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What Synaesthesia Can Tell Us About The Way We Think

It is Saturday March 31st 2001. John Howard is still the Prime Minister of Australia, Wikipedia makes it first online appearance and Harry Potter is yet to debut in Australia cinemas.Whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, Margie undergoes her weekly routine of coffee, biscuits and her analog radio tuned into ABC ‘Radio National’s Science Show. But this was no usual weekly routine for Margie; tonight’s episode is to change eighty years of silenced perspectives into clear, collective validation.

Tonight, presenter Robyn Williams speaks to professor Anina Rich about an unusual phenomena known as Synaesthesia. Anina begins to discuss the psychological condition that allows people to hear colours, see sounds, visualize concepts or simply have a sensory reaction when exposed to certain stimulus.

Neither a burden nor point of weakness for those diagnosed, in 2001 this condition is unfamiliar to most people. Margie, however, was astounded. As the program continues with familiar stories of synaesthetes, Margie picks up the phone to break 60 years of silence and call Associate Professor, Anina Rich.

Overwhelmed with relief and excitement, Margie begins to explain to Anina how she tried to express her Synaesthesia tendencies to her mother, at the age of ten. She would describe the colours of the alphabet, or point to the green lady down the road, only for her mother to reply “Don’t speak like that, that’s mad talk. They’ll send you away”.

Margie discovered that day, that contrary to the populace opinions of the early 1940s, having Synaesthesia was nothing to be ashamed off; she is part of the 0.05-4% of the population that experience Synaesthesia.

While Anina and Margie only interacted on the phone that day, Anina describes the experience as “one of the most amazing experiences she has seen during her PHD”. A key contributor to her current research, what can the general population learn from synaesthetic brains?

Now in 2016, the word Synaesthesia can be used in a sentence with out too many people raising an eyebrow. Popular artists such as Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga and Frank Ocean have openly spoken about their auditory- visual Synaesthesia within creative communities and brought it into the media spotlight.

Most people with Synaesthesia (synaesthetes) still cannot imagine a life without it; some even hold immense fear over losing their synaesthetic abilities. For most of us however, the thought of visualising concepts, ideas, or music is still as foreign to us as life on Mars. In fact, we share exactly the same brain connectivity as synaesthetes.

Walking through the corridors of the hospital-like building, all I could catch was glimpses of other researchers through the small, square windows amongst endless rows of offices. It is evident that Anina’s research was unlike any of her colleagues; her vibrancy not only exacerbated by the direct contrast of dull, grey walls surrounding us, but visually evident when approaching the large painting pinned to her office door.

Sizing up to cover over a third of the surface area, was a psychedelic spiral of pinks, purples, blues and greens collectively mixed to create an animated mandala that appears to spiral uncontrollably. Vibrancies of spiraling colours continue from her door and permeate throughout the rest of her office.

“When talking about Synaesthesia, it is important to note that it isn’t a disorder…more a trait or condition” notes Anina. It makes sense, a disorder implies pain, discomfort, and a sense of disability, whereas Synaesthesia does not cause any detriment to those who show symptoms.

“Doesn’t Synaesthesia just sound like someone has dropped a tab or acid or found themselves as high as a kite?”

There are immense difficulties in defining such a subjective sensory experience that is so individually relevant. “The word Synaesthesia means ‘of the senses’ or union of the senses if you wish, but it is more used as an umbrella term to cover a situation where an ordinary stimulus evokes and extra-ordinary experience.”

There are three determining factors that specifically distinguish Synaesthesia as a trait: Consistent reactionary triggers (reactions are consistent over time and extremely specific), involuntary and automatic perception (reactions are automatic, naturally occurring and swift in nature) and finally, a required inducer (each reaction requires a particular stimulus, known as an inducer – this could be letters, numbers, music, names sounds or even a particular person).

Anina’s initial passionate undertone begins to move into systematic monotony as she speaks of the measurable steps to diagnosing Synaesthesia. These factors are measured through a combination of scientific strategies such as neuroimaging to identify varied levels of Synaesthesia and discover different discrepancies.

“I think that there’s possibly a sub-group of synaesthetes that we are missing in research, because we don’t really know how to deal with it”. For such an expansive condition its hard to confine it to a finite set of research criteria.

When I spoke to people it made me wonder whether brain altering substances can also create this kind of experience. My curiosity began at work, when my graveyard shift manager asked: “Doesn’t Synaesthesia just sound like someone has dropped a tab or acid or found themselves as high as a kite?”

Contrary to my initial rejection, Anina interpreted this thought as a valid assumption “People have speculated about that” she began “the thing is, that although it is similar on a broad level, if you look at the actual reports of people on LSD and Mescaline, it’s not systematic”.

While drug-induced experiences are largely sporadic and inconsistent, Synaesthesia experiences are very much tied to that particular stimulus. However, Anina does suggest that by looking at mind-altering substances we can “use it as evidence to show that synaesthetes use the same brain connections as non- synaesthetes”.

Hold up. “So you believe that we all inherently have the same cognitive processes, despite these extra-ordinary experiences of synaesthetes?” I ask.

Synaesthesia reminds us that perception and perspective are inherently subjective.

Anina doesn’t just study synaesthetes; she studies us all. She goes on to explain that in her research “We try and see what Synaesthesia can tell us about general cognition…I think it can give us some really interesting insight into how the brain works generally”.

Anina and her team at Macquarie have discovered that by researching these extreme sensory experiences of synaesthetes, we are also given exclusive windows of opportunity to see how regular brains integrate information and understand the world around us.

“Our knowledge really shapes what we are going to see,” Anina alludes to a commonly known visual illusion known as the ‘Spot the Dog’ “We have these great visual illusions, where you can’t see things at first… but when someone says there’s a dog in the middle of the field of dots, you can no longer NOT see it”

Amongst a sea of black and white dots printed on A4 sized paper, a little dog appears, only after Anina implicitly draws it to my attention. How did I not see this before?

“Your knowledge has shaped your perception” Anina explains “Even though your retinal information coming in is exactly the same as before. So by looking at the extremes of Synaesthesia, I guess, we are able to understand our internally generated linking of information, shapes and what we experience”.

Perception is what you interpret from your five individual senses and perspective is how you wish to understand and integrate this information; your individual point of view. The difference in synaesthetes is their perspective, neither more or less valid.

“Synaesthesia reminds us that perception and perspective are inherently subjective. I can never actually verify that what I see, is what you see. We can look at it, we can use language in which to compare, we can think we are seeing the same thing, but we can never truly confirm it… I may see the same thing as you, hear the same thing as you but our external experience of that is only ours.”

Think you may experience Synaesthesia? Get in touch with Anina here for more information.

Image source: Axis Residential Treatment 

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