Sensory Synesthesia and Human Perception

Sensory synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimuli from one modality of sensory input leads to involuntary and automatic experiences in another sensory modality. There is some debate regarding the classification of synesthetic phenomenon, but several striking observations reveal that at least a small percentage of people experience a heightened interconnectedness between their different senses.

Kiki, Bouba, and Visual Perception

In 1929, the German-American scientist Wolfgang Kohler observed what is now known as the Bouba-Kiki effect [1]. In 2001, Vilyanur S. Ramachandran replicated Kohler’s experiment with college students in the United States and India, and found a large consensus between participants prompted to provide auditory names to visual objects [2]. The findings of Ramachandran and Kohler demonstrate that sensory information appears to carry a predictable and consistent scaffolding of associations and relationships to other modalities of stimuli. The participants’ visual perceptions of the shapes printed on the page were used to make judgments of the appropriate auditory sounds that ought to be associated with those shapes. VS Ramachandran and his colleague Edward Hubbard suggest that the evolution of language may not be entirely arbitrary—instead, the naming of objects in space may reflect a natural association of auditory stimuli with the visual, tactile, olfactory, and overall perception of the object’s nature. Sounds (and by extension, all sensory information) may automatically convey some degree of symbolic meaning in relation to experiences from other senses.

Auditory-Tactile Synesthesia

When viewed with an MRI, the brain activity of a patient with a localized lesion in the right ventrolateral nucleus of the thalamus revealed modifications to the individuals’ perception. “Initially, the patient was more likely to detect events on the contralesional side when a simultaneous ipsilesional event was presented within the same, but not different sensory modality.” Eventually, this transformed into a form of synesthesia “in which auditory stimuli produce tactile percepts.” This study revealed the likelihood that the experience of sensory synesthesia may be acquired after a brain injury [3].

Visual-Tactile Synesthesia

Mirror-touch synesthesia is a condition in which watching another person being touched activates a similar neural circuit to actual touch. When observing individuals who experience mirror-touch synesthesia with brain imaging, their empathic responses to the experiences of other people appears to be heightened [4]. This form of synesthesia also appears to augment an individual’s ability to recognize and interpret the facial expressions of an interaction partner [5]. Although a thorough empirical explanation for the phenomenon has not yet been developed, there are different potential theoretical explanations currently being investigated in more detail. The Threshold Theory explains it “in terms of hyper-activity within a mirror system for touch and/or pain,” and the Self-Other Theory explains it “in terms of disturbances in the ability to distinguish the self from others.” [6] The two theories carry different implications: the Threshold Theory implies a localized phenomenon impacting the mirror system, while the Self-Other theory implies a more general difference that may be reflected in other cognitive processes as well.

Enhanced Sensory Perception

Some scholars argue that artistic experimentation may be rooted in sensory synesthesia, by allowing an artist to describe a sensory experience using a wider range of detail [7]. Although scientists have developed methods of testing and profiling synesthetes [8], much of the theoretical framework used to understand cross-modal sensory perception remains speculative. Although VS Ramachandran mentions a possible relationship between synesthesia and enhanced sensory perception [9], it remains unclear exactly how this enhancement manifests itself in a person’s ability to perform different activities or pursue artistic endeavors. In a preliminary study exploring the perceptual processing abilities of synaesthetes [10], “there was a relationship between the modality of synaesthetic experience and the modality of sensory enhancement.” In other words, a synaesthete who experiences color triggered by other sensory modalities will also have enhanced color perception. A synaesthete who experiences tactile sensations will have enhanced tactile perception. Further research is required to understand exactly how these enhanced perceptual abilities manifest themselves in common tasks.

Artists with Senaesthesia

Wikipedia has a large list of notable individuals with synaesthesia. The list includes several famous artists:

  • Lorde
  • Billy Joel
  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Kanye West
  • Hans Zimmer

Although anyone without synaesthesia can make art, the process of linking different sensory modalities appears to help some artists produce their most notable works.


[1] Köhler, W (1929). Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright.
[2] Ramachandran, V.S, & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia — A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3–34
[3] Ro, T., Farnè, A., Johnson, R. M., Wedeen, V., Chu, Z., Wang, Z. J., … & Beauchamp, M. S. (2007). Feeling sounds after a thalamic lesion. Annals of neurology, 62(5), 433-441.
[4] Banissy, M. J., & Ward, J. (2007). Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy. Nature neuroscience, 10(7), 815-816.
[5] Banissy, M. J., Garrido, L., Kusnir, F., Duchaine, B., Walsh, V., & Ward, J. (2011). Superior facial expression, but not identity recognition, in mirror-touch synesthesia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(5), 1820-1824.
[6] Ward, J., & Banissy, M. J. (2015). Explaining mirror-touch synesthesia. Cognitive neuroscience, 6(2-3), 118-133.
[7] Van Campen, C. (1997). Synesthesia and artistic experimentation. Psyche, 3(6).
[8] Van Campen, C., & Froger, C. (2003). Personal profiles of color synesthesia: developing a testing method for artists and scientists. Leonardo, 36(4), 291-294.
[9] Ramachandran, V. S. (2003). The emerging mind: the Reith Lectures 2003 (p. 867). London: Profile.
[10] Banissy, M. J., Walsh, V., & Ward, J. (2009). Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental brain research, 196(4), 565-571.

