The unknown can sometimes be frightening. Fear of the
unknown can sometimes be even more frightening.
In 1997, I presented a paper at the SSA conference titled "Ones Own Brain as
Trickster" (Day 1998), in which I briefly explored ideas surrounding synesthesia and
the human brain playing "tricks" upon oneself and ones perceptions. In
that previous paper, I explored how Trickster might come in as one tries to define
ones "self". This time around, Im looking more at how Trickster
might pop up in issues of how ones brain is physiologically put together, and/or how
it might reconstruct itself over time, and the extent to which we operate upon the
premises that our perceptions contain realities or, taking it further, reflect the
Synesthesia is the general name for two related sets (or "complexes") of
cognitive states (see Baron-Cohen & Harrison 1997; Cytowic 1989, 1993; Grossenbacher
& Lovelace 2001, and Day 2001). In the first set, "synesthesia proper",
stimuli to one sense, such as smell, are involuntarily simultaneously perceived as if by
one or more other, additional senses, such as sight and/or hearing. I myself, for example,
have two types from this set of synesthesiae: The sounds of musical instruments will make
me see certain colors, each color specific and consistent with the particular instrument
playing. I also have colored taste sensations; for example, the taste of espresso coffee
can make me see a pool of dark green oily fluid about four feet away from me.
With the second form of synesthesia, which I call "cognitive" or
"category synesthesia", certain sets of things which our individual cultures
teach us to put together and categorize in some specific way like letters, numbers,
or people's names also get some kind of sensory addition, such as a smell, color or
flavor. The most common forms of cognitive synesthesia involve such things as colored
written letter characters (graphemes), numbers, time units, and musical notes or keys. For
example, the synesthete might see, about a foot or two before her (the majority of
synesthetes are female), different colors for different spoken vowel and consonant sounds,
or perceive numbers and letters, whether conceptualized or before her in print, as
colored. A friend of mine, Deborah, always perceives the letter "a" as pink,
"b" as blue, and "c" as green, no matter what color of ink they are
printed with. Synesthesia has definite neurological components and is apparently partially
heritable, one component perhaps passed down genetically on X-chromosomes.
Synesthesia is currently quite unknown amongst the general population of medical
practitioners worldwide. It is recognized by the American Medical Association and the
American Psychological Association, and an acknowledged American Synesthesia Association
now exists. One of the current leading neuro-psychologists in the world, Vilayanur
Ramachandran, does research on synesthesia as one of his main "hobby" interests
(see Ramachandran & Hubbard 2001). Nevertheless, an adolescent of, say, thirteen years
old, reporting aspects of synesthesia to her parents, teachers, and, eventually, family
doctors and then various medical and psychiatric specialists, will probably be diagnosed
as schizophrenic or just "crazy" in most places in the world today
including the United States and Canada even though the AMA and APA both proclaim
synesthesia to be totally benign.
Knowing this, many synesthetes thus keep their synesthesia a secret. This, in essence,
basically means (perhaps especially in regard to the synesthesiae "proper")
denying how they have perceived the world all of their lives (or at least since about age
four or five, when synesthesia begins to firmly manifest itself), and pretending that one
or more of their modes of perception work differently. Lets put this into a kind of
perspective: imagine being sighted, with "normal" visual abilities and
perceptions of sensations, and being forced and pressured by those people and situations
around you to try to pass for blind. This has some similarities to such things as being
homosexual and "keeping it in the closet". Many synesthetes use such a
comparison themselves, and have even adopted such phrases as "closet synesthete"
and "coming out to my family". However, at least as many also describe their
situation as being akin to being an extra-terrestrial, non-human alien or, perhaps,
an animal such as a bat trying to pass for "human". Frequently, there
exists the fear of ridicule by "normals". Far worst, however, is the fear of
being misdiagnosed and one way or another "trapped" by doctors and parents who
wish to attempt a "cure".
