December 25th 1971, just moments before my sisters and I awakened…
My mother died 20 years ago this month, on Friday December 13th 1996 just a few minutes before midnight. I never told her about my mirror-sensory synaesthesias, which is perhaps my life’s foremost regret. But, like so many synaesthetes, I didn’t know there was a name for my acute sensitivity. In fact, I thought something must be terribly wrong with me; I was frightened and bewildered by my otherworldy sensations, and I became quite adept at keeping them hidden.
If there’s a second great regret stepping on the heels of the first, it is surely my infrequent visits to the hospital in the weeks leading up to my mother’s death. She was bedridden, aphasic, and fading quickly. My sisters both had young children and lived too far away to make regular visits to Merced. With my father already deceased, and no family on the west coast, the burden for my mother’s care and companionship fell singularly on my shoulders.
It seems terribly ironic that a woman whose career spanned 30 years and 3 different acute care facilities, an expert nurse capable of triaging an emergency room and managing the patient care for a large and underfunded county hospital should be left in the custody of someone so ill-suited. To be clear, I don’t hate the medical field, I’m not squeamish around blood or body fluids; to the contrary, the life sciences positively thrill me. My therapeutic massage clients know that I am a diehard anatomy geek who is passionate about kinesiology and human biomechanics and theories of spatial medicine.
But, I get electric bolts of sensation down the backs of my legs (following the path of the sacral dermatomes) when I see other people’s wounds or injuries. Similarly, I get flashing zaps of pain when I see certain objects: broken glass, nails, tacks, knives, hypodermic needles, casts, crutches. The list of offending objects is long and sundry, with at least a few items of little potential threat. Wooden skewers, for example. And toothpicks, which feel like a great big WTF??? It seems illogical to get painful sensory feedback from 5 centimetres of pointed wood, but there you have it. My sensorium confounds me and it has since my earliest memories.
Hospitals feel like a minefield. I can’t be anymore clear. When I’m in that type of environment, I get waves of synaesthetic pain, not because of what I think about the environment, or because hospitals feels scary or unfamiliar. It always comes back to that strange conflation of my skin, my vision and my mirror neurons, my own little unholy alliance. And so, my visits to my bedridden mother were infrequent. For this, I am sad beyond words.
Two decades ago I had no idea why my sensorial world was so harsh. I didn’t know the word synaesthesia, and I was unfamiliar with concepts of cross-modal perception. What I did know was that it was terribly hard to see my mom in her final days, despite my conscious awareness that she was likely experiencing her own physical pain, sadness, anxiety, and fear. I felt like a horrible daughter for yielding to my own hurt and confusion; sometimes I still do.
My favorite band at the time of my mother’s passing was Counting Crows. They had released an album earlier in 1996, Recovering the Satellites, which I played often as I drove my mother to her chemotherapy appointments. She liked the group and was a bit charmed that I had gone to college at UC Berkeley at the same time and in the same program as the band’s lead singer Adam Duritz. One of the last tracks on the disc is a song called “Long December”; the line that sticks in my mind is this:
The smell of hospitals in winter,
and the feeling that its all a lot of oysters
but no pearls
It’s always a long December for me, wistful and melancholic. I miss my mother more than ever this year. I feel like my inability to be fully present for her was like a whole lot of oysters for both of us. But, twenty years later, learning about synaesthesia, identifying as neurodiverse, and coming to terms with my atypical sensorial world feels like a pearl.
Photograph by Valentina Sadiul
Fall is the harvest season in the northern hemisphere and November represents its apogee in the warmer climates of California. The rush to last harvest has commenced; yams are pulled from the earth and squashes are culled from withering vines while persimmons and mandarins still hang like fiery ornaments, awaiting the first frosts.
