Broken glass. Toothpicks. Safety razors. Syringes. I am freaked out by these things in equal measure, along with most other sharp objects. On the surface, my reticence around pointy stuff seems phobic and downright irrational. But fear isn’t the issue at hand; I’m not afraid, even though each of the above items fills me with trepidation. I recognize they aren’t harmful, particularly if one is careful, and I also know most are helpful tools that improve my quality of life. But when I see them, I feel something akin to fiery bolts of electricity shooting down my legs from my sacrum to my heels. When the object in question is truly troubling….imagine rusty nails sticking up from a board…I will also feel stinging pain down the back of my arms, wrapping around my chest. In fact, I felt these sensations just now as I wrote the sentence above. It doesn’t seem to matter if I witness sharp objects in my personal space, in the media, or in my minds eye; the sensation is exactly the same.
So, it’s a bit odd that I picked up fencing a number of years ago. It’s even weirder that I chose historical sword play, not sport fencing. Here’s the difference:
The weapons used in sport fencing (aka “Olympic” fencing) don’t look much like the rapiers, hand-and-a-halfs, and claymores that are their antecedents. Instead, the sport fencer’s foil, epee, and saber all have narrow, dull metal blades with a small saucer-shaped hilt and a grip-shaped handle. To me, these weapons have only a passing resemblance to any sort of sword, even though the activity’s uncanny strategy, footwork, lunges, and parries have deep ties to the ancient art of defense. Yet, they give me little synaesthetic feedback in the form of mirror-sensory pain, although I do feel mirror-touch synaesthesia and mirror-proprioception when I see sport fencers practice or compete. And of course, many sport fencers are complete badasses (a quality I both respect and appreciate) including my neighbor across the street at M-TEAM Alexander Masselias, whom sadly, I’ve not yet met. Olympic fencing is a graceful, aggressive, and brilliant sport.
Historical fencers use replica swords crafted to match the weapons representative of a particular time and place. My rapier “Ruby” was built by Darkwood Armory to recreate the German pappenheimers of the early 1600’s, and I fence in the style of the Renaissance masters: Capo Ferro, Salvatore Fabris, and George Silver among others. Ruby is a cut-and-thrust weapon with a diamond-shaped DelTin blade and a custom made piercework hilt. Like the sport fencer’s weapons, my rapier is unedged; however, it looks much more like the swords one sees in museum collections, such as the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England. She’s rather terrifying to behold. Even scarier is the sight of my opponent wielding a similar weapon pointed at my chest, even if that person doesn’t have my OLP tendencies, with a personality and name for their rapier.
Thankfully for MTS me, safety is a key component of historical swordplay. Fencers tip their rapiers with a “bird blunt”, an arrow cover used in bow-hunting wild fowl. These blunts prevent rapier blades from piercing helmets, gorgets, and bodies. But that rubber covering does little to deflect my mirror-sensory pain. It hurts me every time I wield my Ruby, every time I spar with another swordsman, or compete in a melee. And it hurt just a few days ago when I fenced with my friend Lidell Simpson in San Francisco’s Marina District, with the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge as our backdrop.
Dell and I had a grand time dueling, although both of us are a bit out of practice. I haven’t fenced in more that a dozen years, even though I’ve occasionally done footwork drills as a means of getting some cardio exercise and keeping my legs strong. My absence from fencing has its roots in the end of a romance and my move to San Francisco, but honestly, at the time I was actively fencing, I was a less than stellar swordswoman.
Seriously, I gave fencing my best effort. I did 500 lunges on each leg every day, read the works of William M. Gaugler, drilled most mornings with a dummy custom built for me by my maestro, practiced with the Order of the Sanguine Rose twice a week, and taught at that school’s children’s program. But I still sucked. The one time I won a melee I did so by hiding behind the taller, larger fencers, and using them as human shields, then lunging between their bodies to “kill off” my opponents. Finally, when everyone was gone save for a “wounded” man on his knees, and a teenaged fencer with skills more meager than my own, I took them both out and ruled the field for a nanosecond.
I now chalk up my awful technique and lack of fencing acumen to not understanding my inherent neurological weirdness, and what it means to have perceptual differences. When I was actively fencing, I knew something was amiss, but I didn’t understand that I was a polysynaesthete. I got it that I was a hot mess, and that I couldn’t integrate some of the simplest fencing lessons, but that understanding provided little succor. For example, my maestro would teach me an offensive technique, and instead of countering it with the appropriate defensive parry, I would mirror the movement he just showed me. Or, I would stand facing him as I learned footwork, and he would say “right foot….right foot….YOUR OTHER RIGHT FOOT!!! because I would default to my mirror-touch tendencies and align my body in his mirror image, left foot forward. And, I would get so distracted by the waves of pain coursing down my legs when another person pointed their sword my way, I couldn’t focus on the techniques I had worked so hard to learn.
