Sunday, July 12

Dr. Hugo Heyrman

something interesting always happens at 3:15...



personal space

For information on Heyrman's art, 'new media,'
and research into the phenomenon of synesthesia,
click here and here.


Metamatician said...

I've always known I was a synesthete but had never heard of the term or knew it was anything out of the ordinary until my adult life, when I came to discuss some aspects of it with others in my family and outside of my family who did not experience many of the sense-blending phenomena I did. I felt quite down about it, realizing it may be a possible reason why I struggled with many things in life or saw things (and felt them) so much differently from the apparent norm.

But the research was (and is, though it's a field of growing interest and actual rigorous testing rather than discussion by psychologists or artists or philosophers based on anecdotal cases or "the literature") scarce and sketchy until recent decades and even just recent years, which have seen if you will a mini-explosion of interest in the phenomena amongst, primarily, neuroscientists of various stripes such as V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD and others interested in cognition or brain-wiring, be it to study poetry or art, or consciousness, or so-called photographic memories, or any number of other poorly-understood neural activities and abilities.

In addition to "knowing" my whole life that of course I was a synesthete and unaware that most others were not, and then finding there was a name for it and that it was rare but not extremely rare to have one of the five types of (currently) recognized synethesis, I have read into the phenomenon now at some depth (the process is ongoing) and have realized I have what is called 5-fold synesthesia - a 'blending' (or muddling) of all 5 senses, although to varying degrees.

Supposedly this is extremely rare, and by some (idiots, apparently) doubted to exist at all, yet synesthesia itself is genetically inherited, so I am starting to wonder who else in my family, especially in my direct line of ancestry, has synesthesia of one or more of the 'five forms' (I stress that these are defined by modern researchers and the definition and categorization of the entire phenomenon is ongoing and changing rapidly), or indeed, if anyone that I know or have ever known has this kind of sensory linkage across all 5 senses as I most certainly do.

It's exciting in a way to see science beginning to affirm things you always knew about yourself and begin to explain some of the reasons you always felt so different, had trouble identifying with others, why you're seemingly creative and see things in unique ways outside the norm (that tired old 'outside-the-box' cliche, only for me it's quite often more like 'outside-the-world' thinking/sensing).

On the other hand it does tend to reinforce the differences between one and "normal society," feelings which have long been a source of insecurity and withdrawal from that society. I suspect many who are perceived as different from the crowd (or who perceive themselves that way) feel this dual joy and insecurity. I feel it could be linked strongly to depression and abiding angst, taking away some of the comfort of belonging (the group mentality which humans have evolved) even as it bestows unique artistic talents and intellectual insights.

In other words, it's the "bipolar genius" quandary and argument all over again, which psychologists and psychiatrists have long had a good time associating with tragic artists like Van Gogh, Boltzmann, Plath, and hundreds of other notable geniuses in history who paid the price for their powers with crippling mood disorders. And that indeed, one would not exist without the other. Is the same true for synesthetes? Are all of these phenomena in fact part of the same ball of wax, the same package deal?

Metamatician said...


I really don't know. I suspect that that is indeed the case, but more research obviously needs to be done. In the meantime I will continue to live, as Oliver Sacks once put it, "like an anthropologist on Mars" and simply do what I do and live in the only way I know how. Like Feynman, I wonder what in the hell other people's conscious experiences and dreams are like if they're NOT like mine. That is as strange a thought to me as this whole sense-blending idea probably is to a majority of non-synesthetes.

As always I would be extremely interested in your own experiences with synesthesis, if you've any to share. It's a fascinating subject, probably to people in general (I would think it would be), and it certainly is to me. Just how rare are complete 5-fold synesthetes? The answer seems to be: "almost unknown," given my first pass at looking for examples. An unnamed patient of the famous Alexander Luria (qv) supposedly had this condition and used it to great effect in remembering an extraordinary volume of information, inspiring Luria's 1968 book The Mnemonist. I suspect it's not as vanishingly rare as my lack of search results would indicate; it's probably one of those cases where it's not been systematically looked for or identified, and possibly because there is always some stigma associated with being different, has been kept quiet about by those blessed/cursed by it. Synesthesia is also more prevalent statistically in those with schizophrenia and autism, though the casual arrow, if any exists, is not yet known, and it's certainly not the case that these traits always or even usually come as a package. But it could add to the stigma of identifying oneself as any of the three.

I really don't know, but I'm curious to know more. And a bit frightened, for some reason.

Again, do you have any thoughts or insights or anecdotes on this phenomena? Please speak up!

Metamatician said...

