Reduced audiovisual integration in synesthesia

 

Our results shed new light on the definition of synesthesia as a ‘mingling of the senses’. Mingled are only the synesthetic parts of their experience but not the ‘normal’ parts of their sensory experience. Normal auditory-visual integration is even weaker. Thus, it would be equally appropriate to speak of synesthesia as a ‘separation of the senses’.

 

Recent research suggests synesthesia as a result of a hypersensitive multimodal binding mechanism. To address the question whether multimodal integration is altered in synesthetes in general, grapheme-colour and auditory-visual synesthetes were investigated using speech-related stimulation in two behavioural experiments. First, we used the McGurk illusion to test the strength and number of illusory perceptions in synesthesia. In a second step, we analysed the gain in speech perception coming from seen articulatory movements under acoustically noisy conditions. We used disyllabic nouns as stimulation and varied signal-to-noise ratio of the auditory stream presented concurrently to a matching video of the speaker. We hypothesized that if synesthesia is due to a general hyperbinding mechanism this group of subjects should be more susceptible to McGurk illusions and profit more from the visual information during audiovisual speech perception. The results indicate that there are differences between synesthetes and controls concerning multisensory integration – but in the opposite direction as hypothesized. Synesthetes showed a reduced number of illusions and had a reduced gain in comprehension by viewing matching articulatory movements in comparison to control subjects. Our results indicate that rather than having a hypersensitive binding mechanism, synesthetes show weaker integration of vision and audition.

 

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