A decade ago I found little joy in historical fencing, even though I wanted to participate in this sport with a driving passion. I did my best, but I was constantly confused and distraught from the juxtaposition between the moves I was trying to execute and my tendency to mirror other people’s bodies. I was shocked with pain in the presence of rapiers, daggers, and other sharp objects, a pain so intense and fiery, it could not be ignored. I physically felt every blow to my comrade’s bodies, but I didn’t understand that this was wholly normal for neurodivergent me. And more than that, I didn’t know that I could learn to acknowledge these strange sensations and continue playing at swords.
Last weekend, I had the loveliest afternoon fencing with my friend Lidell. I was filled with an exhilaration that I always knew was inherent in historical fencing, even though a dozen years ago I could not maintain that fire. I felt completely in my element with my beautiful rapier Ruby in hand, and the expansive lawns of Crissy Field under my feet. There was a giant art installation on the grass just north of us, a huge and beautiful blue whale. And, I was in wonderful company, sparring with the medal winning and highly skilled swordsman Lidell Simpson, my fellow synaesthete.
I’m sure some of Sunday’s delight is due to the comfort that comes with understanding my cross-modal style of perception, outing myself as a synaesthete, and connecting with a global community of fellow neurodivergents. It’s been immensely helpful in my ordinary life to identify as neurodiverse, and to recognize my many perceptual differences. But truly, I think the biggest change between fencing in the early aughts, and fencing in 2018 was this: I had the rare opportunity to fence with someone who brings the best of his own neurodivergence to the “elegant savagery” of historical fencing.
Thanks, Dell. You are a true friend!
A quick note: if you’ve not seen the HBO program “Sharp Objects“, I highly recommend it, even for those of us with MTS. This dramatic series featuring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson includes synaesthete and LA Roller Girl Appelusa, who made the awesome skating scenes happen. Yay Appel!!! And thank the Gods for synaesthete friends…
I’ve been a participant in the Synesthesia List for several years, and I intermittently engage with the queries posted by this global community of synaesthetes, lead by international expert and IASAS President Dr. Sean A Day. Experiencing synaesthesia in one’s dreams is a topic that returns for discussion occasionally on the Synesthesia List. In the past, I have not participated in these dialogues, as I had no specific recollections of “synning” in my sleep. But last night I had two instances of dreamstate synaesthesia, both of which were a little frightening and strangely lovely, both clear in my consciousness upon waking.
My allergies have been unruly this autumn. It’s been warm and dry in San Francisco, which means not only plenty of particulates in the air, but exceptional sunsets as well. With these atmospheric conditions, my two JRT pups are bringing plenty of dust and pollen into the house on their coats. My smoothie Jack Russell “Iris” likes to perch on my pillow, which makes me prone to a stuffy nose and itchy eyes at night. I can get a little wheezy too; last night I had to get out of bed and use my albuterol inhaler to calm my lungs before I drifted to sleep
Sometime in the night, I dreamt that I was about to sneeze. The tickling sensation in the nasal passages that one experiences just before sneezing overtook my dream; at the same instant, I saw a three-dimensional geometric image directly in my field of vision, saturated in shades of pink, gold, and green. In my dreamstate, this visual phantasm was my sneeze; there was no distinction between the tactile/embodied sensation of my itchy nose and the visual projection. This form constant, expanded and vibrated to the rhythm of my inhalations and exhalations, and its luminance increased the itchier my nose became.
I didn’t actually sneeze in my sleep last night. In neurotypical brains one will wake before sneezing, as when we dream, neurotransmitters shut down our motor neurons creating REM atonia, and the inability to physically act out our unconscious experiences. The motor neurons related sneezing aren’t getting stimulated, so they do not send motor signals to the brain. Thus, no dream sneezes.
But I have sneezed in my sleep, and I do frequently break through my REM atonia. I did that yesterday as well. In my dreams last night, I heard people talking on the street in front of my home. Realistically, there likely were people chatting as there’s an Irish pub less than a block from my home, and I might have overheard a sidewalk conversation as folks departed The Four Deuces and walked up Taraval Street. I don’t remember their words, but I do remember dreaming that my partner Timothy asked me “Can you hear those people?”. I struggled to answer him, acutely aware that I was asleep and awake at the same time, and that I could not move. I desperately wanted to wake up and to answer his question, but my body was buzzing with the strange parasthesias that come with my experience of sleep paralysis. So I struggled to say “yes”, that I did indeed hear people out on the street. My field of vision became saturated with the yellow hue that matches my lexeme->color synaesthesia for the word “yes”. The more I tried to speak, the more vibrant the haze of yellow in front of me became. Finally, I broke though my atonia and mumbled “yes”, my voice oddly sluggish and so alarming in its droning quality, it brought me to full wakefulness.
