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j_a_ironside ([personal profile] j_a_ironside) wrote2016-03-06 01:31 pm

Mixed Signals - my experiences with synaesthesia

On Thursday afternoon, I had a migraine. Nothing particularly unusual about that for me, unfortunately. I started suffering the them when I was thirteen and they seem to be linked to all sorts of biological processes with me, so it's a case of managing them rather than preventing or curing them (although kail smoothies every morning really seem to help). The word 'migraine' is of Greek origin and means 'half-head'. It sounds so innocuous put like that. I really wish it was that simple. I, like many other people, suffer focal migraines - aura, lack of vision, photophobia, left-sided numbness and temporary partial paralysis... not to mention the crushing head pain that makes the ancient practice of trepanning look attractive. In fact with really bad migraines trepanning looks positively sensible; sod modern tools, I'm up for trying it with a flint burin and chanting as an anesthetic.

But sometimes the aftermath of a migraine is almost enough of a reward, despite lingering nausea, exhaustion and weakness. The aftermath is sometimes better than best high budget special effects film you could ever see. I'll come back to that. The intention is not to whinge about a medical problem. People deal with worse everyday. What I want to talk about is a strangeness in the way my brain is wired up. The scrambling effect of a migraine enhances that strangeness for a while.

Perhaps you've heard the term 'synaesthesia'? Put simply, it means that certain of your five senses are cross-wired to produce some strange and interesting sensory input. It's harmless, occasionally useful, sometimes a bit of a pain. In my case I don't generally get any of the really interesting forms such as being able to see music for instance. So I'll explain what it's like for me.

I mostly have 'lexical-synaesthesia' with a few other random bits thrown in. Lexical-synaesthesia means that you associate or project (without conscious desire) colour, taste, feeling, emotion or some other attribute on a letter of the alphabet. That's the most basic understanding. For example, in my case the letter 'A' (capital) is a pillar box red and it feels adventurous. The letter 'a' (lower case) is a lighter red and is cautious. Sounds mental doesn't it? But that is how the world look to me and I'm only just getting started. All the letters of the Alphabet are like that for me (and many other people). When combined into words, the words take on a colour or feeling of their own. Spoken aloud, they have a taste. I'm continually annoying others when I mispronounce certain words on purpose because they taste better pronounced that way. So if I say 'askance', 'morbidity' or even 'synaesthesia' in an odd way - that's the reason way.

So what are the implications? Well for one thing a near photographic memory for language, both spoken and written. I first discovered this when I started reading Shakespeare and Dickens (I think I was nine or ten at the time.) I could quote whole passages, sometimes even whole pages, verbatim after one reading. I never lost my place in a book. I only had to flick through and the right passage, the right combination of colours, would leap out at me.

The downside? I started incorporating over-sophisticated language into my vocabulary way before I should have been able to follow it. This did nothing for my already questionable popularity at school. I was bullied quite thoroughly for it up into my early teens. I'm not saying it's ok, but to be honest there was clearly something a bit off about me. Some of my teachers found it too, I think, looking back now on how they reacted to me. No one loves a know-it-all. But unfortunately I hadn't an inkling that anything was different about how I saw the world from anyone else. I worked that out years later. About the same time I realised that you didn't have to tell all you know to everyone you know. You live and learn!

So other weird cross-wiring; time has a distinct colour. In an artificially lit room or the middle of the night I can tell what the time is to within 15 mins because of the colour. Same with the day of the week. I've never suffered jet lag - my body always knows 'when' I am so it manages to adjust. I took to working night shifts well, without any backlash.

Distance has a feeling. This is a weird one to describe. Even if I've never been somewhere before, if I've had a chance to look at a map and get a rough idea where I'm going, I know when I've missed a turning or gone too far. I'm not sure how much of it is a good sense of direction and how much the feeling that I'm now in 'spongey place' on the map, when I want to be on 'boiled sweet' place. As I said, not easy to describe.

