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Object Personification Synaesthesia (Animism, Cultural & Language Influence)

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in children is consist of four stages:

Sensory Motor Stage
Pre-operational Stage
Concrete Operational Stage
Formal Operations Stage

During the Pre-operational Stage, ‘young children assign life and conscious mental states to non-living objects and concepts; this was referred to as “animism” in the early literature (Piaget 1929). Animistic thought in early childhood gradually decreases during cognitive development.’ In Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia (edited by edited by Julia Simner, Edward M. Hubbard 2013), animistic thought was used to evaluate the possible neural basis of Personification Synaesthesia.

‘Personification in synesthetic adults may represent an excessive manifestation of the human tendency to perceive reality using the self as a model. This in turn derives from younger children’s animistic thought which children use as an undeveloped filter through which they learn about the social world. In other words, synesthetic personification could represent a residual expression of childhood animism.

The brain areas associated with self-referential processing such as the insula, the pre-cuneus, the inferior frontal cortex, and the posterior cingulate, have been found to be involved in implementation of animistic thought (Sobczak 2009; Sobczak, Sagiv, and Williams 2010).’

In the Chinese culture, the concept of “the left side as male and the right side as female” has been in use for thousands of years. This custom was also closely associated with the philosophy of Yin and Yang. Chinese believe that everything has two opposite sides, i.e., Yin (female) and Yang (male). Yang represents things that are big, long, up, and left whereas Yin symbolises things that are small, short, down, and right.

Growing up in Chinese culture, I often apply the male left and female right concept in the way I arrange things, just like my mother. I also think my left foot and left hand are male, and right foot and right hand are female. My understanding is that it is a learnt association, rather than object personification synaesthesia (OP).

However, a new OP was manifested through my recent foot injury. I was fitted with a black colour cam boot on my right injured foot. The first two weeks after the injury, I had to wear the cam boot to bed due to the pain. The right foot was feeling quite sad and lonely, and the left foot was missing the right foot’s company. I had never had this perception before, so it came with more shock what I experienced on the day that I was allowed to take the boot off to bed. I felt the happiness in the left foot who welcomed his wife back. The right foot was very emotional too.

I intend not to totally agree what was stated in Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia (edited by edited by Julia Simner, Edward M. Hubbard 2013) that “Personification in synesthesia as a misattribution of self-referential processing.” In my case, even I was injured, I did not feel lonely as my husband and children were with me the whole time. But I could relate to other female who might be sad, lonely or insecure during the recovery period.

There was a study that I read particularly interested me. In “A comparative study of animistic thought of Ojibway children on Wikwemikong Reserve Manitoulin Island” conducted by University of Saskatchewan (King, Cecil 1975), it highlighted some language and cultural influence of animism.

‘The animism testing instrument was administered in Ojibway-English (bilingual) and English (unilingual) to two equal groups of children, who were equally divided by sex. The data was analyzed at the .05 level for statistical significance by an analysis of variance. The results of the study showed the strong influence of language. The bilingual children responded to the concepts of animism within the Ojibway framework while the unilingual children responded significantly more to the Piagetian definition of animism. Other findings indicated there was no significant difference between grade levels in either the bilingual or unilingual groups. However, females scored significantly higher than males. The interaction between language and grade of bilingual and unilingual speakers was statistically significant. The bilingual children’s concept of animism increased with age while the unilingual children’s concept of animism decreased with age. This age/grade pattern coincided with the Piagetian theory. An analysis of the reasons for subjects responses showed that the bilingual group became stronger in their concept of animism as they got older while the unilingual children conformed with the Piagetian definition of animism in which the child’s animism becomes weaker with age. There was no consistency in the sequence of the levels of animism though all four levels were evident in the responses from both groups.’

The study result showed that animism could be influenced by culture and language. Does the same pattern apply to Personification Synaesthesia? Food for thought.

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