I suspect I have narcolepsy, with its attendant hypnogogic hallucinations in the shape of form constants, sleep paralysis, and other parasomnias. Interestingly, there are neuroscientists who hypothesize that both synaesthesia and narcolepsy have autoimmune origins. I already have one bona-fide autoimmune condition, my allergies to latex, some molds, and many pollens. I will be working toward a diagnosis for my sleep issues over the next few weeks, including the Multiple Sleep Latency Test. I do hope for less interrupted sleep over the course of treatment for narcolepsy, if that condition is indeed my issue. But, I also hope that narcolepsy therapy won’t mitigate my surreal and oddly beautiful moments of synning in my sleep.
Just after sunrise this morning, I walked on my small deck with a steaming mug of tea in my hands. There was the delicious scent of wet soil from the season’s first rainstorm, which blew through the Bay Area early Tuesday, and the hint of a dusky bouquet that I recognize as the smell of Fall in San Francisco, a combination of woodsmoke, shed eucalyptus leaves, and sea breeze. It’s an intoxicating juxtaposition, a desiccated vegetal fragrance that mingles with the dank and aqueous aromas from Ocean Beach. It positively enchants me with its complexity.
I watched my Jack Russell Terrier puppies frolic among the Nile lilies, which they’ve menaced with increasing savagery as they’ve grown from wee pups into gangly adolescent dogs. My garden is currently littered with the lime green lanceolate leaves that Lucy and Iris rip with great delight from the squat clumps of Agapanthus. They’ve also pocked the yard with holes of various depths as they practice their digging skills, hunting for any gopher stupid enough to still occupy this small patch of earth.
One might think I’d be a bit peevish at the dismantling of my garden, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, I felt something today that’s been absent from my life for too long. I felt a sense of contentment making a welcome return. I felt peace, even if it was momentary. I felt the gladness of greeting not only this day, but of recollecting many other happy mornings in my tiny backyard.
Joy has been hard to come by. The past 12 months have been among the most difficult in my life. My beloved 18 year old dog died last October, followed by two other deaths a few months later: my sweet and troubled “gay boyfriend” Daniel who leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge on January 8th 2018, then 4 days later Jerry, my high school bestie’s father. He was an important figure in my late adolecense and early adulthood, and I adored Jerry’s autodidact tendencies and his fascination with science, technology, and photography. He was in hospice care, and living in Virginia, which doesn’t have a right-to-die law. Always independent in spirit, and a DIY kind of guy, Jerry took matters into his own hands. I might have been less troubled by his self-inflicted exit if it had come at another moment, but two suicides in one week was too much for me to bear. Add to that a slew of other deaths, a dear friend with a nasty brain tumor, along with a family member’s diagnosis with a serious progressive neurodegenerative disease and it’s easy to see why I’ve been a complete mess.
Depression and anxiety have been my perennial companions, not only throughout this heartbreaking year, but from late childhood forward. I have a squirrelly neurodivergent brain, and I’ve come to recognize that the insidious frisson of prickly fear and the heavy blue moods of melancholy are in me, they are part of me. But for months my sorrow has been profound, and my fretfulness has been disquieting and constant, vexing my sleep, and goading me to eat way too many calming carbohydrates.
What makes these troubling moods all the worse is that they dampen the saturation of my synaesthetic colors. All of my tinted synaesthesias have been dialed down; my graphemes have been less brightly hued, my spaces and sequences less luminous, and my chromesthesia has decreased to a pallid wash of aquarelle. This experience of diminished synesthetic perception is in no way unique to me. In a paper from the University of Edinborough (Kay, CL, Carmichael, D, Ruffell, HE & Simner, J 2014, ‘Colour fluctuations in grapheme-colour synaesthesia: The effect of clinical and non-clinical mood changes‘ British Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12102) researchers Collette L. Kay, Duncan A. Carmichael, Henry E. Ruffell, and Julia Simner note that “negative mood significantly decreased the luminance of synaesthetic colours”. Additionally, Dr. Simner and her colleagues found that “synaesthetic colours were also less luminant for synaesthetes with anxiety disorders, versus those without”. In regard to depression, these researchers concluded “evidence suggests that colour saturation, too, may inversely correlate with depressive symptoms”.
