Thursday, April 3, 2014

Synaesthesia Problems

My name is Avalon, and I have synaesthesia

For those of you who, like me until I was, like, 22, have no idea what synaesthesia is, here's the rundown: During the early stages of childhood development, the brain undergoes a pruning process, wherein the synapses and more unused connections in the brain are severed from one another to make room for all those other things you have to learn now, like language and how to use a toilet. In synaesthetes, though, that pruning process skips some steps, so some areas in our brains, particularly involving the gathering and analyzing of sensory information, are a little more connected than they should be. The most common manifestations of synaesthesia are lexical and numerical, wherein the synaesthete perceives letters, numbers, words, and/or names as being inherently colored, no matter how they actually appear.

But there are myriad forms of synaesthesia, in varying degrees of severity and life impact, and most synaesthetes have multiple kinds. I don't have lexical-numeral synaesthesia, but I do have what's commonly called sound-color synaesthesia, as well as what some refer to as "aura" synaesthesia, but which is more accurately referred to as "emotion-color" synaesthesia. This means that, for me, every sound is overlaid with a sort of cloud of color and texture that's really difficult to describe, and also that I perceive peoples' expressions and body language as inherently colored. Days of the week, months, and certain activities also have hues in my head, so if I don't keep my planner carefully color-coordinated it feels like it's lying to me, a bit. 

Now, the thing about synaesthetes is that most of us don't realize we perceive the world any differently from anyone else until adulthood, if even then. Because here's the thing about most synaesthetes: they tend to assume throughout their youths that everybody sees the same way they do, so they never bring up the wild sensory experiences they have, because they think everybody else has them, too. It reminds me of when I was very young and my parents realized that I needed glasses, and when I finally put on my first pair of bifocals at age 7, I realized that I could see individual leaves on trees. I hadn't realized until that moment that trees were more than blobs of hazy green and brown, and the revelation that other people saw leaves on those trees was completely mind-blowing. It wasn't something I'd ever thought about before, and so I'd never talked about it. Likewise, naturally assuming that everyone experiences music through sheaves and mists of color meant that I never brought it up, because I thought it was as normal and unaccountable as my taste in books or food. 

So in my junior year of college, as I was sitting in the back of my evolutionary biology class, and my professor mentioned that a small percentage of people have a genetic mutation which means they see colors as they hear sounds, my mind skipped a beat. Wait, I thought. Wait, wait, wait. Sound as color. I see that thing. That's a thing I see. Does not everybody see that? Wait. What? I think I successfully derailed the rest of that class with really poorly-formed questions about what that experience was like, and when the class ended, I went immediately to the professor's office. Turns out, he has lexical-numerial synaesthesia, and was happy to talk me through what synaesthesia was and how it worked. In the end, I got to do my thesis project on syneasthesia and its evolutionary benefits, which was pretty cool. 

In the years since I discovered that I perceive the world differently from other people on a very foundational level, I've learned a lot about how synaesthesia impacts my daily life. As a teacher, I have lots of opportunities to use my synaesthesia to my advantage – like recognizing students' voices when my back is turned. I'm sure that everybody does this, is able to identify who is speaking even when you're not looking, but synaesthesia means that I understand this process through color. Frequently, I'll be sitting at my desk or helping another student, and I'll have to call out someone on the other side of the room for being off-task or speaking inappropriately. Yesterday, I did just this, and the student I called out became upset and spat, "How do you always know it's me??" and I wanted to answer, "Because your voice is rust-colored and cloudy," but that's not a thing that normal people say, apparently, so I just pretend I'm magic. It's been a pretty helpful trait. 

I keep a couple of calendars in my classroom, which I update every day. The markers and chalk that I use to maintain the calendars has a nasty habit of disappearing, and the increasingly limited color choices are frustrating to me, synaesthetically-speaking, because dammit, guys, April is beige and I don't have any beige chalk and the closest I can come is this weird lavender color and it's not quite right and this is really stressful even though it shouldn't be and I just really need to reconcile the color the month is written in with the color it is in my head okay. I work needlessly hard to keep my calendars and planners in the appropriately color stories for each month and day of the week. Mondays are red and that's just how it is, and Thursdays are taupe and that makes them better than Mondays, and 2007 is a deep crimson, and that's how I understand the passing of time. 

