Sensory experiment

From left, Michael Szeszol, double major in psychology and English; and Joshua Barbara, biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology, both aim to continue research in graduate school. They prepare for that by conducting undergraduate research. Their project is related to a rare condition that affects how people perceive the world.

Undergraduate researchers develop test for rare condition where colors overlap with text, numbers

Imagine a world where senses overlap. When you hear soft piano music, you see the color blue. When you read a particular word, you taste the flavor of bacon.

This mixing of senses — called Synesthesia — is reality for about 1 percent of the population.

When UWL students Michael Szeszol and Joshua Barbara learned about this rare condition in a 400-level psychology course, they wanted to know more.

That led to follow-up discussions with course instructor, Assistant Professor Alexander O’Brien, and later, the development an undergraduate research project related to it. With O’Brien as their mentor, they developed an experiment that could be used to determine whether an individual has a particular kind of synesthesia where they see colors when thinking about letters, numbers or text. For instance, they might always perceive the color green when they see the letter P regardless of what color the text is. They received funding for the project from a UWL Undergraduate Research & Creativity Grant.

Szeszol presented their research “Seeing the 4est for the 3rees: Using Gestalt Grouping Principles to Identify Color-Grapheme Synesthesia” Friday, Nov. 10, at Viterbo University’s Seven Rivers Undergraduate Research Symposium. Szeszol and Barbara are currently applying to present at Midwestern Psychological Conference.

They call the process of research invigorating. “Every time we figure out something, it opens another door for us,” says Szeszol. “There are always more research avenues to pursue.”

And more questions to answer, adds Barbara.

The two are also pursuing undergraduate research in other fields — Barbara in biology and Szeszol in English. Reflecting on their experiences, they encourage other students to take the opportunity. Their undergraduate research has led them both to want to continue doing research by pursuing graduate school with the goal of eventually teaching in a university setting.

“People are out there doing research to further our knowledge in society. We can sit here and talk about synesthesia — even use this computer — because someone at some point had an idea. They tested it. It didn’t work, so they tried something else,” says Barbara. “Research is a good process and it’s worth understanding