For several months, I’ve planned to pen a series of essays about specific incidents from my life that illustate the complexities of mirror-touch synesthesia. I’ve written and then obliterated multiple opening paragraphs, and I’ve left my computer untouched for weeks. I’ve told myself I just haven’t had time to write; my summer’s been occupied by holidays, and barbeques and all of those seemly excuses.
Honestly, I’ve been procrastinating like a connoiseur of the wasted hour. The fact is, I feel cagey about documenting my mirror-touch. It’s painful for me to contemplate this experience, and I mean painful in the synesthetic sense; I feel searing electricity shoot from my hips to my heels the instant I witness a moment of real or fabricated physical trauma. This anomaly, known as synesthesia-for-pain, is a form of mirror-touch. And it’s been my little secret for decades.
Today I’m feeling less plagued and more empowered by my synesthesia after reading Erika Hayasaki’s fascinating article in the July-August issue of Pacific Standard Magazine. Ms. Hayasaki profiles Dr. Joel Salinas, a physician and synesthete who experiences in his own body many of the sensations that his patients are feeling in their bodies. I’ve never met another mirror-touch synesthete; it’s a rare phenomenon. Learning about Dr. Salinas’ mirror-touch has me feeling much less isolated and more capable of conveying some of the daunting encounters I’ve had with my own synesthetic perceptions.
Mirror-touch synesthesia has been with me from my earliest memories. I have a clear recollection from the March just after I turned four. My German Shepherd puppy stumbled over a barrier that was meant to keep her contained; she fractured her leg in the fall. I saw the broken femur burst through her fur, I heard her baby dog whimpers. I can still feel the ripples of electricity that streaked down my legs when I saw that injured limb. The waves of pain returned any time I recalled the instant she was hurt, and they reverberated for weeks as I watched my dog hobble around our home, her cast clacking on the harvest gold linoleum.
I never told my parents what I felt when I saw our dog break her leg. In fact, I never told them about any of the synesthetic sensations I experienced throughout my childhood. Like most synesthetes, I didn’t undertand that my sensory world was atypical; I assumed that everyone’s perceptions were similar to my own. Even in my teenage years, when I began to suspect something was wrong with me, I never told my family or any of my friends.
Instead, I became evasive. I did my best to ditch situations that might trigger those painful sensations. I skipped a mandatory first aid class the entire spring semester of my freshman year of high school, avoiding the gory textbook meant to terrify teen drivers. I finally completed the course three years later, on the night before my graduation, passing a tamer version of first aid offered by the American Red Cross. I did go to slasher films with my girlfriends, eager to be included, yet kept my eyes shut through most of the movie. This is how I “watched” Children of the Corn, the classic horror flick familiar to Gen-Xer’s. I sat straight as a stalk, my eyes squeezed tight, my fingers tweaking the wales of my corduroy coat.
Distance and dissociation were my two favorite tools for coping with the sensory overload of mirror-touch synesthesia. But my denial couldn’t shield me from the feeling that I was somehow accountable for other people’s wounds. If my sister showed me her palm, rubbed raw by the monkey bars, and the sight of her blisters made me hurt, wasn’t it somehow my fault?
In Merced, the little city where I was born, not a single retailer carried Le Creuset. My mother had become enamored with the heavy cast iron and enamel cookware after watching numerous episodes of “The French Chef” on PBS. So, on a weekend trip to San Francisco, while my mother, my sisters and I were shopping for shoes on Union Square, my father slipped down into “The Cellar,” Macy’s famous housewares department. He bought a squat Le Creuset Dutch oven in a color the company called “Flame.” My dad managed to sneak the package into the trunk of the family station wagon without anyone noticing. On Sunday night, when we had returned to the Central Valley, my father surprised my mother with the large, orange pot.
I hated it.