The findings of this synesthesia research team are in line with my experiences over this most challenging of years. The most unfortunate aspect of my mood impacting my synaesthetic perception is that my mirror-touch synaesthesia has been more flagrant. I’ve had more mirror-sensory pain, more quirky mirror-proprioception in some truly awkward moments, and increased MTS sensations throughout each day.
I believe that Autumn inspires reflection and soul-searching. Historically (in the northern hemisphere) it’s the dying season, and a natural time for a rise in melancholia. But this year I’m feeling a sense of renewal, something Spring-like in these darkening days. Perhaps it’s my puppies, who are imbuing my world with moments of pure joy. Maybe it’s simply that enough time has passed for my heart to start healing. I can’t say for sure, but I did notice this morning as I read Paul Verlaine’s mournful Chanson d’Automne, the colored words were quite lovely and rich. And while Verlaine’s autumn song is doleful and somber, my own is wishful and filled with hope.
There’s a book coming out next year, one that has it’s own incredible story to tell. This isn’t a work of fiction, but the pages will provide exquisite images printed in dream-like color, revealing fantastic objects that instigate multi-sensory experiences in the viewer. This isn’t a memoir, but will have first-person accounts of the uncanny trait of cross-modal perception. And, while it isn’t a research journal, the book will also have multiple papers presenting cutting-edge information on the neuroscience of synaesthesia. This is a most unusual project, one that brings science and art and synaesthesia together in one superb volume, and I very much hope it serves as a landmark publication.
Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue? promises to be truly unique. While there are many nonfiction works on the topic of synaesthesia, a handful of art books, and even a few novels, there isn’t anything like the Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue? available to readers who want to explore the synaesthetic experience through the lens of multiple creative disciplines and various scientific fields. This volume is a companion to the series of events hosted in Los Angeles, California in the Autumn of 2017, coordinated in collaboration between Building Bridges Art Exchange, the UCLA Art | Sci Center, and the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists. Over several weeks, we presented an installation featuring works by a curated selection of international artists, Synaesthesia Dance Experience (SDE) a scintillating performing arts event, concerts, author readings, and a symposium attended by scientists from 9 countries. We collectively called these events Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue? after the name chosen for the installation.
Together, they were nothing less than fantastic! Honestly, there hadn’t been anything like Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue? in the United States to date, and I’m incredibly honored to have been part of the creation and administration of these events. They remind me a bit of a small-scale version of a world’s fair, or a bienniale, where multiple parties collaborate on a series of joint projects that are ultimately about revealing art and science to the public. And, while the Los Angeles events are concluded, there is still a growing audience for Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue?. We would really like to host future events at museums and galleries in the United States and abroad, and to watch this project blossom.
Our very best opportunity to get traction in the arts community for this groundbreaking installation is to publish a catalogue featuring the art, artists, events, and symposium. Acquiring funding for this publication is constantly on my mind these days, as it will likely take about $20,000 to make this happen. That’s a big sum for a small organization like IASAS, but I think we can make it happen!
We have 24 hours remaining to our indiegogo campaign for Synaesthesia: what is the taste of the color blue? which has exciting perks for donors at every level. We’ve chosen a flexible goal, and right now, we’re focused on raising a minimum of $2500 to get the ball rolling. You can learn more about the campaign here. I do hope you’ll join us as we bring this landmark catalogue to publication, allowing our book to tell its wonderful story.
What a pleasure it has been over the past few years moderating the Facebook Mirror-Touch Synesthesia page. In committing to this project, I’ve found the loveliest opportunities to create MTS community, and to connect with fellow MTS synesthetes. It’s been both surprising and inspiring to field inquiries from folks who are curious about mirror-sensory phenomena, or to point these people to the best source for answers to their questions about MTS. I’m rather awed by the international reach of the mirror-touch page, and while Facebook is going through some serious growing pains, I’m confident that the global synesthesia community will continue to benefit from our capacity to connect via the interwebs and social media.
While I’ve managed this page for more than 2 years, I’ve noticed a recent increase in queries, most certainly fostered by Maureen Seaberg’s fascinating article in Glamour Magazine featuring Megan Pohlmann, a pediatric nurse who has mirror-touch. And, I anticipate this uptick in interest to continue over the course of 2018. Dr. Joel Salinas MD has an upcoming Cambridge TED talk, and both Megan and Joel will appear on the Today show on Tuesday April 10th. The CNN Mirror-Touch “Great Big Story” will hit 750,000 views in the next few days. And, as mirror-touch synaesthetes become increasingly vocal, I anticipate we will hear more fascinating stories about living with this neurological trait.