One of my synesthete friends wrote to me the following:
In his book The Man Who Tasted Shapes [Cytowic 1993], Dr.
Cytowic talks about the tendency of the medical community (in the U.S., at least) to
reject patients' claims related to synesthesia. I read it about 5 years ago, but as I
recall it, the training that medical students receive (esp. since the 1940s or so) gives
credence only to symptoms which can be objectively observed by the physician.
Fundamentally subjective experiences (such as self-reporting of cross-sense experiences by
synesthetes) tend to be discounted or rejected.
I can say that almost no one in the psychology/psychiatry profession with whom I have
spoken has ever heard of synesthesia until recently, since synesthesia has received
more attention in the press. One psychiatrist (quite young, I might add) had never heard
of it before, and recommended that I have an MRI done to be sure there wasn't some kind of
injury to my brain! I had to explain (emphatically) that synesthesia wasn't just some
delusion I was experiencing, but rather a documented phenomenon.
It's kind of ironic that, of all people, doctors (and psychiatrists and psychologists
in particular) should be the most incredulous.
Another synesthete friend, whose adolescent daughter is also a synesthete, wrote to me,
I've always been pretty open about sharing syn[esthesia] with others. Maybe
because I find it so fascinating and feel it is a gift rather than a disorder. Most people
have been interested and non-judgmental. Only two occasions have been met with hesitation
and those were both by professionals who I assumed would be more open to variations from
the norm than the general public. One was a professional counselor who gave me a look like
I should be locked up and that ended the conversation. The second was my daughter's school
teacher. My daughter is a syn[esthete] and I thought her teacher would find it
interesting to learn about a different way that students may process information. She was
open to the discussion but indicated she thought it was a very isolated instance and
referred to it as a dysfunction rather than a gift. Even though my daughter is a gifted
student. She told me later that she had spoken with her sister a psychologist
who had heard of it but suggested that it would need to be "diagnosed".
That word scares me. We haven't discussed it since.
Yet another synesthete who works in a laboratory with researchers studying
Mostly, I am just curious, but I'm considering being a little more open about my
synesthesia. For the record, I've told my immediate family (my mother is a synesthete),
about 4 close friends, and my coworkers at my summer job, since I work in a perception lab
and my synesthesia could impact how I perform on certain perceptual tests. I've told a
couple of professors (in the fields of psychology and neurology) and have to admit that
I've gotten the strangest reactions from them. One thought I was a savant, and the other
tried to offer his condolences for "my condition." (I got a laugh out of that
one later.) It's this type of reaction that keeps me silent.
All three of these letters came from women in the United States. Far more serious was a
series of e-mail letters I received about four years ago, when I first moved to Taiwan.
The writer was from Ontario, Canada, the aunt of a synesthete teenager who, apparently,
had only the most common form of "category" synesthesia, colored letters and
numbers. Upon revealing to his parents and teachers that "letters have colors",
the boys mother proceeded to take him to a round of psychologists and psychiatrists,
all of whom could find no definite explanation, and most of whom resorted to a diagnosis
of "schizophrenia". The mother, who determined that "something must be
done", decided that her son must be institutionalized in a psychiatric clinic,
"for his own good", until a cure could be found; the family doctor and a set of
specialists concurred. The aunt, who had heard about synesthesia on a radio talk-show
about six months before, was writing to me in desperation, one week before her nephew was
to be institutionalized, begging me to provide her with references to literature about
synesthesia which she could acquire and hand over to the boys mother and doctors. I
rushed to do so. The last message I received from the aunt gave indication that the boy
had, nevertheless, been locked away for at least three years and perhaps indefinitely.
