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In most people, we use our five senses individually to observe the world around us and make connections and inferences about our surroundings based on information from each sense. However, there are some people whose senses are tied together – when they hear a sound, they also see a color associated with that sound. These people have a condition known as synesthesia, which is a link between two senses. There are many forms of synesthesia such as a sight/touch or a numerical/color link. With modern brain imaging technology, we have determined that there is an enhanced neurological link between the two parts of the brain the control the linked senses, which could be caused by a lack of neural pruning during development – though this hypothesis has not been proven (Ramachandran and Hubbard in Brang). Additionally the identification of the heredity of this condition has been problematic. It first appeared to be X-linked dominant, however more recent studies suggest a heterogeneous inheritance, which is more indicative of a polygenic trait. On the whole, synesthesia has proven to be a very difficult condition to categorize both genetically and physiologically. Because of the difficulty of categorizing synesthesia, many news articles take information from many different scientific publications – therefore I will compare and contrast a popular press article with a review paper written by some of the leaders in the synesthesia research field.
The art of reporting scientific findings to the public is a task of extreme difficulty. The reporter must first have a working understanding of the topics being covered in the paper, understand the paper, then be able to translate it into a language that the averages, non-scientist can understand. Kua, Reder, and Grossel provide a descriptive method for relaying scientific findings to the public in their paper Science in the news: a study of reporting genomics. The conclusion of Kua et. al is that a reporter should serve as an “intermediary”, a “watchdog”, and a “tool-giver”. These criteria will be used to analyze the effectiveness of scientific reporting of the so called “creativity gene”.
The role of an intermediary is to relay the information in the scientific publication in a language that the layperson can understand while still preserving the original message of the publication. If a reporter writes an article the average person can read but emphasizes that a cure for cancer has been found while the original publication states cancer causing genes have been found then the author of the popular press article has failed. Inversely, if the author of the press article has accurately conserved the message of the publication but includes too much scientific lingo, the have again failed in their task as an intermediary.
The watchdog is the check to the scientific journal juggernaut. In order to succeed as a watchdog, the reporter must be able to stimulate and inspire thoughtful discussion about possible ethical issues surrounding the research that they are reporting. However it is important that the reporter avoid exaggerating the implications of the scientific research as diligently as scientific researchers must avoid hyperbole in their findings.
The most under represented aspect of scientific reporting (according to Kua et. al) is the tool-giver. It is the job of the tool-giver to provide context for the lay reader so that they can better understand the research that is being presented. Armed with the knowledge of the current state of the field and the long-term implications of the study, a lay reader can make more informed decisions on how to view and interpret the information presented in the science article. It should be the goal of every science reporter to include this sort of information to frame the study in the context of the world around the reader.
I will use the three categories laid out by Kua et. al to compare and contrast The Blended Senses of Synesthesia by Lily Dayton and Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why do People Hear Colors and Taste Words? By David Brang and V. S. Ramachandran.
The popular press article The Blended Senses of Synesthesia by Lily Dayton of the Los Angeles Times is an average example of transcription from scientific jargon to an accessible article. Dayton hits every main idea covered in the covered in the scientific review article titled Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why do People Hear Colors and Taste Words? by David Brang and V. S. Ramachandran, however, there are many details that are left out.
The Brang review publication begins with an introduction that describes the prevalence of synesthesia in the population, states that there are different variations of synesthesia, and poses the question of why synesthesia has been conserved. The publication then goes into a more in depth discussion of the neural basis for synesthesia and the inheritance pattern of the condition. The introduction of the Brang publication is very accessible to a layperson, however, the description of the neural basis of synesthesia becomes more technical even though many concepts are defined in the publication. The description of what is know about the heritability of synesthesia is also full of uncommon concepts, but many of these concepts remain undefined in the publication.
Dayton’s article in the LA Times is a rather stripped version of the review publication by Brang. Dayton starts with an anecdote about a college student with synesthesia to capture the readers attention then moves into the meat of the article. First, Dayton states that synesthesia is simply increased brain connectivity between sensory areas of the brain. She neglects much of the detail about the underlying genetic cause of the increased connectivity.
