Digit–Color Synaesthesia Only Enhances Memory for Colors in a Specific Context: A New Method of Duration Thresholds to Measure Serial Recall

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Abstract

For digit–color synaesthetes, digits elicit vivid experiences of color that are highly consistent for each individual. The conscious experience of synaesthesia is typically unidirectional: Digits evoke colors but not vice versa. There is an ongoing debate about whether synaesthetes have a memory advantage over non-synaesthetes. One key question in this debate is whether synaesthetes have a general superiority or whether any benefit is specific to a certain type of material. Here, we focus on immediate serial recall and ask digit–color synaesthetes and controls to memorize digit and color sequences. We developed a sensitive staircase method manipulating presentation duration to measure participants’ serial recall of both overlearned and novel sequences. Our results show that synaesthetes can activate digit information to enhance serial memory for color sequences. When color sequences corresponded to ascending or descending digit sequences, synaesthetes encoded these sequences at a faster rate than their non-synaesthetes counterparts and faster than non-structured color sequences. However, encoding color sequences is approximately 200 ms slower than encoding digit sequences directly, independent of group and condition, which shows that the translation process is time consuming. These results suggest memory advantages in synaesthesia require a modified dual-coding account, in which secondary (synaesthetically linked) information is useful only if it is more memorable than the primary information to be recalled. Our study further shows that duration thresholds are a sensitive method to measure subtle differences in serial recall performance.

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