Mixing up the Senses: Sensory Substitution Is Not a Form of Artificially Induced Synaesthesia

In: Multisensory Research
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  • 1 Institut des Systèmes Intelligents et de Robotique (ISIR), Sorbonne Université, , Paris, , France
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Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs) are typically used to restore functionality of a sensory modality that has been lost, like vision for the blind, by recruiting another sensory modality such as touch or audition. Sensory substitution has given rise to many debates in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy regarding the nature of experience when using SSDs. Questions first arose as to whether the experience of sensory substitution is represented by the substituted information, the substituting information, or a multisensory combination of the two. More recently, parallels have been drawn between sensory substitution and synaesthesia, a rare condition in which individuals involuntarily experience a percept in one sensory or cognitive pathway when another one is stimulated. Here, we explore the efficacy of understanding sensory substitution as a form of ‘artificial synaesthesia’. We identify several problems with previous suggestions for a link between these two phenomena. Furthermore, we find that sensory substitution does not fulfil the essential criteria that characterise synaesthesia. We conclude that sensory substitution and synaesthesia are independent of each other and thus, the ‘artificial synaesthesia’ view of sensory substitution should be rejected.

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