Since writing the above comments, I found a test battery for some types of synesthesia, namely association of color with an array of "things" - in this case the tests measured numbers & letter, weekdays, months, piano notes, musical chords, and musical instruments. I dunno whether there are other tests available on the site yet or not, I'll check back soon. I wanted to share my test results so people don't think I'm crazy. Also, feel free to sign in and give it a try yourself, it's private and anonymous, and who knows, you may be a synesthete in some area and not know it!

According to:

Types of Synesthesia you have:
[derives from questionnaire, so not too significant]

* Numbers->Color
* Letters->Color
* Weekdays->Color
* Months->Color
* Musical Pitch->Color
* Musical Chords->Color
* Musical Instruments->Color
* Taste->Color
* Smell->Color
* Pain->Color
* Personalities->Color
* Temperature->Color
* Emotion->Color

Grapheme Color Picker Test: 0.11*
Speed-Congruency Test: Accuracy - 96.55%, Mean Reaction Time: 1.303 seconds **
Weekday Color Picker Test: 0.36*
Month Color Picker Test: 0.34*
Piano Scale Color Picker Test: 0.20*
Chord Color Picket Test: 0.67*
Instrument Color Picker Test: 0.472*

* In this battery, a score below 1.0 is ranked as synesthetic. Non-synethetes asked to use memory or free association typically score in the range of a 2.0. A perfect score of 0.0 would mean that there was no difference in the colors selected on each successive presentation of the same letter. For more information on the Synesthesia Battery and the details of how it is scored, please refer to David M. Eagleman, Arielle D. Kagan, Stephanie S. Nelson, Deepak Sagaram, Anand K. Sarma. A standardized test battery for the study of Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 2007 Jan 15;159(1):139-145.

** An accuracy percentage of right answers in the range of 85-100 typically indicates synesthetic association between the graphemes and colors. Those below 85% typically rule out synesthesia.


So now I have a series of objective tests telling me what I already knew. I qualified as synesthetic on every test it offered me, a total of about 45-50 minutes worth of testing.

I suppose there might be more rigid personally-administered tests, like IQ tests, but I don't see the point really, as like I've said, *I* know what I see and don't see, feel and don't feel. I don't need any more confirmation of something I know is undeniably true about the way my brain is wired up. It's wired oddly, but perhaps that explains some of the odd things about me.

I should have gone into neurology, except then I'd probably end up being tested like a rat rather than doing the testing :-|

Maybe I'll take all these comments and make a separate blog post about it. I didn't mean to get this deep into the whole thing but you know how it goes when you get intrigued by something. Thanks for reading, if you've made it all the way!

empath said...

I don't have synesthesia at all. I'm curious about your Dad's side, so I hope you ask them all.

empath said...

I think it's very interesting, though I can imagine it might seem a bit scary or a lot scary at first. As long as you can get along in the world with non-syns, then I hope you believe that's it's like an added dimension, rather than something to be worried about (I don't believe you are though at this point, knowing it's not just you). You have an incredible memory and wealth of knowledge that is fascinating!!

Metamatician said...

Yeah, I think I will ask them, get to the bottom of this!

Thanks for the encouragement. I think like most things it's what you make of it, rather than having any intrinsic value of its own. And like you said, not being unique in this way helps. It also helps that I'm not religious and don't think I've been either chosen or cursed.

It does help explain a lot of what's been my life, and I'm ok with that now. If someone offered to take it away I would never agree to it, because I don't know what it's like not to have these extra or blended senses. Whatever the advantage or disadvantage, it's how I was born and a part of who I am and I have to work with that.

I'm not afraid of being different anymore, nor proud of it either. Both those conflicting feelings are fading. People are just what they do with themselves, not what they start with, so I want to be a good person and make the most with what I have.

Thanks for being interesting in the subject =) I think it's interesting myself, I want to learn even more about it.

Mandula said...

I know a girl who sees the letters in different colours (im not sure about the numbers).

You too? :) How does it appear for you? Sorry if you wrote it already, it is hard for me to read looooong english texts... ;)

Metamatician said...

Well, since you're Hungarian, I'll forgive you.

Yes, I do. I've done my whole life - numbers and letters, but also concepts like days of the week and months, seasons, people's names, their personalities, animals, countries, tastes, sounds... really, almost anything you can think of.

It's a bit odd I suppose. But of course, I don't have any idea what it's like NOT to be that way, so you all seem like the odd ones to me ;-)

It's an interesting neurological phenomenon and possibly helps explain why I have that impulse or ability to be creative and imaginative - it's not that others can't be just as imaginative, but maybe it's easier for people whose senses get mixed together?

I'd like to read a lot more on the subject. I'm curious - how long has your friend known she did this? All her life? Was she aware that most other people did not? For me, I only found out later in life that most people did not associate colors (and to a lesser degree, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells), with material things and concepts. It always seemed like just a part of life to me.

