Synesthetics, Semiotics, Semantics: The 3S Metaphor in Learning

Bernard Luskin

Bernard Luskin

Bernard Luskin, EdD, LMFT
Wright Graduate University, Chicago, IL

When synesthesia, semiotics and semantics converge, they form a 3S model that is central in brain-based learning. Synesthesia is the sensory element in the 3S model for learning, media and psychology. Semiotics brings the understanding and meaning of symbols. Semantics adds the cross-model infusion in the use and meaning of words. When these 3Ss combine, they enhance perception and learning occurs.

I have been studying and researching learning and media psychology for more than 50 years, including work with many leaders in psychology, learning media and technology. One growing awareness in education and social media is that learning is increasingly human centered and screen deep. This type of learning experience is central to the mission of the Society for Media Psychology and Technology. A purpose in writing this article is to stimulate the discussion of learning and media psychology as education expands through social media.

There is now substantial and increasing literature on synesthesia, semantics and semiotics. New understanding is now possible using the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). FMRI enables the monitoring, measuring and understanding of perception, the brain and learning. We now understand more than ever before.

Learning Psychology combines the theories in psychology that foster learning. Psychology is composed of more than one-hundred theories. For purposes of my explanation, learning psychology embodies theories in psychology as they enhance each learning experience. Learning theories address a wide range of topics that include emotion, empathy and accurate empathy, perception, persuasion, psychovisualization, repetition, attention, color, sound, graphics, motivation, memory, mastery, success, intelligence, semantics, semiotics, cognition, priming, associations, and understanding patterns. Each of these topics applies media psychology in the media centric applications.

Media Psychology involves theories in psychology applied to media, i.e., pictures, graphics, and sound, transmitted through technology.

Marshall McLuhan (1967) famously separated media-technology and psychology in explaining that “the medium is the massage,” and “the message is the message.” If you separate the message from the massage, i.e., the internet, iPhone, iPad, laptop computer, Apple Watch and other communication massaging vehicles, you separate the medium that is the massage from its message. Simply stated, the fundamentals of English, chemistry, accounting, mathematics, etc., remain fundamentals, as they are manipulated through communications technology. The APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology, Division 46 of APA has media psychology as its focus as a sub-specialty in the broader field of psychology. Media psychology is also a sub-category and specialty within Learning Psychology.

Blended, online, and distance learning on the World Wide Web offers a wide-ranging case study for learning and media psychology. Synesthetics, semantics and semiotics combine to comprise a 3S metaphor relevant in understanding learning and media psychology. Today’s internet is a global network of thoughts and ideas. Learning occurs through perception in the brain. It is unique to each individual and to how each person understands what is perceived.

Emotion, resulting from sensory stimuli is labeled synesthesia. Synesthesia includes perception, i.e., experiencing the cross convergence of the senses. Synesthesia, Semiotics and Semantics combine as factors in learning. There is a substantial and growing literature on multisensory interaction, including the influence of sensory effects on perception. Sound, for example, can influence tactile stimulation and/or visual perception. Sound can make you feel tactile sensations on your skin. Research on films has validated the importance of music to the audience response. These are examples of the many multi-sensory stimulations that we perceive.

Sensory modalities interact in various ways. Feelings and responses are experienced and perceived during communication between areas within the brain. Emotion, for example, is a normal sensory function. Synesthesia includes the sensory response that we have without thinking or necessarily being consciously aware that we are experiencing it. Synesthetes do it and they know they do it. Synesthetics is sensory psychology. A Synesthete is an individual with a special and heightened sensory awareness. I am not focusing on Synesthetes as individuals here. My goal is the exploration of universal synesthesia as it involves everyone’s sensory experience. For an in-depth explanation of Synesthetes see Richard Cytowic’s (2018) Synesthesia.

I am a professor of learning psychology studying the massification of education through online learning and distance education. Applications I am exploring are populist and applied in blended and online learning situations. My 3S metaphor: Synesthetics, Semantics, and Semiotics is a basis for media psychology research. The purpose here was to explain and discuss this model and include this article in The Amplifier Magazine to disseminate the topic to a wider audience of learning psychologists interested in expanding their research to cover media psychology and technology.

To summarize, synesthetics is the response resulting from a union of the senses. Semiotics includes the development, identification, use and integration of symbols for purposes of communication, language and understanding. Semantics is the use and understanding of words and language. Learning and media psychology are made up of many theories in psychology applied to learning. As noted earlier, theories such as attention, persuasion, attachment, and memory make up the field of learning psychology. Now, with the coming of the internet, the iPhone, social media, the Apple Watch, the laptop, the iPad, the GPS, and many more devices that we use to massage messages, learning psychology and media psychology have converged. Media Psychology is a sub-specialty within Learning Psychology and in turn Learning Psychology is a subspecialty within the greater field of psychology.

Relating cognition to brain function is an important emerging area of research. In analyzing the results of FMRI applications, we are increasingly knowledgeable about learning caused by stimuli to the senses and the sensory multi-model response. Synesthesia includes responses to graphics, musical sounds, personalities, odors, pain, touch, taste, smell, temperature, hearing, and all their combinations. Synesthesia exists normally in the population. Everyone experiences synesthesia, but not everyone is a synesthete. My work in learning concentrates on everyone’s synesthetic experience combined with the inclusion of semiotics and semantics in the search for meaning and, thereby, the learning outcomes.

One goal here is to encourage discussion and research about learning and media. A second goal is to encourage educators to join APA Division 46, The Society for Media Psychology and Technology. This article is an invitation to enter the discussion of media psychology and learning. Educators, particularly those using media in learning are invited and encouraged to join APA Division 46, the APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Please send me your comments or suggestions.


Cytowic, R. E. (2018). Synesthesia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hayakawa, S.I. (1970). Dimensions of meaning. Macmillan Pub. Co.

McLuhan, M., Fiore, Q., & Agel, J. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. An inventory of effects. London, UK: Penguin Books.

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