Personality and cognitive profiles of a general synesthetic trait

Neuropsychologia. 2016 Jul 29:88:35-48. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.01.006. Epub 2016 Jan 6.


The recent sharp increase in studies on synesthesia has taught us a lot about this fascinating condition. Still, while we define synesthesia as 'the mixing of senses', the great majority of synesthesia studies focus on only one synesthesia type (in particular grapheme-color synesthesia). In this study, a large group of subjects are tested on the presence or absence of different types of synesthesia. Efforts to recruit a representative sample of the Dutch population, not related to or aware of synesthesia as a research topic, helped counter a selection bias or a self-report bias in our subject group. A sharp increase in synesthesia prevalence was found, at least partially due to including many different types of synesthesia in the synesthesia 'diagnoses'. The five synesthesia types reported in the Novich et al (2011) study were obtained; Colored Sequences, Colored Music, Colored Sensations, Spatial Sequences, Non-Visual Sequelae, as well as an additional synesthesia type, Sequence-Personality. No differences were found between synesthetes and non-synesthetes in education level, handedness, age, and sex. The synesthetes showed increased intelligence as compared with matched non-synesthetes. This was a general effect rather than bound to a specific cognitive domain or to a specific (synesthesia-type to stimulus-material) relationship. The expected effect of increased "Openness" in synesthetes was obtained, as well as two unexpected effects in personality traits (increased "Neuroticism" and decreased "Conscientiousness"). We also found increased "Emotionality" (experiencing emotions) and increased "Fantasizing", but synesthetes did not differ in cognitive appraisal of emotions (identifying/analyzing/verbalizing of emotions). The personality and cognitive characteristics were found related to having synesthesia (in general) rather then to particular synesthesia subtypes. This supports the existence of a general synesthetic 'trait', over the notion of relatively independent 'types' of synesthesia. In further support, exploratory analyses showed that a measurement of synesthetic strength (number of subtypes of synesthesia) correlates with stronger findings (increased "Openness", "Fantasizing", and "Emotionality", and decreased "Conscientiousness"). In conclusion, results are in line with the notion of a general synesthetic 'trait', and this synesthetic trait is associated with particular personality traits and cognitive characteristics.

Keywords: Emotionality; Fantasizing; Openness; Synesthesia, Prevalence, Intelligence, Personality, Emotions; Trait.; Type.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Male
  • Perceptual Disorders / epidemiology
  • Perceptual Disorders / psychology*
  • Personality Assessment
  • Personality*
  • Synesthesia
  • Young Adult