Dayton discusses the various varieties of synesthesia, their prevalence in the population, and the inheritance pattern in the following paragraphs but she gives only gives cursory descriptions of each topic. It is in the translation of heredity of synesthesia that is weakest in Dayton’s article. Her description of the varieties synesthesia is quite good for the lay-reader. Dayton discusses the different connections between different senses in a way that is easily comprehended.
Unfortunately, Dayton’s description of inheritance leaves out many details that are vital to understanding the true complexity of synesthesia. Dayton merely states that synesthesia seems to be dominantly inherited and that it is reasonable to assume that synesthesia confers “some significant evolutionary benefit”. This is the one point in her article that is so over simplified that it is just wrong. The current research, according to the Brang publication, suggests that synesthesia is a polygenic trait due the many different genes and alleles (heterogeneity) that have been implicated in the rise of synesthesia. Brang shows a very simple figure on the inheritance of synesthesia (which I believe would have been appropriate for Dayton’s article) that supports his hypothesis that synesthesia is polygenic. Finally Brang ends his section on heritability with the statement that nobody really knows how synesthesia is inherited.
After the similarities mentioned above the articles begin to diverge in emphasis. Dayton’s article discusses the possible applications of relating synesthesia studies to other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s while Brang is more concerned with the reasons why synesthesia is preserved in the population.
Link to inheritance tree of synesthesia
I believe that Dayton’s article is an average intermediary because she provides enough information for a lay-reader to understand the gist of synesthesia, its cause, and how it’s inherited. However, I believe that more details in how the disease is inherited would provide the lay-reader with a better sense of how complicated synesthesia actually is. Even though the focus of Dayton’s article was the possible applications of synesthesia research knowledge of the inheritance of synesthesia is still important to the article.
Watchdog and Tool-giver
I placed the watchdog and tool-giver categories together because I believe that playing the role of a watchdog leads smoothly into playing the role of the tool-giver. After setting research findings in the context of the real world, the next most practical thing would be to discuss the pros and cons of the research within the context of the real world: which is the role of the tool-giver.
I found Dayton’s article to be a good watchdog because she neither over emphasized nor underemphasized the importance of synesthesia in the grand scheme of research and life in general. Additionally, Dayton included a statement that synesthetes enjoy their synesthetic experiences and that synesthesia is more of a condition than a disease.
But most importantly, Dayton provided a very good description of how research of synesthesia can provide important, enlightening information on the inner workings of the brain. With a working knowledge of how a synesthete’s brain is different from a “normal” brain, researchers can then look for similar irregularities in the brains of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to way Dayton framed the research: she did not discuss the difficulties of synesthesia research. Although it is a gritty subject, discussion about the economic investment required to make headway in this indirect battle on Alzheimer’s would most likely be significant and any progress we did make may not be applicable to Alzheimer’s at all – that connection is merely a hypothesis.
All in all, I felt that Dayton was good watchdog by setting the research in context by telling the reader of possible advantages to memory and the proclivity towards creativity of synesthetes. However, I believe Dayton’s role as a tool-giver was rather lackluster. Dayton only discussed the positive future applications of the link to Alzheimer’s without discussing any economic impact or the possibility of the link not existing. The article leaves a reader with a very positive and hopeful view on neurodegenerative disease that, in reality, is not particularly practical.
The Dayton article did an average job as a scientific reporter, leaving much to be desired in the areas of intermediary and tool-giver. However, playing the role of the tool-giver, I believe, is the most difficult task of a science writer. In this instance, it would be very difficult for Dayton to find information on the economic cost of synesthesia research as well as any literature doubting a link between synesthesia and Alzheimer’s. only a truly adroit and pessimistic scientific reporter would know where to look especially since most scientists would be reluctant to release such information in their own publication
Eunice Kua, Michael Reder, and Martha J. Grossel. 2004. Science in the News: A Study of Reporting Genomics. Public Understanding of Science. 13: 309–322.
Lily Dayton. 20 Febuary 2012. The Blended Senses of Synesthesia. LAtimes.com. Los Angeles Times.
David Brang and V. S. Ramachandran. November 2011. Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: why do people hear color and taste words?. Polis Biol. 9(11): e1001205.