One of my first memories of making art is of drawing on the floor with my mother. I had one of those huge Crayola crayon boxes and as we were putting the colors away I got upset with her for putting them back wrong. You see, I'd segregated my colors by gender. I was at that stage that kids go through where the other gender has cooties. I must've been 4 or 5. My mother, horrified that I was picking up some sort of antifeminist message informed me that "Girls could wear any color they wanted." We argued as I rearranged them correctly for several minutes and I still can feel my extreme frustration at my inability to communicate to her that it wasn't that girls can't wear green, its that that green was a boy. I remember with crystalline clarity the moment of horror when I realized she didn't see it. I was different...
Even now, as I write about I still feel that small nugget of shame and worry when I recall the memory. Once I was aware I was different in that way, I learned very quickly to mask it. When I would say things and people would give me "that look" I would add it to list of things not to talk about. Note to self: don't tell people you think 7, 8 and 9 think they're cool. Note to self: don't tell people the letter k is mean. Note to self: don't tell people the color sounds like its screaming. Note to self: don't call the chair "him".
I didn't have a name for what was happening in my brain and for a long time my self-awareness didn't extend much beyond watching for the abnormal and finding ways to hide it. As I've aged and grown to understand more about it and to embrace what I am, I've found it increasingly important to talk about; not just because I use it my work as an artist, but because I think of that little girl, sitting on the floor terrified because suddenly she realized people did not experience the world the way she did and hope that in talking about it, I will spare someone that same fear.
To keep from overwhelming you, I'm going to talk mostly about the science of it today and then in the next post, discuss my own personal experiences with synesthesia.
So what exactly is synesthesia? Technically it is the intermixing of the senses. For a long time scientists believed that people who had it suffered from a birth defect or genetic mutation that caused our wires to be crossed. There is great evidence to support that synesthesia does run in families and is more prevalent among females, which at least anecdotally suggests that there is a genetic component. But they've not been able to identify or map what it is.
In the last few years however, a new theory has arisen; that we are all born synesthetic but as the brain matures it switches off these interconnections so that it can filter information better. Scientists have found that in the right conditions people can have cross-sensory connections active (such as in hallucinations or brain trauma) but then they go away. Since it is highly unlikely that the brain is forming and then un-forming the pathway so quickly, the idea of switches being thrown off and on is more probable. It is possible that not switching off those pathways provided a genetic advantage in some instances and as such was passed along.
The main difficulty in studying this phenomenon is that there is very little consistency in how it presents--there isn't just one form of synesthesia and even among shared groups it rarely manifests the same (for example the number 7 might be red to me but green to someone else). Experiences change over time; certain forms can go away or you can develop new forms. This makes for very tricky study. "The brain" as one researcher once told me "is a fascinatingly odd duck."
There are some external traits outside of the synesthesia experience that people seem to share. They have trouble distinguishing left from right, have a higher than normal instance of migraines, tend to be much more sensitive to touch, have incredible memories and tend to be very introverted. Not surprisingly a great number of people with synesthesia wind up in creative fields. Of course, there are a lot of people that fit these generalizations that don't have synesthesia...but most of these seem to be secondarily factors of having it. Migraines are caused by over-stimulation in the brain and all those senses lighting up at once is very stimulating. Because synesthesia is often triggered by touch, those with it tend to avoid being touched for fear of triggering something unpleasant. Memories are being encoded by multiple senses so they're stronger. And lastly, if you grew-up knowing you couldn't really tell people that the number four is a psychotic ass who would cut her own mother to move up to five, you would probably be an introvert too.
At present, scientists have categorized at least 77 different types of synesthesia. Yep, you read that right, 77.
For a long time scientists thought that "mirror touch" synesthesia was the rarest of all--but new brain mapping studies seem to be leaning the other way. It seems that almost all people with synesthesia have some form of mirror-touch. It functions in one of two ways--you actually physically feel the sensation, as if it was happening to you; which can be crippling and awful. Imagine seeing someone trip and fall and feeling it happen to you? This form is, thankfully the rarer form of mirror-touch. The other is you experience a chemical reaction in the brain like the sensation is happening to you; which is normally called empathy synesthesia. Basically the body is able to process micro expressions and translates them into a physical reaction which then can produce secondary sensory responses. Sometimes that means a person will jerk back when someone else is getting hit, for example--but it does not physically hurt. Mirror-touch/empathy synesthesia is very responsive to emotions even when they're very well masked. Because the brain is reading the micro-expressions and mirroring them, it feels like its happening to you. For me, when someone is upset, I feel it in my back up into my neck. I have literally looked into someone's smiling face and felt the "flight or fight" response kick-in while all the hairs on my neck stand up; and for no reason I can consciously identify. But inevitably, there is something going on with the individual that they are not sharing. Most people with synesthesia don't even think of mirror-touch as a form of synesthesia and as such tend not to report it unless asked directly about it. Because its more ephemeral, especially in the more common empathetic form, its not really something you would know is abnormal. One would just assume that everyone feels a temperature change when the mood in the room shifts. One neurologist I spoke to about it told me he believed that it was the "origin" form of synesthesia; the first connection from which all others are born. Wheather this is true or not, remains to be seen, but the fact that its the only experience we all seem to share leads me to believe there's something to his idea.
Some of the most common other forms of synesthesia are:
- Grapheme-Color Synesthesia: Where numbers and letters have colors.
- Sound-to-Color Synesthesia: where colors have sounds and sounds have colors.
Number-Form Synesthesia: numbers and time take on spatial qualities.
Personification: ordered sequences have personalities. (i.e. do not turn your back on Number 4.)
Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia: Taste is triggered by by sounds, sights or even touches.
In my next post, I'll talk a little more about my own experiences with synesthesia and what its like to live in a world that has dimensions others don't often share or experience.