The smoldering color of that pot made the back of my throat blaze with a scratchy, abrasive pain. My mother would prepare the most delectable Coq au Vin, its succulent aroma wafting through our home. I could appreciate the fragrance of the simmering dinner from the family room of our California ranch-style home, or if I was in the kitchen, with my back turned to the stove. But the minute my eye caught the color of the Dutch oven, I felt as if I had instantly developed strep.
I was about eight when “Flame” Le Creuset began replacing the aging Pyrex bakeware my parents had received as wedding presents. The Dutch oven was followed by an au gratin, a terrine and a kettle, all bright as embers. Along with my sisters, I learned to cook with those pots, the three of us making scalloped potatoes a la Julia, layering thin slices of russets into the casserole, its milky enamel lining a cool reprieve from the searing orange exterior.
White gave me an entirely different sensation, as if I was holding a fine, light powder in my mouth, weightless and gelid, enveloping my tongue, my gums, my teeth. This was true when I looked at any white item, just as all burnt orange objects scratched my throat.
But this doesn’t happen anymore. I seem to have lost the synesthetic experience of color to tactile perception. The only additional hue for which I can recollect a linked physical sensation is pink. I would get a tingle in my pharynx, somewhat similar to the tickle that preceeds a sneeze. But, like other colors, pink no longer triggers any sensory impressions, even though I can clearly remember what it once felt like to percieve colors in my mouth.
A hallmark of synesthesia is its continuity. Most synesthetes report experiencing their synesthesia as part of their earliest memories, and those conflated senses remain stable over one’s lifetime. But it seems that synaesthesia can indeed vanish. In fact, It has been suggested that we were all born with synaesthesia but that it tends to disappear within the first few years of life (e.g. Maurer & Mondloch, 2004). This theory of synesthesia as an inherent neurological feature of infancy and early childhood that disipates as our brains develop matches well with Simon Baron-Cohen’s research.
It’s reasonable to me that over time, I’ve lost some of my synesthesias. It no longer hurts my throat when I look at burnt orange. That color remains one of my least favorite hues, and I find it strange that my mother loved it so. When she died, I kept a single piece from her cookware collection, the low-rimmed au gratin pan. I never could get myself to bake with it in my own kitchen; as a mere memento, it was too bulky to keep. I dropped it at the Goodwill last year, where in a most serendipitous fashion, an alabaster Le Creuset Dutch oven was perched on a shelf of items for sale. I now make my own bubbling Coq au Vin, in a pot so white I can almost feel that mouthful of soft powder I once knew so well.
Carolyn “CC” Hart
That’s me on the right, kicking my sister Elizabeth on Halloween, 1967.
Elizabeth jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow, just as Kirk and Spock went to blows with each other on the planet Vulcan.
“I didn’t do it!” I balked.
How could I have done something to disturb her? I was perfectly still, lying on my stomach next to my sister. We were rapt in our focus as we watched a re-run of Star Trek. Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock were in a fight to the death with a beastly two-headed weapon, the lirpa. One end was a heavy dull cudgel; the other a crescent-shaped blade. Spock swung out, slicing cleanly through Kirk’s jersey, as the captain stumbled backward.
“Don’t!” Beth kicked me, I reciprocated, and soon we were slugging each other, fighting as fiercely as the two men on the television. When our mother came into the den to break up it up, my sister pinned the conflict on me.
“CC started it! She kicked me!
“Liar! You kicked me twice…”
“No I didn’t!” I cried. Our mother threatened to turn off the TV, a fearsome punishment for early Gen-X children. Beth and I agreed to a reluctant peace, lying three feet from each other as we watched a defeated, lifeless Kirk get beamed aboard the Enterprise.
This scene of accusation and denial played out continuously through my childhood and into my adolescence, long before I learned the words synesthesia, proprioception and mirror neurons. In fact, I was well into adulthood when, in a casual conversation about our upbringing, Beth said to me “you know, you were a really twitchy kid.”