The questions and comments that come my way regarding mirror-touch synaesthesia have helped me understand how difficult it can be for people who don’t have synaesthesia to understand what it’s like to have conflated senses. But what’s even more challenging is fielding inquiries from people who seem to have experiences that are similar to MTS, but aren’t (to the best of my knowledge) wholly synaesthetic in origin.
Every week, I get at least a few responses on the Mirror Touch Facebook page from someone who writes that when they walk into a room and find another person who is sad or troubled, they feel those emotions. Or, they write about how keenly they feel other peoples experiences…their joys, fears, and heartaches. These individuals often tell me how relieved and happy they are to know there’s a name for this….mirror-touch. What these people are describing, though, is not necessarily what I would call mirror-touch; it’s a highly tuned sense of empathy. Some of these respondents are so profoundly in touch with other people’s emotional experiences, I think it would be accurate to call them empaths.
Dr. Judith Orloff MD writes extensively about the topic of empathy and highly sensitive persons. I really like her definition of the empath as one who “internalizes the feelings and pain of others — and often [has] trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from [their] own. I find the empath’s tremendous sense of connection with their fellow creatures quite remarkable. Additionally, I feel fortunate to have a friend and colleague, a brilliant practitioner of Chinese medicine, who truly embodies Dr. Orloff’s description.
But mirror-touch synaesthesia is not precisely the same thing as a finely tuned sense of empathy, or the experience of being an empath, although I think they often overlap. MTS causes individuals to experience the same sensation (touch) that another person feels. For example, if someone with this condition were to observe someone else touching their own cheek, the synaesthete would feel the same sensation on their cheek. As an MTS synesthete I literally feel on my body what I see with my eyes. Got a rash on your skin? My skin will feel tingly in the same location. Is the wind blowing your hair onto your face? My face will feel the ticklish sensation of hair on my face. But if you’re crying, I’m not necessarily going to cry too, and if you’re elated, I may or may not feel elated along with you. It’s literally that straighforward….what I see I physically feel. But I won’t always (and beyond my conscious control) mirror your emotional state.
I also get comments from people who work in the healing arts and share how, as soon as they see their patient, they know exactly what is wrong with that person. Or, when they put their hands on their client, they get images of that person’s health concerns. While this level of intuition is astounding, it too is not the same thing as mirror-touch synaesthesia. I think of these people as medical intuitives. I know very little about this type of perception, but I have read books by both Dr. Mona Lisa Schulz, MD, and Caroline Myss, two highly regarded experts in the field. I learned enough from reading their respective works to know that I definitly do not have that level of intuition, but I’m confident plenty of other people do.
It seems likely that there are many people who have an overlap in two of more of these conditions….MTS synaesthetes who are also empaths, empaths who have medical intuition, medical intutives who have mirror-touch. And, I’m sure there are some people who have all three. It also seems possible that the brain aberrations that foster synaesthesia also open one’s unconscious mind to other subtle ways of perceiving. Many people who reach out to me talk of their paranormal experiences, and I can’t help but think of MTS, high empathy and keen intuition as a series of interlinked experiences. As scientists continue to study synaesthesia, and artists continue to create from the experience of joined sensation, I’m certain some of these questions will be answered. But for now, I will continue thinking of these three traits as a sort of trinity, each representing a form of amplified human perception.
I’m lucky to have the loveliest synaesthete tribe!
It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and I can’t help but think of my mother. She was fiercely proud of her heritage; all four of her grandparents emigrated from Munster to Boston, then made their way west to the city of Springfield. My mother was raised there, in the Connecticut River Valley, where a Yankee version of Irish culture thrived. She grew up eating New England Boiled Dinner, not only on March 17th, but frequently, and made the best clam chowder I’ve ever had. My mother attended events at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, and bragged about sitting on the lap of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he campaigned in the Democratic stronghold of Western Massachusetts. And, she attended college at Providence Hospital School of Nursing, where her classmates were just like her: Catholic, Irish-American, and the children of recent immigrants.
But, when my mother moved to California in the mid-1960’s, she was saddened by the lack of community. Certainly there were families who could trace their roots back to the old sod, but there wasn’t much Irish culture in the Central Valley. She did her best to keep me and my sisters connected to her heritage, including teaching me to say póg mo thóin when other kids teased me for having red hair. But, ultimately, my mother felt isolated from her people; she pined for New England and the family and friends who were most like her in heart and spirit.