It’s no wonder that my grapheme-color synaesthesia has imbued this month with a burnished hue. I see the word “November” in a rich orange, the color of roasted pumpkins, and akin to the warm highlights on the ubiquitous liquidambar trees that adorn gardens in the greater Bay Area. The letter “N” has always been orange, as long as I can recollect. And, as a spatial-sequential and time-units synaesthete, it seems obvious to me that this eleventh month would sit off to my left, warming the waning year with its incendiary glow, one that fades to black as winter arrives.
I have a haphazard pattern of colored months. It’s rather common for grapheme-color synaesthetes to experience a given word as stained by its initial letter. For example, my first name Carolyn, is cerulean, which is also the color of the letter “C”. My last name Hart is chartreuse, as is the letter “H”. But, while the word “October” is white, I see the month of October in yellow. And the word “December” is purple, but the month is inky black.
Perhaps the congruence of my orange letter “N” and the even oranger word “November” is why I’m so fond of late autumn. But, I think those pumpkins, ready for roasting and folding into sweet and spicy pies have something to do with my delight….
Halloween is just a few weeks away and I am planning to follow through with my commitment to the phantasmagorgeous. While I don’t yet have a costume put together, I do have some concepts predicated on the intersection of allure and fear. I also have plans to attend gatherings in San Francisco that offer a platform for expressing the conflation of the beautiful and the spooky. The Vau de Vire Society will present Phantasm, which offers “a midway of careening colors and karni oddities”, while on the same evening the intrepid folks who create the Edwardian Ball will host their own version of pretty terror, The Haunted Hourglass. I’ll most likely attend Paul Nathan’s event at the creepy and mysterious Great Star Theater. And, on November 2nd, I will once again build my fireplace mantel offrenda, then haunt the streets of The Mission bedecked in calavera make up.
For more than a decade I’ve been disturbed by the increasingly gruesome imagery that has overtaken celebrations on October 31st. I’m a mirror-touch synaesthete, and I feel pain in my own body when I see wounds on another person’s body. It doesn’t matter if this blood and carnage and ruptured flesh is real or imagined; I experience painful sensations the nanosecond my brain perceives “hurt”. My mirror-sensory synaesthesias are so flagrant, I consider myself to be “built for hurt”. But, the lovely underbelly of this reactivity is my sensitivity to sumptuous fabrics and aquarelle colors. The sight of burgundy silk chiffon makes my fingers warm; the orange petals of a late autumn chrysanthemum are as threatening as teeth. Put them together in a strange and fascinating headpiece and I’m captivated.
I’m building my All Hallows Eve ensemble on a framework of texture, color, and transparency, a formula that’s hardly novel to fear mongers. Guillermo del Toro combines these elements masterfully in “Crimson Peak”, a haunting, ethereal ghost story. Similar images are evoked in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Annabel Lee and the haute couture of Thierry Mugler. I’ve plenty of experts to consider as I build my own bewitching disguise. And as always, I’ll let go of the gory and elevate the eerily pretty.
Photograph by Valentina Sadiul
Our lovely IASAS logo, created by Christina Eppleston.
My inquiry into synesthesia has connected me with some truly intriguing people; I can’t think of another neurological phenomenon that fosters such an odd and compelling community. Through a decade spent exploring my own synesthetic perceptions, I’ve met neuroscientists of all stripes, from developmental neurobiologists studying the genetic underpinnings of cross-modal processing to anthropological psycholinguists documenting the global frequency of colored graphemes. I’ve met artists who paint vivid soundscapes on canvas that depict their own chromesthesia, and I’ve re-read Nabokov, looking for clues to the tints of his synesthetic alphabet. The Synesthesia List has introduced me to a teenager in Asia who hears shapes and a senior in America who tastes words. I’m beyond honored to be part of this wonderfully inclusive group who reveal the experience of synaesthesia through their personal stories, creative endeavors, and research.