The sound-color synaesthesia is by far the most significant form of the disorder that I experience, though. ("Disorder," as my professor once noted, is such a nasty term to describe synaesthesia, though that's technically what it is; I find "mutation" or "neurological misstep" to be so much more fair.) I listen to music that looks pretty to me, and because every music-color synaesthete experiences their sensory crossover differently, that means we get into some pretty lively (read: vitriolic) online discussions about what songs look like what, or how instruments sound/look, etc. Every song, to me, is a blend of color and texture and movement and action, so every bar is different from the last and instruments can take on different hues depending on how they're used. So when I listen to Bon Iver, I experience mostly icy blue, with gray and white and black and burgundy and brown lines and stars and bursts. I listen to Bon Iver a lot. Coldplay is white and green and sky blue and tawny. Piano music is less color and more texture, staircases and impact bursts of light. Cellos are gold. Always, lines of rushing gold. This means that the music I play in my classroom is composed of patterns and colors which sooth me and may or may not sooth my students, like the XX or Morcheeba. It also means that I find Skrillex and bounce music (a genre of horror-noise specific to New Orleans) basely intolerable. 

Many synaesthetes experience, at one time or another, what's called "sensory overload," where, because they're tired or stressed or overstimulated or otherwise distressed, their synaesthetic experiences overwhelm their ability to access and understand stimuli. It can create awful headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, irritability, and can sometimes be crippling. I have never been brought to my knees by sensory overload, but I know synaesthetes who have, and it's rough. I come close to being overwhelmed by the "aura" synaesthesia in big crowds when I'm already really close to my emotional thresholds, and I despise the bar scene. It's too loud, too dark, too crowded, too pulsing and gray and ashy and it's just too much. This means, ultimately, that I don't go to many work socials, because I know I'm going to become irritable and withdrawn and unhappy, and won't be good company at all. 

I love live music, though. My first year teaching, a friend and I went to a Death Cab for Cutie concert here in New Orleans, and I freaking lost it. I started just openly weeping because Transatlanticism was just...amazing. I saw it in a way I didn't on their album, all sweeping wings of color and light and I couldn't handle it. Certain other songs always make me cry if I don't consciously turn down the synaesthetic experience by focusing on something else, too: some songs draw me in and capture me in golds and blues and bursts, and I cry for no other reason than just that it's an incredible thing to experience. The "When You Believe" song from The Prince of Egypt is like that.

The emotion-color vein of synaesthesia heavily influences how I perceive and relate to other people. Again, I'm sure that synaesthesia here is just morphing how I understand other humans into a world of color and texture, because that's how my brain do, but everybody has those flash instincts about others in the first moments after meeting them. Sometimes we meet someone new and they intrigue us, or they strike us as contagiously happy, or as creepy and awful and not someone we want to be around. For me, those same instincts just appear in a spectrum: a fascinating person might be blue, or green, or yellow (though I find I tend to have trouble getting along with yellows), and a happy person might be purple or pink or white, and a creeper might be red or black. Sometimes, I'll encounter a person and my whole brain will go NOPE because he's just a spatter of blood-colored stain and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Is there any validity to these random flash analyses? Maybe, maybe not. But they're never steered me wrong so far.

I love having synaesthesia. It means that I can drown my world in music and close my eyes and just be saturated in the sound. It also means that I can't let my students write in pencil, because I cannot stand the horrible shrieking gray noise the graphite makes on paper. It means I sometimes weep at concerts, and that I hate dive bars. But what I find most interesting about it is when others ask me what it's like, because, invariably, they make me think of something that I didn't know was specific to my synaesthesia. They might ask what it means when I "see" sound, and then I'll flounder for descriptions for a solid eight minutes, because I don't know words for how I experience it. It's like English is a step behind what syneasthetic experiences demand of a language, and without the words to describe it, I can't adequately vocalize it because I don't really understand it. It's the same when people ask me what color they "are," because it's not ever a solid, stagnant, frozen thing. My dad is orange-brown-earth-white-sunlight-fire shades, but since the colors are always moving and shaping and changing, it's impossible to name or settle on one shade. Mom is green-white-blue-brown-silver, and I can't describe it well enough because I literally just don't know what words I could use. I don't think they exist. Language is restricting and the words we know shape our thoughts; I wonder if bees or cuttlefish or mantis shrimp, who see in exponentially more spectrums than we, could name them. If they could talk, I guess. And if the shrimp would stop hitting stuff for a while.  

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