This same sentiment…creating community….is what I’ve loved most by outing myself as a polysynaesthete. I’ve met the loveliest people over the last few years as I’ve explored what it means to have synaesthesia. We “synnies”, as well as the researchers who study synaesthesia, seem to get each other immediately, and I need make no apologies for my mirror-touch squeamishness or my reticence for fonts and graphics out of sync with my internal color map. Although there are more than 80 forms of blended senses, and each synnie has their own unique experience with conflated sensation, simply having synesthesia is often enough for two synaesthetes to form a connection. Plus, when you get a group of us together, the conversations can be both illuminating and ridiculously funny.
I only know a few synaesthetes here in San Francisco, but it doesn’t seem to matter that my synnie friends are dispersed through out the world. Social media and email help me feel as close to them as neighbors, and our common experiences with blended senses unite us as a tribe. On this March 17th, when I am reminded of my mother’s hunger for her kin and clan, I’m grateful I’ve found my synnie family.
My friend Daniel took his own life. He jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the wee hours of Monday January 8th, 2018. His body washed ashore a dozen days later and 45 miles away, on the rugged San Mateo County coast.
I wanted to share this story with a gentler entry into the topic of suicide but it’s just not possible. There’s no way to smoothly unspool the guilt, the heartbreak, and the mirror-sensory pain I’ve been experiencing without the harrowing revelation that Daniel leapt to his death.
I’ve learned more about the Golden Gate Bridge in the last few weeks than I ever wanted to know:
It was once the world’s most popular structure for suicide; it has since been eclipsed by the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China.
Most people leap from the eastern ledge where the views of the city are staggeringly beautiful.
The deck of the bridge is 220 feet above San Francisco Bay.
The water temperature below hovers around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
It takes 4 seconds for a leaper to hit the water.
The impact is equivalent to an 80 MPH head-on collision.
Jumpers succumb to massive blunt force trauma
or they die from hypothermia
or they drown.
I’ve also learned that in 2016, the United States Department of Homeland Security installed a 2.1 million dollar surveillance system on the bridge, with high definition cameras that capture the activity on the structure in crisp detail. This data is for security purposes, but it captured Daniel’s suicide. He is positively ID’ed climbing over the railing at 4:15 AM.
I don’t know if this video footage is accessible to the general public, but even if it is, I could never watch it. It doesn’t take bona fide documentation of Daniel’s death for me to have already witnessed it thousands of times in my mind’s eye. I keep seeing my beloved Doodles walking in the dark to the south tower, I keep feeling that morning’s cold rain pelting his face. I feel the slippery and frigid steel railing, the seconds of weightless terror, and the brutal smack of the bay.
I’ve seen these images from every possible angle, contortions my mind has always had a fondness for. And they’ve continuously circled through my brain, another neurological tendency, my capacity to replay and replay and replay. Each time I return to the bridge with Daniel, I am filled with panic, terror, and physical pain.
In the last month, Daniel has made his leap repeatedly, an internalized time loop I can’t shake loose. Sometimes during the day it dissipates, only to replay again and again as I drift to sleep, where I’m shocked awake by gelid water. And while I’ve become familiar with the sensations ~ the wet, cold, horrible journey into the next world ~ I can’t come to terms with the terrible loss of this lovely and vibrant human life. The experience of Daniel’s tragic passing is magnified through the lens of my mirror-touch synaesthesia, and I am desperately sad in an aching, intractable way.
The eternal return is a theory that the universe and all existence and energy have been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time and space. I hope that in the coming months, my looping vision of Daniel’s last moments will be replaced by reminiscence of our friendship in its fullness and joy: blowing bubbles in the backyard of a Calistoga condo on a late May afternoon; riding a bicycle rickshaw through the Beijing hutongs, bundled against the brisk winter chill; taking ballet class in San Francisco’s Japantown with a patient teacher half our age, Daniel and I both about as graceful as stampeding cattle.
In just a few days, Daniel’s friends will gather to say our goodbyes. I’m confident we will have a warm and loving celebration of this singular man’s life. There’s certain to be plenty of positive mirror-sensory experiences for me with the all the warm hugs and comforting touches I will witness. Also, I think the memorial and its promise of closure will nudge me closer to some beautifully echoing recollections of my beloved Doodles. And, on Valentine’s Day, I will walk the Golden Gate with the Bridgewatch Angels, which will (hopefully) further derail my looping movie of the leap.
If the eternal return represents anything true and real, I hope you’ll come back to me, Daniel Scott Horton: maybe in this lifetime, perhaps in another, possibly in this world, or one yet to be discovered.