Writing my Vox Synaesthetica blog has fostered connections with several individuals who are committed to developing a global collective focused on cultivating interest, understanding, and acceptance of synaesthesia as an expression of human neurodiversity. I’m delighted to serve as secretary of the board for this nascent organization. The past few weeks have been a flurry of activity as I help to develop the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists into a bona fide 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation. I’ve set aside some of my own creative writing projects in order to draft our nonprofit documents, and I’ve left my social media mostly quiescent while I’ve constructed an electronic presence for IASAS. While we aren’t yet ready to bring members into the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists, our board is actively building what promises to be a diverse and dynamic community.
I believe IASAS will encourage collaboration among synaesthetes, (people who have synaesthesia), the artists who create from their own synaesthetic perceptions, and the scientists who study cross-modal processing. But I’m equally curious about the fascinating and varied permutations this organization nurtures: scientists who have synaesthesia, artists who aren’t synaesthetic but who create works that promote conflated sensations in their audience, synaesthetes who aren’t scientists but who participate as subjects in research studies. IASAS represents tremendous possibilities for cooperation and unity; I look forward to my opportunity to both witness and participate in the rise of an unprecedented alliance.
Pantone 448C, aka “opaque couché”.
Is Pantone 448C the world’s ugliest color? Many people think so, including the 1000 smokers who participated in an Australian research and marketing project aimed at creating an unappealing but compulsory plain package for all cigarettes sold down under. I picked up the story of Pantone 448C, aka “opaque couché”, as reported by UK newspaper The Guardian. But, I’ve long known this color as a component of my synesthesia. And while I agree that it’s not a particularly alluring color, I’m convinced opaque couché helped me learn to read and write.
My grapheme->color synesthesia gives each of my letters and numbers a distinct, unique-to-me color. My “A” is a deep aquamarine blue, my “B” a scarlet pink, etc. Like many synesthetes, the first letter of a word colors the rest of that word. For example, the word “book” is scarlet-pinkish-red. Although its comprised of a scarlet “B”, two white “O”s and a seafoam green “K”, when I see the whole word, it appears to me in scarlet.
My letter “T” is a light warm brown, and my letter “H” is a shade of green that leans toward chartreuse. But something funny happens when they are side-by-side in a word like ‘though” or “thought”. When I see T and H next to each other, they both turn a weird brownish-greenish-grey, almost the exact shade of Pantone 448C. And while, I find the color kind of ugly, it begs me to notice it. That odd color really stands out in a way that made it quite simple for me to differentiate between words that are easily confused by early readers, words such as ”tank” and “thank”, or the words “though”, “thought”, and “through”.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the misconceptions that accompany public perceptions of synesthesia. One of those misconceptions is the idea that synesthetes experience a world of exquisite rainbow hues. In truth, many people with grapheme->color synesthesia have really hideous colors that inform their synesthetic perception. Though I find Pantone 448C to be pretty ugly, I like it, through and through…
Photo courtesy of Roberto Vongher and Wikimedia Commons
I’m delighted to have my essay “Built for Hurt” published in the inaugural issue of qualia, an “experimental journal dedicated to creative and critical thinking at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and medical sciences. With a focus on lived experiences, embodied encounters, phenomenological investigations and unusual perspectives, qualia publishes personal, theoretical, scientific, sonic, and visual responses to particular themes: this inaugaral issue of qualia explores the theme of pain.”
Qualia is edited by Dr. Elinor Cleghorn, who has conducted research on the scholarly and artistic implications of mirror-touch synaesthesia at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art. I was fortunate to participate in some of Dr. Cleghorn’s inquiry into experiences of mirror-sensory synaesthesias, and I’m honored that she encouraged me to pen an essay about my encounters with synesthetic pain for the first issue of qualia.
I am indeed built for a certain type of hurt. My synaesthesia-for-pain is triggered every single day on multiple occasions, often by the most mundane objects. But sometimes my mirror-touch synaesthesia and synesthesia-for-pain go into overdrive; one such example of this sensory overload was witnessing (via electronic media) the wreck of the Costa Concordia. My essay Built for Hurt explores this tragedy from a synesthetic perspective. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my essay with you via qualia journal.
