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October 2, 2013
By Deanna Hearn
Lianne Barnes, a University of Nevada, Reno student in the Honors Program who graduated this past spring, has been named one of only three 2013 National Collegiate Honors Council Portz Scholars in the country.
This prestigious award for undergraduates in collegiate honors programs will be presented to her at the Council's annual conference in New Orleans in November. This is the second time a University honors student has won a national Portz award; the first was Erin Edgington in 2008.
The award is highly competitive. Honors students take honors courses and write a thesis based on original research. Only 48 papers out of thousands of honors programs were submitted. Because a university is only allowed to submit one paper a year, Tamara Valentine, director of the University's Honors Program, says she only sends the best of the best.
Barnes' area of research was not only original, it was personal.
While conducting her research under the guidance of her mentor Assistant Professor Gideon Caplovitz and graduate student Dan McCarthy, both vision scientists in the Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program in the Department of Psychology, Barnes moved from being a research subject herself to becoming part of the research process. This led to her thesis: "Six is Sapphire, but is Sapphire Six? Bidirectionality and Numerosity in Grapheme-Color Synesthesia."
"I knew Lianne was an award winner when I read her thesis," said Valentine who also praised Barnes' service work which earned her the University's 2013 Margery Cavanaugh Community Volunteer Award that is given to a graduating student who has made a significant contribution to the community through volunteer work.
"I can tell when a student is so interested in the topic because it comes out in the writing," Valentine said. Lianne's thesis was a cut above the standard high quality of any honors student. It was graduate level research and writing."
During a summer retreat at the Nevada State 4-H Camp site in South Lake Tahoe, University Honors Program students welcomed special guest Lieutenant Governor of Nevada Brian Krolicki. He talked to the students about the roll-out and importance of the Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship, the process to apply to host the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and more.
So what is synesthesia? Imagine what it would be like to see numbers as colors. It might look like this: two is red, three is green and five is yellow. Now add red plus green. Do you see yellow? That's not likely for most of us, but it is for someone who has grapheme color synesthesia, a phenomenon of the brain estimated to occur in 1 to 5 percent of the population. Barnes is one of those people.
Grapheme-color synesthetes experience letters and numbers in distinct colors. "For a non-synesthete, that's hard to wrap your head around because we are constantly surrounded by letters and numbers, and we experience them in printed form," Caplovitz said.
Another twist for Barnes is that she also has strong emotional responses to numbers and letters, and they present with genders and personalities. "I think the number three is great, but I do not care for seven at all," Barnes said. Three is a young, spunky woman who is adventurous and not afraid to go out and make things happen. She's a light cyan color. Seven is not a good guy. He's a bright, toddler-toy yellow.
"There is much diversity among synesthetes. I see the letter or number but I have a feeling and association with a color in my mind which is not a hallucination. I still see everything everyone else does and more," Barnes said.
"Synesthetes have personalized color-number associations that are unique for everyone," McCarthy said. "If the color is red, it is a very specific red, like a blooming rose red. They are able to see the subtleties of color, and we spent lot of time in the research getting their exact color."
"There are also other forms of synesthesia where someone may be listening to music and experience color and shapes, or there's taste synesthesia where certain tastes may be associated with colors or textures," Caplovitz said. "There is even a form where if I touch my face, the synesthete will feel it on his or her face. The basic idea behind synesthesia is that a person gets multi-sensory experiences from a uni-sensory stimulus."
Aware since she was in kindergarten that she viewed colors and numbers differently, Barnes says most synesthetes view it as a gift. "The idea of living without synesthesia makes me sad because I would be missing out on a beautiful aspect of the world," Barnes said.
There are times, however, when it can be distracting. "Non synesthetes can relate to the color-taste associations we all have; yellow-green liquids are citrus, red-purple liquids are fruity," Caplovitz said. "Imagine if someone hands you what looks like cup of milk, you drink it and it's orange juice. Think about how that would feel. It's the same incongruency where there is a violation of expectation and association."
Barnes thesis research demonstrated that color-grapheme synesthetes can solve basic mathematical equations formed using patches of color rather than number graphemes. Her paper was recently accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal "Consciousness and Cognition."
She is in graduate school at UCLA this fall continuing her studies in neuroscience but shifting from vision research to studying social interactions. She will be investigating what causes people to empathize with other people and how that looks in the brain. According to Caplovitz, Barnes is studying with one of the country's preeminent neuroscientists.