Experimental study of phantom colours in a colour blind synaesthete

Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (4):75-95 (2007)
Synaesthesia is a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces photisms, i.e. mental percepts of colours. R is a 20 year old colour blind subject who, in addition to the relatively common grapheme-colour synaesthesia, presents a rarely reported cross modal perception in which a variety of visual stimuli elicit aura-like percepts of colour. In R, photisms seem to be closely related to the affective valence of stimuli and typically bring out a consistent pattern of emotional responses. The present case study suggests that colours might be an intrinsic category of the human brain. We developed an empirical methodology that allowed us to study the subject's otherwise inaccessible phenomenological experience. First, we found that R shows a Stroop effect (delayed response due to interference) elicited by photisms despite the fact that he does not show a regular Stroop with real colours. Secondly, by manipulating the colour context we confirmed that colours can alter R's emotional evaluation of the stimuli. Furthermore, we demonstrated that R's auras may actually lead to a partially inverted emotional spectrum where certain stimuli bring out emotional reactions opposite to the normal ones. These findings can only be accounted for by considering R's subjective colour experience or qualia. Therefore the present paper defends the view that qualia are a useful scientific concept that can be approached and studied by experimental methods.
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