She was right. I was a twitchy kid. And I couldn’t help myself. I seemed to subtly act out so much of what I saw on television or at the movies, particularly when the emotional stakes were high and I was very focused. I kicked and kipped on the living room carpet as Nadia Comeneci swung her way to a perfect score on the uneven parallel bars at the Montreal olympics. I ran terrified through the halls of the Peruvian temple with Indiana Jones in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, smacking my feet into the theater seat in front of me. And, I twisted and squirmed in my chair so much at my first Ice Capades show that my teenage chaperone marched me off to the restroom, despite my protests that I didn’t have to go.
I’ve just recently learned that mirror-touch synesthesia often includes mirrored proprioception, which is one of the strongest components of my own synesthetic experience; I feel myself moving when other people move. This rarely occurs with simple acts like watching someone walk down the street. However, more complicated, coordinated movements, such as dance, martial arts, or acrobatics will really get me twitching.
When I was in my 20’s and music videos were in their heyday, I was absolutely mad about the musician Black and his song “Wonderful Life”. It made me feel like I was flying, gave me the sensation of butterflies in my stomach. When I look at that video now, I recognize that the imagery and oblique camera angles combined with the minor key song likely evokes strong emotions and sensations for many people. But it exhausts me if I watch it repeatedly. I fly with those twisting gymnasts and feel my muscles fire so strongly, it seems like I’ve had a workout. Perhaps this is one of the blessings of my mirror-touch synesthesia; I can get a little exercise by simply watching other people move.
Carolyn “CC” Hart
The one certainty in the world of synaesthesia is this: there is no clear answer to why a fraction of the population has it, and others don’t. There are as many theories about the origins and significance of synaesthesia as there are scientists studying it.
Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, postulates synaesthesia as an organic aberration. He espouses a theory of neonatal synesthesia; until we are about 4 months old, all babies experience the senses in a conflated way. For example, sounds would result in auditory, visual, and tactile sensations. During normal development, the senses differentiate. Sensory processing becomes modal: we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, etc. Synesthesia occurs when this differentiation is left incomplete, allowing for cross-modal associations between two or more senses.
Many contemporary neuroscientists believe there is a genetic basis for synaesthesia. The research of VS Ramachandran at The Center for Brain and Cognition at The University of California, San Diego supports a hyper-connectivity theory. Synaesthesia might be caused by a genetic mutation that creates defective pruning of connections in different parts of the brain. This mutation may further be expressed selectively in various structures in the brain, including the fusiform or angular gyrus. This may explain why there are different forms of synaesthesia. Additionally, there may be extensive cross-wiring between brain regions that represent abstract concepts, which would explain the link between creativity, metaphor, and synaesthesia.
The Serotonergic Hyperactivity model purports synesthesia is a defect in the serotonergic system leading to a blockage of regular gating mechanisms for the neurotransmitter serotonin. Professor Berit Brogaard, director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami, studies acquired synaesthesia. A synaesthetic state can be induced in some subjects with drugs such as LSD or psilocybin. Additionally, traumatic brain injury (TBI) occasionally creates synaesthsia in people who did not have conflated senses prior to their trauma.
Theories of synaesthesia continue to develop, as does insight into its meaning and value. For now, “why” remains a point of contention and an unanswered question.
Carolyn “CC” Hart
My experience with synaesthesia, and my relationship to it, is convoluted, a blend of fierce sensitivities and fascination. Mundane experiences are magnified by the filter of my braided sensations. I feel pain each day that is triggered by visual stimuli: one look at a shard of broken glass in the street and I feel electricity shoot down the back of my legs. A glance at the word count on this page (156) brings my eyes down and to the left, where the numerals reside in their Canary Island’s color scheme. The bright white of this day, Tuesday, makes it feel full of possibility, an auspicious day for undertaking new creative projects.
The world of synaesthesia is a curious one, weird and wonderful all at once. Please follow me on Vox Synaesthetica as I explore research on brain connectivity, altered perception, and its ties to creativity. Our minds are stranger than we can imagine…
Carolyn “CC” Hart