Chromesthesia is one of more than 80 forms of synesthesia.
I was on Pintrest this morning, working on my Synaesthetic Alphabet Project, when I kept encountering the same pin: “I see colors when I hear your voice”. There are many different versions of this meme, most featuring rainbow-hued abstract art. While I recognize that the popularity of this pin is likely due to its romantic connotations, I think the meme perpetuates some myths about synesthetes and synesthesia:
- All people with synesthesia experience colored sound: Chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synesthesia, is indeed one of the more common forms of conflated senses. But not every synesthete has chromesthesia. And even among people who do have sound-to-color synesthesia, their experiences are unique. I’ve really enjoyed looking at the sound-to-color paintings of artist and synesthete Melissa McCracken, who appears to have much more blue in her colored hearing than I have. My own chromesthesia tends toward faint yellows, pinks and greens.
- Synesthesia is a beautiful experience: While many synesthetes do enjoy their synesthesia, it isn’t always pleasant. Earlier this year, the NPR program Invisbilia profiled a woman whose mirror-touch synesthesia made it impossible for her to be in the presence of people who were eating, as it would make her choke and gag. My own mirror-touch includes synesthesia-for-pain. And some grapheme-color synesthetes dislike many of the hues in which they see their letters and numbers. Syn isn’t always pretty.
- Synesthesia is a disease: It’s a neurological trait, not an illness.
- Synesthesia is really rare: It’s actually somewhat common, affecting approximately 4% of the global population.
- Synesthesia isn’t real: At the dawn of modern psychology, interest in the study of synesthesia was quite high, with some researchers gathering extensive narratives of synesthetic experiences. Unfortunately, there were no means to scientifically validate these experiences, and research into synesthesia declined for decades. With the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging, synesthesia research has increased dramatically. fMRI studies are documenting how very real synesthesia is.
- There are no tests that prove synesthesia: see above. Also, the Synesthesia Battery is an online test developed by Dr. David Eagleman. While it only tests for a few different forms of synesthesia, it’s considered to be quite accurate.
- Synesthesia is like tripping on drugs 24/7: I’m not the best person to address this fallacy, with my very limited encounters with psychedelics. But I can speak for the experience of synesthesia, and say that my conflated senses are so tightly interwoven into my perception of the world, it hardly feels “trippy”. It’s not like I walk around all day in the equivalent of a hallucinatory stupor. I believe this is true for other synesthetes as well. Even if our synesthesia is sometimes confusing, alluring, or frightening, it’s not the same as tripping on LSD or mescaline.
I’ll likely add to this list as I encounter additional myths about synesthesia. If you’re a synesthete who’s encountered misconceptions about your experiences, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.
Today, May 9th 2016, marks one year since I launched my Vox Synaesthetica blog. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to write about my experiences with synaesthesia, and honored that my posts have been read in 42 different countries. It’s been fascinating to connect with an international community of fellow synaesthetes, and to witness the growing global interest in the neurodiversity movement.
Vox Synaesthetica has fostered some really lovely opportunities for me as a writer and synaesthete. I’ve had an essay about mirror-touch published on neuroscience blog braindecoder.com. Writer and international mental health advocate Rodger Hoefel profiled me in his Like-Minded Magazine. And just a month ago I presented at the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association annual symposium at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. It’s been an exciting year!
I’ve several creative projects in the works, including an essay that will be published this summer focused on my obsession with the wreck of the Costa Concordia and its ability to trigger my synaesthesia-for-pain. I’m also collaborating in the creation of an international exhibition focused on the art and neuroscience of synaesthesia. This project is currently in development, and I can’t wait to share more details. I’m also working on a book-length memoir about my experiences with neuroweirdness, and hope to have a draft completed by August.
