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Lifespan Development of Typical and Atypical Multisensory Perception

Final Report Summary - MULTISENSE (Lifespan Development of Typical and Atypical Multisensory Perception)

The ERC MULTISENSE project set out with an ambitious goal to understand unusual sensory experiences across the lifespan. The project asked three broad questions: how do children and older people process the multisensory world? How do unusual populations do this differently? And how might this affect them in other ways? The unusual population studied by MULTISENSE were people with the neurological trait of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a rare sensory trait, which can cause individuals to experience colours from sounds, tastes from words, and other sensory blendings. MULTISENSE devised and validated a number of diagnostic tools to identify children, adolescents and adults with multiple forms of synaesthesia; these tools were used to examine over 6,000 children and over 85,000 adults into older age. The synaesthetes identified were then extensively tested to better understand the roots and consequences of this unusual trait. Children with synaesthesia were found to be cognitive gifted: they excelled in language and number skills, and were more creatively oriented than the average child. But these advantage came with drawbacks: synaesthetic children had poorer well-being, showing higher rates of introversion, anxiety and mood differences. MULITSENSE created a dedicated online hub, displaying information for parents and teachers, to better support children with synaesthesia in the classroom. The MULTISENSE team also shared their findings and resources at a special symposium bringing together educational professionals across multiple domains from around the UK.
MULTISENSE looked at both the lower and upper ends of the lifespan, asking too how synaesthesia changes in older age. They found that synaesthesia becomes less stable in older people, and that synaesthetic colours become greyer and darker. These changes make synaesthesia less prominent in older age, and in turn make older synaesthetes more difficult to identify. However, older people who maintain their synaesthesia benefit from their experiences: they have superior memory recall compared to people of the same age without synaesthesia. To understand why people develop synaesthesia the MULTISENSE project asked whether the trait was found equally in men and women, whether it shared biological features with other conditions, and whether cross-sensory mapping itself was a uniquely human trait. Here, they looked more widely at experiences resembling synaesthesia in the population at large. The found that all people tend to adopt multisensory associations from their environment: for example, children exposed to coloured counting blocks who internalise the colours can improve their sense of numerosity. And multisensory information can even affect taste: rougher foods taste more sour than smooth foods, and even the shape of plates can alter the bitterness of the food served on them. In summary, the MULTISENSE project explored how the senses come to be integrated in people with and without synaesthesia, and how this integration takes place in children and older people. The MULTISENSE project aimed to celebrate sensory differences by recognising neurological variation as a valuable feature within the natural diversity of humans.