Synesthesia and Engineering Design: How Synesthetes Differ in Their Approach and Understanding of Engineering Systems and Their Design


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The engineering design process is as much a cognitive process as it is technical. The design of a device or a product is often simplified if one can visualize various facets of its operation. This visualization is especially critical when designing entirely new products or making fundamental changes in existing ones. Several prior studies have demonstrated that grapheme-color synesthetes, experience greater activation in their occipital and temporal lobes when compared with non-synesthetes. Grapheme-color synesthetes perceive a specific color when shown a letter, number, or symbol. The occipital lobe is hypothesized to contain the V4 color processing area while the temporal lobe is responsible for visual, episodic, semantic, and spatial memory. For these reasons, it is conjectured that grapheme-color synesthetes may better visualize dynamic systems. Whether this translates to an ability to solve engineering design problems more accurately than the non-synesthete population is unknown. In this pilot study, participants will be instructed to complete an online test asking them to solve a series of relatively straightforward mechanical design questions that one might see in a first or second course in statics. In all, there are 12 design questions, most of which require short-answer responses of no longer than one to three sentences while a minority of questions are multiple choice. Synesthetes are to be recruited from relevant e-mail forums and social network groups which connect synesthetes interested in participating in research. Respondents are given the option of taking the Synesthesia Battery online test to determine if they have the condition or not; alternatively, they can self-identify if they strongly believe that they do or do not have synesthesia. Controls will consist of undergraduate and graduate students from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. After participants have taken the survey, responses from synesthetes and controls will be compared utilizing statistical hypothesis testing. If a large enough number of non-synesthetes and synesthetes with a background in the natural and applied sciences take the online test, their responses will be compared amongst each other and against non-synesthetic and synesthetic participants whose career or educational interests are in other fields. Our results may have implications for engineering practice, pedagogy and instruction.



Research Subject Categories::TECHNOLOGY::Bioengineering