I await your return…
My “B” isn’t blue, nor is my “W“ white
I made a mistake at work this week, one that was bound to happen.
Among my new massage therapy clients in 2017 are two men who have the same first name, one that isn’t unusual, but is somewhat uncommon. For the sake of their privacy, let’s call them both Dennis. Not only do they have the same first name, they each have a “color” last name; one client is Dennis White, the other is Dennis Brown. Beyond these two similarities, they have nothing in common. They live in different cities, have very different musculoskeletal injuries, and look nothing alike.
Last week, Dennis Brown reached out to schedule an appointment. We found a time that fit his calendar, but unfortunately, I sent his confirmation email to Dennis White. This led to a series of somewhat funny exchanges between me and Mr. White, as he courteously told me that he had not booked an appointment with me, while I sent him screen captures of our text message exchange, certain that he had indeed requested an appointment. Finally, he asked me “do you have another client named Dennis White?” I don’t, but in an instant I realized my mistake: I’d confused my colors. Brown and White are almost the exact same shade of red.
Synaesthesia can create the strangest moments of dissonance in my day. Because I see all of my numbers and letters in color, I am at risk of making errors due to inattention to details that might be obvious to a person who does not have synaesthesia. For example, when I see the names Dennis Brown and Dennis White, they look very similar:
I’m not sure how this works for people without synaesthesia, but I assume that there’s enough difference between the colors of Brown and White that one would keep these two names distinct from each other, that the difference would take precedence. For my synaesthetic brain, it’s the likeness that dominates. The colors for these two names are just too similar; I knew I would one day conflate them.
While this confusion is an inconvenience at work, it can actually be a little dangerous at other times. Sometimes I confuse medications, even though I have a fairly good understanding of basic pharmacology. I have multiple family members who work in healthcare, including my mother who was a highly skilled nurse manager. I know the difference between my over-the-counter NSAIDS, and which to take for various conditions. But, Advil is a brownish tablet close in color to the letter “T”. I have on more than one occasion reached into the medicine cabinet for Tylenol, and pulled out Advil because I’m thinking of the brown word and matching it to the brown pill. On another occasion, I couldn’t remember a crucial medication my elderly dog was taking because I kept seeing the beautiful periwinkle blue color of the medication, but couldn’t match that color to a name. I don’t have any periwinkle letters, and I got so fixated on the color as a clue, I couldn’t get my brain to pull up the name for the drug, Kepra, which for me, is a sea-foam green.
I make judgement errors like this frequently. I’m grateful that, to date, none of them has been detrimental. Unfortunately, I believe my capacity for making mistakes based on color and context miscues is quite high. For this, I must be extra diligent, to check and re-check when I reach for medications for myself. Sometimes, I even say out loud what it is I’m looking for: Advil is a brown pill, Tylenol is a white tablet, the aspirin is in a green bottle.
One of the reasons I launched my Vox Synaesthetica blog was to reveal synaesthesia in its diverse manifestations, not just the flavored words or the rainbow-hued music, but the ways in which synaesthesia can be a bit ugly. Currently, cross-modal perception is having its moment in popular culture and synaesthesia is often presented as a beautiful or alluring trait. It certainly can be fascinating. But, sometimes, it’s just straight up confusing.
CC Hart with the ever-so-charming Todd Sucy. Photo by Marco Sanchez.
I have a love-hate relationship with Halloween. I love creating a spooky-beautiful ensemble and wandering through the city bedecked like a gothic vampire in a brocade gown, or a witch-princess covered in spiderwebs. And I adore the cooling weather, with its crisp aroma of woodsmoke and autumn leaves. I’m also fond of the detritus of a night spent trick-or-treating, the colored candy wrappers that dot the sidewalk like exotic paper flowers.
But, I hate the gory costumes and imagery that have dominated the holiday for decades. The sheer verisimilitude of some of them is a mirror-sensory synaesthete’s nightmare. Bloody zombies, and ghouls with their guts spilling forth don’t scare me, but they do send firey bolts of electricity down the backs of my legs. It’s an uncomfortable sensation and I do my best to avoid the experiences that are likely to trigger my mirror-sensory pain. I don’t watch horror films, I don’t read Stephen King, and I try to find Halloween events that glorify the “phantasmagorgeous” aesthetic I so enjoy.
I had the loveliest time last year at Paradox Media’s event “A Very Gorey Halloween”, which was very very Gorey, but not at all gory. Predicated on the art and illustration of Edward Gorey, the gathering includes some of the most imaginative and elegant costumes I’ve seen. Most are home-made and meticulously crafted, and not mere fancy dress. The guests really strive for that sweet spot between terrifying and enchanting. You can find a gallery of beautiful photographs from last year’s event on the website for photographer Marco Sanchez.
