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
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
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 – resources humaines! I can just imagine some unpublished manuscript by André Malraux, hidden in a Paris attic and suddenly discovered, entitled Les Resources humaines – perhaps a companion novel to his La Condition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?