Sometimes it’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Take, for instance, the discredited theory of learning styles. It may have no basis in science, but its influence on communicators and teachers has surely been a positive one, hasn’t it?
After all, doesn’t the theory ultimately boil down to the very useful and practical insight that the key to good teaching, and communication, is variety? It reminds us that people are different and that they learn in different ways; so if you want to ensure that they’ll understand what you’re on about, the way to do it is to make sure you present to them in ways that appeal to their different sensory predilections.
The picture that emerges from categorizing people into distinct sensory types in this way is of a brain in which each individual sense occupies a separate silo – cut off from its sensory brothers and sisters. Therefore if you want to cast the net of understanding as wide a possible, your best bet is to package each point you make in a variety of sensory wrappings: images for the visual learners, sounds for the auditory learners, and some physical activity for the kinaesthetes.
But there’s a serious problem with this way of looking at the senses: it’s simply not borne out by the evidence. In fact, it’s a view that’s contradicted both by everyday experience, and by what recent studies of the brain tell us.
Neuroscientist Edward Hubbard* says that “as the infant brain grows into the adult brain, regions that were connected to each other at birth are slowly separated or pruned.” Studies of the brain indicate that when we’re born our senses are mixed up or cross-wired to a certain extent – a condition known as synaesthesia.
For most of us the condition is temporary but for a small number of people, known as synaesthetes, it persists throughout their lives. For synaesthetes, days of the week can be coloured, textures can have tastes and words can have odours.
For the rest of us though, as we grow up our senses gradually become more separate and our synaesthetic sensibility fades. But our early synaesthetic phase leaves its mark, and although our senses become more differentiated as we mature, they never completely disentangle.
Many everyday expressions like ‘a loud tie’, ‘a sharp cheese’, ‘bitter cold’ and ‘sweet music’ show just how commonplace the synaesthetic experience is. There are neuroscientists like V.S. Ramachandran and Hubbard who even argue that the study of synaesthesia may one day lead to a deeper understanding of the creative process by revealing how the sensory cross-wiring of the brain is related to our ability to think metaphorically.
Ramachandran and Hubbard maintain that “far from being an oddity, synaesthesia allows us to proceed (perhaps) from a single gene to a specific brain area… and perhaps even to metaphor, Shakespeare, and the evolution of language, all in a single experimental subject.”**
When we move beyond the simplistic learning styles model of discrete sensory modalities, we find ourselves in a richer, more complex multi-sensory world. A world in which words – spoken or read – have the power to conjure up pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, bodily sensations and memories. A world where Shakespeare’s words – in the chorus of Henry V – can miraculously transform a bare stage into the “vasty” battlefields of France – and summon up the deafening sounds of horses “printing their proud hoofs I’th’receiving earth.”
A familiar and exciting world in which a father can tell his daughter a story that sets her “imaginary forces” playing and which transports them both to another time and place. Experiences that remind us that the reality of the synaesthetic brain is the communicator’s greatest ally.
*For a more detailed account of synaesthesia, see Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, in Scientific American, May 2003