Metamatician said...

To make a simple example of the creative part to this - let's say there's a poet who writes,

Their faces leered at me in ochers and greens;
And the clap of thunder in their eyes charged me to flee.
The raven on the wing was me.

Ok, this is something I just made up on the spot, but notice the mixed sensory information. People don't REALLY have ocher or green faces (usually), nor does their stare actually "sound" like a clap of thunder; neither are people birds.

These are metaphors which convey an emotional or impressionistic sense that the protagonist of the poem feels. Yet many people cannot or do not think this way when it comes to writing. They recognize (perhaps) the power of such an unusual description, but they probably couldn't come up with something similarly striking and economic themselves. Instead they may attempt to describe the scary people in the poem more literally, and the power would be lost.

This is what I mean about synesthetes almost certainly having an advantage in poetry, painting, or anything where unorthodoxy is a good thing. It didn't take me any longer to come up with that example than the speed at which I normally type; at which I'm typing now. I see the faces in my mind, imagine the arctic breath and the thin, fishy eyes gathering about, and I can smell, taste, hear, touch, and see them in a complete way.

From that point, having put myself into a situation which has taken on a complex sensory milieu, it's very easy to write down my impressions. I'm not stretching to find "unorthodox metaphors" so I can be "artistic". I some profound sense, it's the way I really do experience the event, or the thought of the event.

That's not to say it makes being a poet or other type of artist simple. There's a craft to it, obviously. But I think it's a big advantage. I think people like Munch and Van Gogh MUST have had this condition, as well as Sylvia Plath and Shakespeare, to mention only a few example out of hundreds. There's almost no way to account for their startlingly original metaphors otherwise, in my opinion. Of course I don't know for sure.

The funny thing is, the sensation is just as strong with me in music - I apparently have perfect pitch or very close to it (not singing, unfortunately, but in recognizing notes - I can spot notes that are only 1/100th part higher or lower than another note. It pokes my eardrums and makes me feel deflated, or uneasy. This probably explains my intense love of music, which to me are the companion of words (with all their musicality). I may not be trained to produce great music (that takes a lot of old-fashioned practice), but I know a brilliant piece when I hear it, and I know rubbish when I hear it. And I mean beyond just taste. I don't care for country music. But I can tell that some musicians are truly talented and have perfect pitch or near to it, while others are "cheating". This stands out like a giant black bat across the sky blocking out the sun.

I guess my point is that while anyone with sufficient dedication than LEARN to be great at most forms of art, or at least quite good, it's almost as though synesthetes are cheating because they have such as more finely-tuned ear/eye/mind as to what is harmonically pleasing across multiple senses, not just one. And the true maestros of art have always exhibited just this tendency to convey their message or impression in more ways than one, to involve you sight, sound, smell, and so on in their work.

In this respect I'm extremely fortunate to have been born with this ability. It does have it's downsides, but I won't go into them here.

Thanks again for the interest - and sorry again for the long answer. o.O

I hope it is at least clear.

Metamatician said...

I apologize for the typos and other mistakes in the above comments. I type pretty fast, and don't double-check my writing the way I should. Bad me. :slaps fingers:

Magdalene said...

When I have time, I'll check out the test questionnaire you found, though I believe I may have done something similar before.

I know I have synesthesia to a certain extent, such as numbers and days of the week have always had certain colours. Friday for example is red. I also remember being unwell in hospital as a child, and my mother coming to visit me wearing a new brooch on her coat. It was a silver circle of leaves with a pink and blue glass stone in it. I couldn't look at it as the colour combination caused extreme nausea and even now when I see a piece of jewellery that resembles it, I feel sick. At around that time, I was also learning to crochet, which I had to abandon for many years as the feel of the crochet hook and the wool round my fingers caused nausea.

I also had the odd experience once of eating a cheese sandwich that I'd put too much pepper in and the kind of hot dusty sensation of the pepper in my mouth triggering what felt like an LSD flahback. Really freaky and unpleasant.

Anyway, must just go and turn the radio down, it's making my living room smell of pizza. Just joking! :-)

Metamatician said...

Haha on the last line.

Sounds like you have synesthesia, dear. What's interesting is Fridays are most certainly red for me too.

It's interesting that you've have multisensory experiences, involving gastronomy and so forth, that is much rarer that colour-association.

I'd say you were one of the pack. We should talk about it more sometime, maybe how it's influenced out lives? I dunno, it seems suddenly like something I want to (cautiously) share after years of keeping it under wraps for fear of being though of as weird, or prior to that out of sheer ignorance.

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Magdalene said...

Weird is fine! :) x

Metamatician said...

I know that now. As a preteen or somewhere around there, it's not as fine. :)

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