Unfortunately, this is by no means an isolated incidence. In the past four years, I
have also received urgent e-mail messages from synesthetes in Chile, Peru, and Italy. In
each of these cases, the synesthete had sought out doctors to get more information about
their synesthesia, only to get caught in a complex web where one or more doctors, plus
various family members, wanted to institutionalize them, or at least perform a series of
quite potentially harmful tests involving drugs. With the Peruvian and Italian cases, the
synesthetes eventually got away from the doctors and family members, and, last I heard,
are no longer being pressured (or threatened) regarding institutionalization. I dont
know what happened with the Chilean; I fear the worst.
Beginning about three years ago, I corresponded for almost a year via e-mail with a
Canadian teenage girl (presumably from Toronto), whose parents had immigrated from India a
few years prior to that time, and who was, at the time, a runaway living in the southern
United States. Throughout the course of our correspondences, she kept herself anonymous,
and moved from town to town about every three weeks. More than once, she told me that a
main reason she had run away was that her father used to beat her severely every time she
had mentioned any type of synesthetic experience (she only had the most common type,
colored letters and numbers, but to an extremely strong degree). She claimed that her
parents had taken her to numerous doctors in Canada and the U.S., virtually all of whom
had suggested major psychiatric treatment, and many of whom had suggested
institutionalization. She also told me that she was strictly forbidden to mention her
colored letters in any way to any other people besides doctors, and was often locked up in
her room and denied contact with any other people besides her immediate family. When I
last heard from her, she was still roaming the southern U.S., had determined never to
return to her parents, and had gotten a job (she wouldnt reveal where) as an artist
she based her artwork off of various things she "saw" synesthetically.
While speaking with a bunch of psychologists at a hospital in Taipei during a
colloquium, I heard from a group who had recently been in Japan about the case of a
Japanese girl, age somewhere between ten and fifteen, who had "colored music"
synesthesia similar to my own. Just that; nothing else. Her parents had just within the
past three months signed papers to institutionalize her for life; this included being
placed in a "padded cell" type of "security" room, being strapped down
whenever it was considered "necessary", a full regime of drug treatment usually
used upon the severely schizophrenic, and frequent heavy sedation. There was no
statement whatsoever from any doctor as to a "diagnosis" of what the girl was
"suffering" from; only statements that "treatment" was needed. The
doctors I spoke with told me that they knew of at least two other similar cases, another
teenage girl and a young boy.
Semiotics, among other things, attempts to explore how concepts are given meanings, and
how those meanings interact, evolve and operate. Many of those meanings are based, in
part, upon our perceptions. Which implies that our ideas about the world around us (our Umwelt),
the thoughts we derive from our perceptions, and the meanings we give to these thoughts
(thus creating new thoughts and elaborations) are influenced by the structures and
functioning of our bodies our "mind", which, while perhaps in many
regards, is mainly the brain, may be said to be housed and shaped throughout the entire
body. Yet our minds differ, and our brains as well as other parts of our bodies remain
"plastic" throughout our lives, constantly often rapidly breaking
down neuronal connections and "re-wiring" themselves into new connection
networks (see Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998; Gazzaniga 2000). However, how does this
interplay with Cartesian notions of the separation of "body" from
"mind" (see Baer 1988: 70-76)? We explore Trickster, in part, to look at plays
on meaning, hidden meanings, multiple meanings, surprises and dangers in the layers upon
layers of meaning, and alternate realities. Here, we are also looking at semiotics through
Trickster to consider the enforcement of one reality at the cost of the denial of
Ramachandran compares certain aspects of synesthesia to one of his main interests,
phantom limbs (see Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998; see also Sacks 1985). With a phantom
limb, although, in one "reality", the limb say, a hand and lower arm
is not there, nevertheless, in another "reality", there are perceptions
of different touches, cold, heat, and pain to the hand and arm. The phantom limb may not
be seen, but it is felt and thus perceived. As Ramachandran discovered (Ramachandran &
Rogers-Ramachandran 1996), this is not a hallucination or delusion upon the part of the
amputee; rather, the amputees brain has re-wired itself, usually within only three
weeks and sometimes as fast as one or two days after the amputation. What
happens is that the amputees body receives stimuli to some certain specific part of
the body in the case of an amputated hand, it would most likely be the lower face,
ipsilateral (on the same side) and perceives touch, heat, cold and pain not only
upon the face but also upon the no-longer-existing phantom hand. There is real stimuli to
the face, and there is real perception at the phantom hand; but there is no hand, nor
stimuli to the hand. Likewise, with my colored music synesthesia, there is real stimuli to
the ear, and real perception of color; however, there is no concordant visual stimuli to
Now, what makes this more unusual is that, in actuality, this phantom limb wiring
itself is not an "abnormality" per se. Apparently, we all have such
wiring; thus, touches to our face also trigger sensations to our hands. However, we also
have other feedback mechanisms resulting in inhibiting these perceptions so that
they are ignored. That is, when touched on the face, our minds perceive two different
areas of perception, and the brain picks one over the other. Such inhibitory mechanisms
are not in the least unusual; conflicts and inhibitory mechanisms are going on with such
basic things as recognizing you are viewing things in a mirror.
