration and cross-modal learning in synaesthesia: A unifying model

Neuropsychologia. 2016 Jul 29:88:140-150. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.07.026. Epub 2015 Jul 29.


Recent research into synaesthesia has highlighted the role of learning, yet synaesthesia is clearly a genetic condition. Here we ask how can the idea that synaesthesia reflects innate, genetic differences be reconciled with models that suggest it is driven by learning. A number of lines of evidence suggest that synaesthesia relies on, or at least interacts with, processes of multisensory integration that are common across all people. These include multisensory activations that arise in early regions of the brain as well as feedback from longer-term cross-modal associations generated in memory. These cognitive processes may interact independently to influence the phenomenology of the synaesthetic experience, as well as the individual differences within particular types of synaesthesia. The theoretical framework presented here is consistent with both an innate difference as the fundamental driver of the condition of synaesthesia, and with experiential and semantic influences on the eventual phenotype that emerges. In particular, it proposes that the internally generated synaesthetic percepts are treated similarly to other sensory information as the brain is learning the multisensory attributes of objects and developing cross-modal associations that merge in the concept of the object.

Keywords: Cross-modal learning; Genetics; Multisensory integration; Synaesthesia; Synesthesia.

MeSH terms

  • Auditory Perception
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Learning*
  • Memory
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Perceptual Disorders / genetics
  • Perceptual Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Perceptual Disorders / psychology*
  • Phenotype
  • Semantics
  • Synesthesia
  • Visual Perception