Outing myself as a synaesthete has been a liberating experience. I’m coming to terms with my aberrant brain, and writing about my experiences with synaesthesia has made space for me to explore the scary caves and turbulent rivers of my mental landscape. Vox Synaesthetica has also served as a springboard for creating connection in the larger neurodiversity community. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.
Many thanks for reading Vox Synaesthetica. I so appreciate your companionship on my journey of neurological discovery.
From the top: Saint Brendan the Navigator, my grandmother and first generation American Mary Landers Crowley, me with #UKSA2016 friends Dyedra Just and Candita Wager, presenting my poster at #UKSA2016, and me, center, at the Irish Potato Famine memorial alongside the Liffey River, Dublin.
I’m a child of the diaspora; all four of my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the early 1900’s, trading poverty and religious persecution in their homeland for the promise of prosperity in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m ever aware of the sacrifices my ancestors made to launch their version of the American dream, and I’m grateful their arduous journeys fostered opportunity for my family in the United States. For this, I will always feel the pull of an Irish-American identity.
My maternal grandmother Mary Landers Crowley and her family hail from County Kerry, where Brendan the Navigator is revered. Like many of the other Irish saints, Brendan’s narrative isn’t a story of passive and contemplative religious piety, but one of fierce adventure in the name of belief. In the early 6th century AD, Brendan plied the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in a currach, a small, keel-less boat. Currachs were made from animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, which was then tarred for water resistance. In this simple vessel, Brendan and his fellow pilgrims are said to have sailed from the Kerry coast to North America, probably making landfall at Newfoundland; their journey and return to Ireland took 7 years. While the Brendan legend is likely a myth that follows the narrative of other immrams (Irish navigational sagas), his excursion was replicated in 1976 by explorer Tim Severin, which demonstrated that a small currach ably navigated could indeed cross the ocean.
I’m just returned from my own ocean crossing (via modern technology) to Dublin where I attended the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association’s annual symposium. Over two days, I listened to neuroscientists, psychologists, and designers reveal their explorations into the world of synaesthesia and cross-modal perceptions. Highlights from the conference include the keynote lecture on Thursday April 21st, with Dr. Amir Amedi, an expert in the field of SSD’s, or “sensory substitution devices”. Dr. Amedi taught the entire audience to read a simple word using sound to depict the shape of letters. The next morning, Jennifer Mankin, of the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, presented her research on the topic of associative learning, synaesthesia, and trends in letter-colour pairs. And on Saturday, our host Kevin Mitchell gave an impromptu lecture titled Synaesthesia: More or Different?. Remarkable poster presentations included those from Amanda Tilot (Decoding the Genetics of Synaesthesia) Gwilym Lockwood (Synaesthesia and Sound Symbolism) and Giles Hamilton-Fletcher (Synaestheatre: Using synaesthesia to optimise the design of SSD’s).
There were too many other fascinating presentations and posters to list in this short blog post. But what they all had in common is a rigorous sense of scientific exploration. And while I recognize the motives of a 6th century monastic Christian and contemporary scientists couldn’t be more disparate, I can’t help but think of the researchers and academics I met in Dublin as the equivalent of modern day saints. The link between science and sainthood isn’t much of a stretch when one considers the prodigious intellect of polymath Hildegard of Bingen, or the universal thinking of physicist, botanist, and philosopher Albert Magnus. And, the navigational expertise of Brendan of Clonfert, crossing uncharted waters in a small wooden boat, is a sophisticated feat for a Dark Ages sailor. I have plenty of problems with what I like to call “the management team” of the Catholic Church, and the horrendous misdeeds enacted under their direction. But, I’m going to offer poetic license as defense for the equation of scientists and saints and leave it at that.