Noises have a smell or a taste. The rumble of a lorry a mile and a half away smells like burnt rubber. A sour note when someone is singing or playing an instrument tastes like lemon juice. A person screaming in fear tastes like vomit. A child screaming in play tastes like peaches. Don't ask me how I know the difference, I haven't the foggiest idea. All I know is that somehow my ears must pick up minute changes in tone or pitch that I haven't trained myself to listen for. I'm not sure if this has much of an advantage other than if someone is telling me a straight lie, I can nearly always tell. It tastes sour. A partial truth is harder to detect. Not much good because you can hardly say "I know you're lying, I can taste it." At least not unless you want everyone to think you're nuts.

I also have some mirror-touch synaesthesia - which is interesting having worked for years in health care. Strong emotions make people appear overlaid with colour in my vision too. But I won't go into those too much.

So how does this fit with migraines? The aftermath or recovery period seems to heighten this cross-wiring. A really bad migraine, leaving the strange calm that the absence of grinding pain brings, leaves me open to about six hours of very strange mixed signals that aren't part of my daily synaesthesia input. Music becomes so unbearably lovely and overwhelming that I become completely lost in watching the colours and shapes that combinations of notes produce. I have never seen the northern lights in real life but I imagine it's like that; a shimmering veil where true notes of colour move forward and fade back in a fascinating dance. I can taste them as it's played. Imagine being able to hear, see and taste music all at once. It almost makes the migraine worth it. Similarly with words. Clearly I like to write, but I think some of my best creative moments and best lines come when I'm in that recovery phase of a migraine.

I would never suggest that you need synaesthesia or a migraine to be creative. I think it just makes things easier for me, perhaps enhances whatever I may have in the way of talent? Certainly the sense of time and direction and the photographic memory are useful!

Years after I learned NOT to talk about it, I decided to talk about it - carefully - again. I'd done some reading and discovered synaesthesia. It is a fairly well known neurological condition, with around 1 in 2000 people experiencing at least some mild form of it. The more extreme forms are generally found in people who have a parent or grand parent with blue/ green vision or colour blindness. It is inherited. I asked the rest of my family about it. Both my sisters looked at me blankly. They had never had any experience of it, though they believed me. After all these years, probably not much that was odd would surprise them about me. One sister was sure that I must have got it from our father. I thought that most likely too. To my surprise it was actually my mum and her mum who had both had lexical synesthesia before me. I won't go into family history about why it was a surprise.

I have quite a few friends who write or play musical instruments or paint. I was interested in the correlation between creativity and synesthesia. So I asked them about their experiences if any. About half of them had some form of synesthesia, knew it and accepted it. The other half didn't have a clue what I was talking about. If there is a correlation, it is an enhancer rather than a pre-requisite (another word I willfully mispronounce) I think.

Ultimately, it's an interesting neurological phenomenon and can occasionally be fun or useful - word games, watching Shakespeare, post migraine music shows in my case. Or occasionally can get in the way a bit - heightened anxiety, inexplicable foreboding. The worst bit for me, was living in this world of extra colour that seemed almost magical, and then losing it. It has happened twice. Once when I was given medication for a different neurological condition. For over a year, while I got used to metabolising this, all the colours and scents disappeared and I lived in a flat grey world. Then again, when a friend died unexpectedly. I hit a huge airless pocket of gun metal coloured depression and all the colour and texture seeped out of the world. I was walking through the motions in a place of flat hard angles, tasteless, scentless and unlovely.

At those times, all I can say is that all the 'magic' was gone from life. Whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, it was a bad place to be. In both cases, I came back and the colour did too. I never took it for granted again like I had before. I never will. Whether how I see the world is right or at least neurologically impaired, I wouldn't be without it. I think this might be why I find it almost impossible to write anything without a hint of something fantastical in it. They say 'write what you know' and that's how the world looks to me.

It's possible to be a synesthete without being aware of it. You can try the tests at http://synesthete.org/. It can be many more things than I described. I think it's interesting to know but ultimately it doesn't change anything, except for you personally. In my case it gives me a spectrum that I know I don't want to be without.