Moment is Made in the USA

Printed circuit board being assembled.
We’re proud to be based in Phoenix, Arizona. Our main office is located at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, but we can’t contribute our part to the American economy by shipping jobs overseas. That’s why Moment is made in the USA.

We work with local companies whenever we can. For manufacturing and assembly, we work with Quiktek Assembly in Tempe, Arizona. For component sourcing, we work with Avnet, a leading electronics distributor headquartered in Phoenix. Many of our primary partners are within a quick 15-minute drive from our office, and we also are working to source all of our plastics and miscellaneous parts from local distributors.

Beyond keeping Americans employed, we can guarantee a few things almost every big brand (including the ones named after fruit) cannot:

  • we pay fair wages
  • we never employ underage workers
  • our facilities are powered by cleaner sources of energy
  • we recycle whenever possible
  • we meet all EPA regulations

Map of where we product our products.We produce and assemble our products in the United States, and we’re always looking for opportunities to bring jobs back here to the USA. It’s the only way we can ensure we deliver an honest, high-quality product that isn’t subsidized by environmental catastrophe and unfair practices. Continue reading “Moment is Made in the USA”

Our 10 Favorite Phoenix Coffee Shops for Productivity


Giant is our favorite place to work, as long as it isn’t too crowded – its clean interior has a variety of places to sit and work – bar stools, regular tables, benches, and cushioned seats. During the day, it’s often very quiet, but sometimes it can be crowded at peak hours.

Giant Coffee


Although it can be loud at times, Lux is a very large coffee shop with a lot of space. A single cup of drip coffee also buys you unlimited refills, so you can sit and work for several hours as long as you don’t mind a little bit of a crowd. For those looking to work into the hours of the evening (something startup founders may be a bit too familiar with), Lux also offers many local beers on tap, providing a lively evening work environment.

Lux at Central

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Virtual Textures with Oculus

The Oculus Rift, released March 28, 2016
The Oculus Rift, released March 28, 2016

Earlier this year, Oculus released the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift, after much anticipation following their historic Kickstarter campaign and subsequent acquisition by Facebook. However, with Oculus currently losing the VR war to the more expensive HTC Vive, Oculus now seems to be planning to beat other players in the VR space with advanced haptics. Researchers at Oculus are currently working on a project called HapticWave, which uses a circular metal plate placed on top  of a ring of electromagnetic actuators to communicate precise haptic feedback to your hand, when placed on the plate. Continue reading “Virtual Textures with Oculus”

Electrovibration In Ungrounded MacBook Pros

My 2011 15” MacBook Pro

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the aluminum enclosure of my unibody Macbook Pro had a strange texture when I brushed my hand across the surface. After some tinkering, I noticed that this only happened when the device was being used while charging and that it only happened when using my shorter, 2-prong, power cable—leading me to believe there was some sort of current leakage happening.

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Why Moment Doesn’t Need an LCD Screen

Moment Prototype Photo
Moment allows you to develop an intuitive sense of time, direction, and much more

In the past few years, the growth of wearable technology has exploded. In the process, two types of devices have emerged: smartwatches and health trackers. Smartwatches offer users smartphone notifications pushed to their wrists, where they can interact with the information in a familiar way—through capacitative touch screens while fitness trackers take in a variety of data using sensors, from heart rate to accelerometer measurements, to give users a better understanding of their physical activity.

In designing Moment, we went in the opposite direction and questioned the assumptions made by other wearable devices. Wearable technology should communicate with users by taking advantage of what the body does best. Continue reading “Why Moment Doesn’t Need an LCD Screen”

Electrovibration and Touchscreens: Creating Virtual Textures

Graph of Perceived Friction by Voltage
A higher voltage results in a higher perceived friction.

In 1950, Edward Mallinckrodt, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, accidentally discovered the phenomenon of electrovibration (also known as electrostatic vibration). He noticed that a brass electric light socket had a different texture when a light was burning than it did when the light was turned off. Along with a team of researchers, he began exploring the phenomenon in more detail by running experiments using an aluminum plate with insulating varnish. They wrote:

If the dry skin of one’s finger is moved gently over a smooth metal surface covered with a thin insulating layer, and the metal is connected to the ungrounded side of an 110-v power line, the surface has a characteristic feeling that disappears when the alternating voltage is disconnected.

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How do devices provide haptic feedback?

Video game controllers, cell phones, wearables, and dozens of other consumer electronic devices make use of vibrotactile feedback to increase user engagement. There are three different types of hardware most frequently used to provide haptic feedback: eccentric rotating mass motors, linear resonant actuators, and piezoelectric actuators.

Continue reading “How do devices provide haptic feedback?”