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Synesthesia: A Guest Post

My husband wrote this guest post on a blog of mine a few years ago which I thought I'd share. With discussions of neurodiversity in the workplace, here's just one example of how not everyone thinks in the same manner!

What do you mean you don’t see notes? Tell me, what you see when you hear a good bass line? What about fine guitar picking? You mean, you don’t see a violin or piano arpeggio? What shapes do you see when you hear music? Don’t you see colors when you hear numbers or words? What texture is a prime? What about a composite?

How can I put it? You see or perceive things differently than me and I see and perceive those supposedly same things differently than you. Our perceptions of the world have a slightly different reality dependent on the angle we look at things. It’s called the parallax viewpoint in physics and optics. Put your finger in front of your face and view it with your left eye closed then switch over and view it through your right one. It looks different doesn’t it? A long preamble, but my point is that you ‘see’ certain things/concepts differently than I do. This is something I became aware of earlier this week.

I was doing a neuro assessment as part of my ongoing post traumatic brain injury care and was going through some memory tests around numbers. When asked to repeat them back, I had problems in repeating them in a linear way. Instead, I would repeat them back in like groupings, with the primes in one group and composites in another. When I was asked about this, I said that I liked to separate numbers into shapes or species.

Primes to me are fuzzy looking and composites have very sharp edges. Primes are only divisible by themselves and one whereas composites have a linear sharp structure, much like a crystal lattice. 100 can be broken down into 2 50’s or 5 20’s or 10 10’s, etc.

Anyway, the therapist performing the test asked me further questions about my perceptions and then asked if I had heard about synesthesia, the condition whereas the stimulation of one sensory/cognitive pathway automatically triggers another sensory or cognitive perception.

Along with numbers, the more graphic one in my mind that I relayed to him is my perception of music. I assumed that everyone assigned shapes and sometimes colour to pieces of music or individual instruments and notes.

It’s hard to explain, but an example may help:

* If I hear a brass instrument I picture (like a few others apparently) an orange/yellow triangular shape. Sometimes that shape morphs and takes on a liquid metallic form similar to mercury that moves with chord changes. Bass, keyboard and drum sounds have their own particular shape/form.

Attempting to show my wife what goes on in my head while listening to music, I drew this…

When these instruments are combined to form music, these shapes and textures come to life. If I try and delineate and concentrate on one sound, then one shape shows up. If I allow all instruments to come through a bunch of different and shapes and images appear. If I like the way, it sounds the shapes appear complementary. If not, it looks like a messed up kid’s toy box. Anyone who has taken acid will understand how ones sensory wires get twisted around, resulting in strange and often funny perceptions of the world. My sensory/cognitive synthesis is not like being on a strange never-ending trip. It’s a bit more mundane than that, and I just I never really thought about how it applied to me as I didn’t see the big deal. It’s how I view the world and I don’t feel gifted or ‘special’ or any different. Sure, identifying what goes on in my head is kind of interesting but it doesn’t change anything really. We all have our own sense of reality and process it in a multitude of ways. I perceive certain aspects of reality in a way that makes perfect sense to me, as you perceive and process reality in a way that makes perfect sense to you. One thing though is that I don’t really recall having this before I had my brain injury. Maybe I have always perceived things this way and was only until last week made aware that many others don’t (but plenty of others do and have some fairly colorful and interesting synesthestic perceptive characteristics). Either way, my journey forward will be an interesting one as I try to describe the way I see parts of life to myself and others. The images I perceive have yet to have words ascribed to them. I see them and know that they are waiting to be captured in the net of language. But then again maybe language can only capture a small amount of this reality. Stay tuned. PS – Check out these cool blogs & articles my wife found around those with synesthesia:


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