People's Choice Awards
Anina shows how brains work to hear shapes
Anina Rich is hooked on research.
"It's that excitement of having questions and being able to design an experiment to answer them, and then looking at the data and finding out not just the answer, but that there's always more questions."
The questions Anina, a second-generation cognitive psychologist, is seeking to answer are fundamental to determining how our brains bring together the information from our senses to shape the perception of our surroundings.
"We know that different parts of the brain are interested in the colour of the object and the shape of the object and whether it's moving. But we know very little about how that information gets put together. The question is how do we consciously perceive the world?"
In order to get a better sense of how our senses operate, Anina works with a group of people whose senses work a little differently, those with what is called synaesthesia. The phenomenon affects an estimated 1 per cent of the population and varies greatly. It can mean letters and numbers have particular colours, that there is texture to smells or that sounds evoke specific coloured shapes.
Synaesthesia is not a disorder, said Anina. "If anything it seems to be an unusual gift." But by examining the way senses operate in this unusual situation, she is finding out more about how the brain works in the wider population.
As part of her research she has developed objective tests for synaesthesia. It measures the phenomenon by gauging its effect on an unrelated task. For example, participants with the most common form of synaesthesia, when words, letters and numbers evoke colours (grapheme-colour mix), are asked to name the colours appearing on a screen as quickly as possible. A letter appears immediately before each colour which synaesthetically evokes a colour that either matches or doesn't match the colour that follows.
Anina has shown that when the colour of the letter doesn't match it causes a delay in the participant's response as their brain works to integrate the two sources of information. This is called the synaesthetic congruency effect.
"When the synaesthete is trying to name the display colour but a letter triggers a different synaesthetic colour, they are much slower to respond."
Anina's research also shows that some level of attention is essential for both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes to perceive their surroundings. "Your brain is putting together all the sensory information that is coming in and attention seems to be the critical factor that determines which of that enormous amount of information that you're aware of."
Anina's findings are already advancing the thirty-year debate over how our senses are brought together.
And while her father, a fellow psychologist, continues to ask if she's ready to join him in clinical practice, it's unlikely to happen soon with so many questions to be asked, experiments to be devised and answers to be found.
Anina works at the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science at Macquarie University and entered her research into the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher. She has been a finalist in the Eureka Prizes twice previously, in 2001 and 2002 for the Eureka Prize for Critical Thinking.
Dr Anina Rich
Macquarie University, NSW