Saturday, September 12, 2009

I See Things You Don't: I Have Syn

By T.L. Reid, The Tyee. Posted September 12, 2009.

My brain gives colors to numbers, visual textures to words.

A few years ago, I made a private LiveJournal post to two friends with the following announcements:

1. I was falling out of love with our common fandom

2. My appendectomy scar still hurt, and

3. I had synaesthesia.

I'm not sure why I included the third point. I'd kept that information to myself for my entire life, but I suddenly felt like I needed to tell someone. I was expecting flak, comfort, and blank stares. I certainly wasn't expecting the stunned response I got from Paula Lori. "Oh my god," she wrote. "Me, too."

Neuroscientists believe that everyone begins life with a touch of synaesthesia: the human mind starts out with multiple sensations traveling along the same pathways in the brain. In most people, these routes get pruned down as people grow up -- different sensory pathways start to specialize in a single type of sensation. But for those of us with synaesthesia (which literally means "the joining of the senses"), a certain amount of crossover remains.

Some of this is genetic -- syn definitely runs in families, although I don't know anyone else in my family who has it. But the particularities of each synaesthete's experience are unique. Who knows why our brains decide to keep certain connections?

Essentially, synaesthesia is what happens when your thought processes come wrapped in sensation. Some people with syn can tell you what colour your name is, sense the flavor of someone's personality or feel the shape of a sound. For me, there are two main "modes": numbers have colors, and words and ideas are things I can feel.

Seeing and feeling

Of the two types I have, the numbers are easier to explain. If I see a written number -- let's say a "2" -- I also see that symbol as having the color blue. I know perfectly well that the "2" is written on this page in black ink, but I also know that -- in some inexplicable way -- it's a blue number. Every digit from 0 to 9 has a color in my mind. They've been that way as long as I can remember, and the colors have never changed.

My second type of syn -- being able to "feel" words and ideas -- was more subtle. If I look at a list of words on a page, I don't feel a thing. But if I'm reading or speaking or listening to a flow of words, the sensations just fly by. I don't focus much on individual words -- the flashes of texture, size, shape, and weight rushing by; it's more about the patterns and rhythms they form. I was even more entranced by words than by numbers. I'd literally feel words forming in my mouth and hold ideas in my hands as I decided whether or not to use them.

For me as a child, synaesthesia was a completely good part of my life: having visual and physical cues for abstract ideas gave me concrete ways of thinking about everything -- even theories. The only problem was my sense that all of this needed to be kept covered up.

When I was little, I didn't know exactly what it was that I was keeping secret. Saying certain things would get me strange looks and nasty comments; I eventually learned to translate what I thought or felt into phrases that other people could accept. Similes were my best friends: you can get away with some crazy descriptions if you make a funny face and say, "It's sort of like..."

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See more stories tagged with: neurology, synaesthesia, neurological, coming out

T.L. Reid is the sports editor for Intercamp, the student newspaper at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Canada.

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