Richard Roche: Synaesthete, Artist, Scientist
The International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists is fortunate to have Richard Roche as a founding member of our organization. IASAS aims to unite people who have synaesthesia, the artists who create from a synesthestic perspective, and the scientists who study cross-modal perception. Dr. Roche is all of these and more, a synaesthete, an artist, a researcher, and a founding member of IASAS.
RR: Thanks CC, my pleasure! I work in the Psychology Department at Maynooth, where I research both the healthy and the dysfunctional brain – over the years that has included memory, psychosis, stroke, acquired brain injury, and synaesthesia. I’m just about to start a project on reminiscence therapy for healthy older people and later people in the early stages of dementia, and its possible benefits for cognition and also psychological well-being.
CCH: Do you have synaesthesia?
RR: Yep, I’m a grapheme-c0lour synaesthete with coloured days of the week, and I also have a number form with abstract shapes (and personalities) for numbers. My sister and niece are both synaesthetes too!
CCH: Are there particular expressions of synaesthesia that you find interesting from a research perspective?
RR: They’re all fascinating, but the rarer types are definitely really interesting – experiences like tasting visual or auditory phenomena, or seeing shapes or colours in response to music. I think this is partly because of their scarcity, but also because, even for a run-of-the-mill synaesthete like me, the experience of that type of synaesthesia is so difficult to imagine. All forms can tell us something about how the brain works, but these rarer types may reveal even more secrets.
CCH: Often synaesthetes believe they are just like everyone else until they figure out their experiences are abnormal in some way. Can you comment on this?
RR: I definitely had that experience – I had never heard of synaesthesia until my first week of university; in a History of Psychology lecture, the lecturer described some classic types (grapheme-colour), and asked if anyone in the room experienced anything like that; mine was the only hand to go up. So he brought me up to the front of the room to describe my coloured days of the week to a room of my confused-looking classmates. I sat back down and he went on to talk about number forms, and again asked if anyone present had anything similar; again, mine was the only raised hand, so up I went again to explain. Until then, I think I had assumed that everyone just knew that Wednesday is a yellow thing, the same way a banana is a yellow thing. It was an eye-opening first week of college!
CCH: I’ve been fortunate to read your writing; what other creative media do you work with?
RR: I paint a little bit, just as a hobby, though some of the things I’ve painted in recent years have a neuroscience flavour (neurons, brain diagrams, neurological tests and measures). I also produced a brain map – the Isle of Cortica – depicting the brain as an island; that was done largely as a teaching tool, and it ended up winning a prize for Best Abstract Representation of the Brain from the NeuroBureau’s Brain Art Prize 2014.
CCH: Does your synaesthesia research impact your work as an artist?
RR: I wish it did, but not really – I’m envious of projector-type synaesthetes who actually see the colours/shapes, rather than just associating (which I do). It does make me quite aware of colour though, even if it’s on an associational level. Yellow always makes me think of Wednesday.
CCH: Can you share an interesting or unusual experience you’ve had with your synaesthesia research?
RR: By far the most interesting experience was working with the two synaesthetes we describe in the recent EJN paper with Kevin Mitchell and Francesca Farina – we called them AB and CD for anonymity. They were absolutely amazing, and it was remarkable that we should encounter two such rare types of synaesthete (both coloured-music and coloured auras for people) who had both lost and regained their synaesthetic experiences in recent years, for different reasons. Their two stories were absolutely fascinating, particularly AB who had suffered viral meningitis, a succession of concussions, and then– incredibly – was hit by lightning! It was fascinating to chat with both of them and discuss their experiences, and to hear how uncomfortable it was for them (particularly AB) to lose their synaesthesia, and the relief when it came back.
CCH: Please tell us about your academic background, and what inspired you to research synaesthesia…
RR: I did my undergraduate degree in psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, where I went on to do a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, and then a postdoc afterwards. That mainly involved studying learning and memory, using primarily EEG recordings from healthy humans. During my time at Trinity, I was aware that Fiona Newell was working on synaesthesia research – I volunteered my sister for one of her studies – and I was aware that Kevin was also very interested in the condition. So when I moved to a lectureship in Maynooth in 2005, I started work on a wide range of research interests which didn’t include synaesthesia, but when I met AB (though one of my Final Year students who was her friend), it was a good opportunity to link in with Kevin to explore the area again.
CCH: Do you have any mentors or artists you look up to?