I’m verbicidal by nature, so I like to call people with synaesthesia “synners”. We were well represented at #USKA2016. Svetlana Rudenko, a pianist and sound to texture/color/space synaesthete who is also a PhD. candidate at the Royal Irish Academy of Music charmed us at a recital Friday night. I too had the opportunity to present in the poster sessions, on the topic of mirror-touch synaesthesia in the practice of manual therapy. I also had the pleasure of meeting Candita Wager, who was profiled by my friend and fellow synesthete Maureen Seaberg in an article for Psychology Today. Candy is one of the brightest young women I’ve ever met, a synesthete, scholar, and vocalist. She gave a brave presentation Saturday morning on the missing link between mood disorders and synaesthesia, then celebrated the close of the conference with her brother Jacob Wager and a delightful group of conference attendees, including Richard Roche and students from Maynooth University. We talked for hours at The Ginger Man Pub over pints of Guinness, an evening I’ll never forget. This synner is forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a deeply engaging community.
Community is the perfect word to describe #UKSA2106. I was impressed by the level of collaboration and camraderie between the various scientists, designers, and synaesthetes. The global collective of synaesthesia and cross-modal perception researchers is small, and it seemed to me that there was plenty of encouragement and cooperation among the conference attendees, with a good dose of competition and critique thrown into the mix. I feel fortunate that I gathered new connections and friends by attending the event, and I’m thankful to have been included.
Go raibh maith agaibh!
Various depictions of “The Fool” from the tarot
It only seems appropriate that on April Fool’s Day I write a post that is no joke. I’m a neuroweirdo who’s never quite normal, (whatever one considers normal in this oddly beautiful world) and I’ve had numerous instances where my friends have assumed I’m kidding when I’ve revealed the truth that is my sensorial world. So, on this day of hoaxes and pranks and inverted expectations, I’m writing with honesty.
In just a few weeks, I’m presenting at the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association Symposium in Dublin Ireland. I will be speaking about my career as a Certified Massage Therapist, and how I utilize the cross-modal perceptions of mirror-touch synesthesia in the practice of manual therapy. I’ve looked at the draft program for the event, and I am one of very few presenters without an affiliation with a major research university. And, although I have a background in theater that has helped me overcome my natural introvert tendencies and comfortably speak in public, I’ve never made a presentation of this nature.
A friend asked me the other day if I’m nervous, and I said no. I’m not nervous; I’m actually quite excited. I’m looking forward to returning to Dublin as I’ve not been there in 15 years, and I’m charmed by Trinity College, the institution hosting the UK Synesthesia Symposium (I can’t wait to gaze upon the Book of Kells!). I’m curious about the experience of participating in an academic conference. Also, I’m intrigued by the fascinating research on synesthesia that will be explored at this conference. I feel quite fortunate to have the opportunity to witness presentations from the world’s leading experts in the field. I’m enthusiastic, and a little elated, but I have no trepidation.
My emotional disposition toward the UK Synaesthesia Symposium reminds me of The Fool card in the tarot. Typically, The Fool is depicted as a merry wanderer, optimistic and carefree, blithely stepping off a cliff to willingly place herself at the whims of the universe. It is card number 0, neither the beginning, nor the end, the eternal return. Even though traditional illustrations of The Fool capture a quality of obliviousness, she is almost always depicted as prepared for the journey, with a rucksack, a walking stick and a companion, typically a small white dog at her side.
My own small white dog will stay at home in San Francisco while I make my way to the motherland. I probably should be more jittery than I am, what, with speaking at the most prestigious university in Ireland to a cohort of highly accomplished academics. But, I know I have the right tools for the journey. I have a lifetime of first hand experience with synesthesia, and I’m working diligently to create an engaging poster that represents my cross-modal perceptions. I’m lucky to have friends employed by the University of California, a pair of brilliant knot theorists who can help me pull my presentation together. And, I think I’m just far too inexperienced in this arena to feel the nervousness that would be a natural response to the amplitude of it all. I’m feeling a bit of The Fool these days, in a tarot sort of way, optimistic and eager. But there’s no April Fools in that.