In my previous paper, I stated that ones reality is based, in part, upon
ones acceptance of evidence to build "truths".
That there is ample evidence does not, in of itself, imply that a person must or will
declare something as truth or existent. One can ignore or deny the evidence, or be
oblivious to it, or declare it to be "lies" and thus process it in that form.
"Truth" must be accepted as "truth", at some point, before further
processing. Before that, it must at least be considered and accepted as "potential
truth". [. . ..]
The mind attempts to use logic to try to make sense of past experiences and predict
future ones. In doing this, it may (or may not) learn from trial and error what are the
useful rules of logic and what aren't. Realities are based upon these logic conclusions.
If the logic is faulty, the reality may, nevertheless, still exist. Different operable
logics will produce different (mutually agreeable or contradictive) realities. A logic
system does not have to be inheritably "correct" to be operable, and humans can
and do regularly operate within acknowledged contradictions (Day 1998: 162-163).
A question then emerges: What does the synesthete who is aware that, for example, the
rest of the world does not see colors when hearing music, think about the
"reality" of synesthetic perceptions? Most synesthetes that I correspond with
tell me that they basically work along lines of "two (simultaneous) realities",
"other peoples reality" and "my reality". The concept of having
multiple realities does not seem to bother them. Similarly, Ramachandran (Ramachandran and
Blakeslee 1998) reports that amputees with phantom limbs tend to eventually start
operating with two simultaneous realities, "the phantom limb does exist and is
still there", and "the limb does not exist and is not there".
However, unlike with synesthetes, most all amputees with phantom limbs cannot reconcile
their two realities.
We, as humans, have a tendency to want to categorize things. When encountering
something new, we will try to place it into one or more categories, and are far more apt
to go with pre-established categories than to invent new ones. Not only do we have a
general fear of the unknown, we also have a general avoidance of allowing a thing to
remain wholly an unknown. One of our most common dimensions for attaching labels involves
assessing the danger of something and thus declaring something "good" or
"bad", "desired" or "dangerous".
In a sense, there is nothing new here. This is yet just another twist on the age-old
question of the values we place upon our perceptions in attempting to define
"reality". It might, however, be of interest to you to hear that the quite
larger majority of "colored music" synesthetes I have corresponded with over the
years were firmly convinced that everybody perceived music as colored; most of them
were not shaken from this belief until well over the age of twenty. Last May 19th,
the first annual meeting of the American Synesthesia Association was held at Princeton
University. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend it myself. However, I received quite a
lot of mail directly after the event. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the things
that most attendees mentioned was the coffee breaks between the paper and presentation
sessions. Virtually every message I received, from synesthete and non-synesthete alike,
mentioned how the synesthetes around the coffee and cookies were happily proclaiming,
"Finally, I feel justified! After all these years, I finally feel like my way of
seeing the world is just as good is also real!"
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