Anatomy And Physiology

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Synesthesia: My Friend, the Synesthete



My best friend is also an author, but she has unusual abilities that not only make her an anomaly among writers, but an anomaly among humans.

First, she is a synesthete. Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. Some synesthetes will "taste" a sound. Some can "see" a sound. Others "taste" a word, or "smell" a word. A synesthete might also see certain shapes and objects and colors whenever they hear music. Various forms of Synesthesia have been known to occur in some individuals who have had seizures.

For those Synesthetes who receive visual images from touch, could this explain psychokinetic and/or clairvoyant skills? For those who see visual representations of sounds and words, could this explain uniquely vivid artistic renderings? Was Salvador Dali a Synesthete? Vincent Van Gogh?
These questions might never be answered, because it seems common that Synesthetes remain unaware that the way they process sensory input is any different than the average person; they are only aware of this unique brain condition when they actually have a conversation wherein they compare notes with others, or when they stumble across descriptions of the condition, and recognize themselves.

Synesthesia is not new; seemingly not a product of positive ions, artificial sweeteners or a depleted ozone layer. The scientific community has been aware of it for around 300 years. After a renewed interest in the mysteries of the human brain, Synesthesia has again become a topic of interest among neurobiologists, psychologists, and the scientific community, et al.

My best friend's Synesthesia manifests in a way that I feel is even unusual among other Synesthetes. At least, I've never heard of any of them who experience things the way she does. When she writes a novel, she is not writing out of her imagination, per se, but literally transcribing an ongoing "film" that plays in her field of vision. This visual representation exists a short distance in front of her, and is much like those Plexiglas strategy boards common on Navy submarines. The film "plays" there, but is transparent enough, that she can see through it to the other things that might be in her environment on the other side.

When she gets an idea for a novel, it appears in full cinematic form. This film is a complete production, start to finish, and she has to find a way to transcribe what she sees and hears and smells and feels onto the page. This is not a visualization in the standard sense. This film appears involuntarily. It's as if she puts a DVD in a player, watches it, and then writes about what is happening. It makes me wonder if there are any famous and respected movie directors who might be Synesthetes, after I am floored by their ability to visualize an entire film pre-production, and manifest that film into the final form for the rest of us to enjoy.

But this ability is often frustrating to my friend on many levels. She can pause this film, rewind it, fast forward. (I don't have this ability, so when I get phone calls during a writing session, even from HER, I lose my flow). A character walks into her "movie" and she instantly knows everything about them as if she's read their bio before the movie began. I've seen her do it. She can stand there and get an idea and then describe the entire book to me, verbally. She can do that because it plays in front of her and she merely describes what's going on.

The first pitfall for her though, is it's distracting when she is "transcribing" this film. Perhaps she is describing John Doe, talking on the phone, and some other character in the room is dropping a pencil and eating cake. She then has to ask herself, "Should I put that in the text? Is that part of the story?"

Another frustration is that since her novels are already in screenplay form and she knows what is going to happen in every detail, it feels as if she's already written it, and that sucks a lot of the joy out of the writing process.

I am an organic writer-I love to be just as surprised as a reader about the story the characters begin to tell and where it all goes. . .but I'm still making it up.

My Synesthete author friend can also turn the volume down on the "film" or mentally press pause, when she has to answer her own phone. Just as if it's on TV. Sometimes she'll have a character (say, "Doreen") from another book, walk into the scene and say, "Why are you giving that to her? I wanted that." -and then she'll feel guilty that she's hurt Doreen's feelings.

Her Synesthesia also manifests during conversations with others. When she is having a debate or exchange of ideas, she sees a chess board, suspended a few feet in front of her, and as the conversation progresses, so do the men on the chessboard, according to who is saying what, and how that might translate into a chess game.

There are still other abilities that I feel are directly related to her Synesthesia. She has an almost photographic memory. She can recall conversations, verbatim; she can bring up an image of how a place looked she's seen only once, many years ago. She recalls even the smells that were in that room. She is also dyslexic, and has some pretty impressive intuitive skills that border on psychic.

Once, I played a tape recording of a live songwriter's performance I was part of. Although she had never been to that venue, nor even to the state or city in which it was located, when she heard the tape, she was able to describe the room in which it took place with frightening detail. It struck me as a gift not unlike Remote Viewing. The only error in her description was that the "floorplan" she described was inverted. What she described on the left, was on the right, and vice versa. But it was an accurate mirror image of the location. Could this have merely been her dyslexia interfering? She has joked to me before that when she is making a repeat journey somewhere and has to decide whether she is supposed to turn left or right to reach her destination again, she doubts her first instinct, because she's afraid her dyslexia is giving her the opposite information.

My friend also has lucid dreams. Lucid dreamers can "Come awake" in their dreams, and are aware that they are dreaming, while they are in the dream. But she can control her dreams. Sometimes not the outcome, but she can control the players, time of day, what she's wearing. She can pause her dream, get up and go to bathroom and then go back to it.

My only claim to fame in this arena, is that I have been the one to point out that Synesthesia existed as a unique condition in two different friends of mine. They have always been this way, and both were unaware that they were unusual in the way their senses intertwined. Through conversations with them, and through independent research, I discovered that most other Synesthetes aren't aware they are different, either, until a certain conversation arises and it becomes clear that most other people don't have these abilities.

I can't imagine having these gifts. It must be exhilarating in some ways, but my friend sees it as both blessing and curse. She struggles with the sensation that her writing is not really her own, since it is created in some mysterious place in her Synesthete brain before it actually appears. This strikes me as a potent example of the muse that artists speak of; information and creations channeled to them from some other place in the collective consciousness. What if the "muse" artists refer to is merely something that exists in each human brain, but is not always available to each of us, unless genetics or brain injury releases it?

There have, indeed, been cases of brain injury causing changes in brain functioning; sometimes even savantism; and autism are conditions that commonly cause unique abilities in those who have it, usually in the area of memory and visualization.

There is still much to be learned about how the cerebral cortex, neurons, synapses and other mechanisms really function, and the many ways in which it can perform feats of extraordinary skill. But whether blessing or curse, Synesthesia is not just an oddity, but a distinctive and fascinating peek inside the human brain.

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