Arts and Culture

UW professor is one of world's leading synesthesia researchers

Hubbard hopes to bring a conference to Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison assistant professor Edward Hubbard — one of the leading synesthesia researchers in the world — calls Madison home.

Synesthesia is a phenomenon Hubbard describes as a sort of mixing of the senses, in which one thing in the world causes two experiences instead of one experience. The most common examples include seeing colors for letters, numbers and music, but also include variants like feeling touch for taste or having spatial locations for months of the year or days of the week. So someone with synesthesia might have the color pink assigned to the letter A, or they see yellow when they hear a car horn.

“Synesthesia was one of these things that captured my imagination,” says Hubbard, who has been studying it for almost 20 years and co-edited “The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.”

He was part of one of a half-dozen synesthesia labs around the world in 1999, and he helped convince skeptics in the scientific community that synesthesia was real. Roughly more than 16 million people in the U.S. are born with some form of synesthesia, whether they’re aware of it or not, Hubbard says. As director of the Education Neuroscience Lab, Hubbard continues to study how synesthetes use their unusual multisensory perception to understand the world and how their abilities positively impact their memory. In studying this variant, Hubbard and his lab get a better idea of how people’s perceptual systems work more broadly.

“We get a fuller picture of what happens in everyone’s brains as they perceive the world around them and they think about things,” Hubbard says. Hubbard, who is on the board of the American Synesthesia Association, is working with that organization to plan a synesthesia conference in Madison.

To get a better idea of what synesthetes experience, Hubbard encourages people to watch the video, "An Eyeful of Sound." It's identifeid by synesthetes as the best visual/audio respresentation of how they experience different sensations, Hubbard says. Watch the video here. 

This article is part of the April cover story "50 Things That Give Madison Color." Click here for the full story.


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