RR: I’ve been really lucky to work and publish with some fantastic people in my time in Trinity and Maynooth, and in recent years Twitter has proven an amazing forum for being exposed to fascinating thinkers and artists – for example, some of the science-based art being produced by people like Greg Dunn (www.gregadunn.com), Joni Seidenstein (aka @artcollisions) and Michele Banks (aka @artlogica). In general terms, I always find myself going back to Carl Sagan – as a communicator of science, I think he’s the best I’ve ever encountered, and I always try to emulate a little of what he accomplished when trying to relate scientific ideas, particularly to the public.
For research, this is my work webpage:
For art, here is the brain map:
And here’s a short story about synaesthesia I managed to get published in 2015:
Finally, the first of three co-authored novels –which have nothing to do with science or synaesthesia – is due to be released this year (hopefully!) with Wolfhound Press, Dublin.
The IASAS Iris is pleased to focus on Rosy Long: artist, synaesthete and stalwart IASAS suppporter. When our IASAS website was under construction, Rosy was one of the first artists to offer use of her work, which is included in the collage that graces our home page under the “Art” subheading. Rosy continues to support IASAS, signing on as one of our first founding members. She answered a few of my questions about her art, her synaesthesias, and her creative spark.
CCH: Rosy, I’m so glad to have this chance to interview you. What types of synaesthesia do you have?
RL: I am a Grapheme-Color synaesthete – but I do feel pain with other people in my teeth, nails and groin.
CCH: Often synaesthetes believe they are just like everyone else until they figure out their experiences are abnormal in some way. When did you know that you had synaesthesia?
RL: I have always felt a bit different and remember at infant school my coloured letters in my head. I always thought that this was because I was very special – my twin brother lost his very early on. I really loved all the colour stuff in my head and I found that it helped me to memorise things faster. I discovered I had synaesthesia when my son Joseph found he had it, relating his colours to sound and music. Even then everyone laughed at it and just thought I was quirkier!!
CCH: What media do you work in?
RL: My work has developed from oil painting, to acrylic painting, to 3D papier maché, to 3D Paperclay , finally to bas-relief papier maché/mixed media. I use what I need to express myself and my ideas.
CCH: How does your synaesthesia impact your work?
RL: I have never tried to show my colours in my head because they are not the colours you see around you. I think that my synaesthesia has enabled me to see things in an individual and quirky way and given me the strength to become a passionate artist.
CCH: Can you share an interesting or unusual experience you’ve had with your synaesthesia?
RL: I couldn’t think of anything – so I asked my dear husband. He says that I am useful to take around because I always know people’s telephone numbers without needing to look them up and I always remember appointment dates. This is so easy for me because the colours just come into my head and tell me.
CCH: Do you have an art degree or are you self taught?
RL: I am a graduate of Grays Art College in Aberdeen. The school that taught me the most about myself and my work was teaching children with Special Needs.
CCH: Do you have any mentors or other artists you look up to?
RL: I have the most wonderful artist friend whose work is very different from mine – subtle, beautiful and very perfect. She works on things for months till she is satisfied and hates to be in the limelight. I talk to her for ages on the phone and she is a loyal good friend. I also run a fortnightly group for life-drawing and it is good to keep in touch with the various artists who attend this. I admire most art and artists which I find inspirational.
CCH: How can we find your art online?
Photos from top: Artist Rosy Long with her work Alone, mixed media; Alone; Gifts from the Sea, mixed media; Doll’s Teaparty, mixed media; Grimbriggs, mixed media.
Kevin Mitchell, IASAS Board Member
IASAS is honored to shine its spotlight the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Synaesthetes on Wiring the Brain, a neuroscience blog written and edited by Dr. Kevin Mitchell. Wiring the Brain focuses on “how the brain wires itself up during development, how the end result can vary in different people, and what happens when it goes wrong”. A developmental neurobiologist with the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Mitchell conducts research into the genetic program specifying the wiring of the brain and its relevance to variation in human faculties, especially to psychiatric and neurological disease. Read extracts from his paper presented at the Fifth International Conference Synesthesia: Science and Art, at Alcalà la Real de Jaén, Spain, 16–19th May 2015 here. Additionally, Wiring the Brain has an active and engaging Twitter profile.
Christina Eppleston, IASAS Founding Member
The International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists is grateful to Christina Eppleston for her creation of the IASAS logo. Christina is a graphic designer by day and creates cute sculptures and jewelry by night as The Yarb. She enjoys vibrant colors and saturation, incorporating them into her designs. Christina’s work is often clean and simple, but her workspace is far from it! She enjoys surrounding herself with art and inspiration, especially cute animals. A lifelong grapheme-color and time-space synaesthete, Christina is exploring ways to incorporate her gifts into her art. You can see her work at: www.theyarb.com, Facebook and Etsy. You can also follow Christina Eppleston on Twitter and Instagram.