Friday, May 2, 2008

Social Synaesthesia and Human Resources

An interesting article in The Times Higher Education by my colleague David Colquhoun has inspired me to write this blog, in which I describe a condition that is well known but, to the best of my knowledge, has not hithero been categorized and named. I call it social synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a condition in which one sensory input provokes two sensory experiences. A good example relates to colour, when different musical notes produce in the brain of the perceiver different colours, each colour specific to a note. Several composers reputedly have had the condition. Another example, also related to colour, is one in which different Arabic numerals are perceived in different, and distinctive, colours. It is important to observe that when “normal” people listen to notes, the activity in their brain is limited to the auditory cortex. With synaesthetes, the notes not only produce activity in the auditory brain but also in the colour centre of the visual brain – area V4 – implying that there are direct connections between the two brain centres in synaesthetes but not in “normals”. Obviously enough people have the condition for there to be synaesthesia societies in Europe and the United States.

In truth, synaesthesia may encompass a great deal more. I myself have a synaesthesia that I thought was bizarre until I discovered (after having written briefly about it in a synaesthesia newsletter) that it is not as uncommon as I had presumed. My synaesthesia consists in associating words with distinct personalities that are not easy to describe but which I definitely experience. The first letter of a word determines largely, but not exclusively, the personality. This can lead to extraordinary personality changes. For example, I always associated Calcutta and Bombay with distinct personalities. Now that these have changed to Kolkata and Mumbai, respectively, so have their personalities for me. It is actually a condition that has enriched my life in a variety of ways, and I would hate to be without this “abnormal” condition.

A personality change, brought about by re-naming their profession, is precisely what seems to have happened in the example of Human Resources, which is nothing more than a new name for what was commonly known as the Personnel Department. Human Resources is a grandiose but strangely inappropriate term for the old profession. It implies a deep knowledge of human desire, motivation and action derived from a profound knowledge of the human condition through a study of psychology and world literature. The French, too, have adopted the term wholesale. And how pompous it sounds in French, when applied to the old Personnel Department Рresources humaines! I can just imagine some unpublished manuscript by André Malraux, hidden in a Paris attic and suddenly discovered, entitled Les Resources humaines Рperhaps a companion novel to his La Condition humaine or perhaps a first draft of it! How hilarious that would be!

These are not mere speculations, for in the case of Human Resources, the change in name from Personnel Department, has actually brought up a synaesthetic change in personality, one that is well worth a neurobiological investigation, given its social importance in regulating the affairs of institutions, including universities. No longer content with dealing with admittedly highly important matters such as salaries and wages and other such-like, the change in name has given them a wholly undeserved confidence and mystique that enables them to be promoted to “senior management” teams and even dictate the number and type of courses that employees, even senior and highly intelligent ones, should take. Some of these courses verge on the absurd, as David has pointed out in his many blogs. Handing such powers over to them constitutes an abdication by the universities of their responsibilities – that of dictating the type and quality of course that a university should offer. This abdication is obviously brought about by the perceived change in the capacities of those who deal with matters belonging to traditional personnel departments through the application of a new term. It constitutes a socially transmitted example of synaesthesia, but one which still requires some re-organization of the brain. Hence the synaesthetic change in personality has also a social dimension, for it obviously induces a change in the belief of others that those who have so renamed and thus reinvented and upgraded themselves have indeed acquired an insight and knowledge that their erstwhile colleagues of personnel departments had not. Nor does it end there. For the synaesthetic change in personality brought about by a name change seems also to have induced a perceptual change in others. Human resources departments are hated and despised by most other members of the institutions that they profess to run and organize, a contempt that is linearly related to their seeming incapacity to understand and handle human resources (now used in its proper context). It is no wonder, as David says in his blog, that some highly successful businessmen think it desirable to do away with them altogether.

From a neurobiological perspective, just as synaesthesia is worth studying to shed light on what kind of connections and processes in the brain are modified to enable one sensory input to provoke another, so it would be really worth investigating neurobiologically how a change in name can alter so radically peoples’ perception of themselves, as well as others perception of them. Perhaps a detailed longitudinal study, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for the future?


Svetlana said...

Well... You don't like that Human Resources usurped the power in University. But why did you allow them to do so? Why do you (you, David, other good and talented scientists) make idle talks in blogs and in reality, instead of creating a normal, effective management in university? You are SCIENTISTS, you are real hosts of university! But why do you surrender the power in university to mediocrity, fools and bureaucrats?
Well! You don't desire to reign yourselves (it is usual mood of intellectuals), but why can't you find clever person ( from just your university's and scientific society), who can run university? Why must the chief and administration be necessarily fools and incompetent persons??
Or do you believe that you will live more simply and easily behind their backs? No, at all. You are living worse already now. And what next?..

Phunicular said...

This appears to be part of the larger social science concept of framing. Choosing words to name a concept has the effect of bundling up (at least some of) the baggage associated with those words and tying it to the concept.

It seems that there have been fMRI studies done on various aspects of framing but I'm not familiar with the details, or if any of them address the specific area of naming. (I expect George Lakoff has a lot to say on the subject, but I haven't got around to reading it. A glance at Google Scholar hits on +framing +lakoff +fmri brings up >100 hits)

LinYu Wang said...

It is interesting that verbal information is able to bias one's and others' perception of one group or change the personality of the group. No wonder that some people like to associate with anything with SCIENCE (e.g., A department might be renamed Political Science rather than Politics) as SCIENCE is predominant nowadays.

Below is the website showing the general concept of “framing effect”.

Neural correlates of framing effect

Funny stuff ^_^
Literomancy (a form of fortune-telling based on letters)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to react to the change of personality when names change. My own Synaesthesia has to do with every word having a color. This color I discovered also has to do with the first letter being dominant, like you said. Bombay is orange for me , but Mumbai is red. I later noticed that the colors of the letters were related to a childhood toy. That of Fisher Price and its magnetic letters. It led me to organize my dictionary by colored paperclips. I was wondering if others can trace this back to such a toy? The funny thing is that it does not count for all words. Sometimes the second letter is dominant and sometimes, like with the days of the week, they are very different. Monday should be red, but it is yellow. Saturday is blue, but should be red. Fisherprice uses the colors of the rainbow. A=Red, B=Orange, C=Yellow, D=Green, E=Blue, F=Purple, G=Red, H=Orange etc.

ps, for me people and their personalities are also felt as structures, such as metal or wool. Or patterns and textures.