I’ve got the day off to dig though my closet and come up with attire befitting this years theme: “Neglected Murderesses”. I’m a bit worried that the costumes at “A Very Gorey Halloween” will be more bloody tonight than is typical; with murder in the title it’s a given. I guess a little mirror-sensory pain is a fair price for a night immersed in such creatively creepy revelry.
Do you feel what I feel?
I had an engaging conversation with Dr. Joel Salinas in November 2015 as he was diligently working on his lovely memoir Mirror Touch: Notes from a doctor who can feel your pain. We dialogued about the many facets of Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia and how we both recognize the impacts of MTS on our respective careers in healthcare. Joel is a practicing neurologist and researcher; I am a corrective soft-tissue therapist. Joel is the first person I’d ever conversed with who has MTS, and it was both reassuring and rather fascinating to learn how much our experiences overlap, and how they differ.
I’m an outlier in that I didn’t learn the term “synaesthesia” until I was in my early 40’s. I knew there was something a little different about my sensorium, and (almost 20 years ago) I did try to get some insight into my mirror-sensory pain. But that stream of inquiry with a physician who is a friend, while compassionate, went nowhere. A decade later when a massage client told me that there was a word for blended sensations (synaesthesia) and that there were multiple forms, I began delving into the interwebs for information on the synaesthetic experience.
It didn’t take long to find scientific research on mirror-touch phenomena; however, most of these descriptions of mirror-touch experiences didn’t (at first) seem like a match for me. For example, in the paper Explaining Mirror Touch Synesthesia by Michael Banissy and Jamie Ward (Cognitive Neuroscience 2015;6(2-3):118-33. doi: 10.1080/17588928.2015.1042444. Epub 2015 May 13) MTS is noted as the “conscious experience of tactile sensations induced by seeing someone else touched”. This description doesn’t include my most flagrant mirror-sensorial perception, which is pain shooting down my legs when I see other people’s wounds and injuries. But, also I tend to be quite literal in my thinking, and my mirror-touch sensations are greatest not when I see someone get touched by another person, but when I see inanimate objects brush against them.
I also failed to originally note my own very typical MTS because of the difference between exteroceptive sensation and proprioceptive sensation. I assumed that MTS phenomena….the conscious experience of tactile sensations induced by seeing someone else touched….should feel proprioceptive, that I should feel the sensation of pressure and firm contact. But, what I feel when I see another person get touched is exteroceptive…a gentle perception that tickles my skin. I do indeed feel exteroceptive perceptions when I see another person get touched; I also have Mirror-Touch exteroceptive sensations when I see another person get bumped or jostled. But, if the contact becomes more aggressive…for example, if I witness a person get body-slammed, then I don’t feel that ticklish exteroceptive sensation. Instead, I will feel what I call synaesthesia-for-pain (after the research of Bernadette Fitzgibbons and Melita Giummarra). That sensation, which feels like bolts of electricity coursing down the back of my legs, is my most flagrant mirror-sensory experience, and the aspect of my sensorium that launched me on a quest for understanding.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had two interviews with the BBC regarding Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia. In both dialogues, I pointed the reporter to the video for the song “Wonderful Life” by the musical artist Colin Vearncombe, who, in the 1980’s, went by the name “Black”. I get so much lovely mirror-proprioceptive feedback from the imagery in this video. The acrobat makes me feel like I am in the air turning and twisting, the boy who swings around the lifebuoy makes me feel like I am swinging around too, my legs flying in the air, my hands friction burned by the metal pole. But, there’s a more subtle image that that tickles my skin and gives me the exteroceptive mirror-sensory experience that I’ve long known, but didn’t realize is the epitome of MTS. At 1:35 minutes into the video, there is a woman sitting next to an elderly man. Strands of her long wavy hair are fluttering in the wind and brushing against her cheek. In the video, her hair is dangling on the right side of her face, yet I feel it on my left cheek, and on the left side of my head, as if I am looking into a mirror.
I’m delighted to see Mirror-Touch getting some traction in the synaesthesia research community, as I believe MTS can reveal much about human empathy. And, I’m over the moon that the upcoming IASAS Synaesthesia Symposium will host Dr. Joel Salinas, MD as our keynote speaker, and Michael Banissy, PhD as our keynote lecturer. While the IASAS symposium isn’t specifically focused on MTS, I think there will be plenty of reflecting on the “mirror” this coming October.
It’s a little bit wonderful to see my Great Big Story on MTS at the top of Google’s search results!