Like many people with synesthesia, Tori didn’t know that her senses worked a little differently until she was 15. The school she went to screened a short film about the perils of not wearing a bike helmet. One scene showed a man crash his bike before cutting to a close-up of the fellows head being crushed under the wheel of a car; it then panned to his arms, which were visibly gravel-rashed. Tori, feeling faint and in excruciating pain, caused a commotion in her seat, shouting at the teachers to turn it off. Everyone looked at her, asked what was wrong. She replied “didn’t that hurt any of you? did no-one else feel that?”
According to conventional wisdom, a generic human form is endowed with five senses: Sight, Touch, Smell, Sound and Taste (listed in order of how much they stimulate my sex drive. You’re welcome!). We give some credence to the idea of metaphysical sixth senses—the ability to perceive ghosts, ESP, telekinesis—but unless you’re Hayley Joel Osmond or a member of Sensing Murder (good job on solving all those homicides, team!), or alternately you’re blind or deaf, you will have five senses and these five senses alone.
Unfortunately for the Primary School Syllabus, this is a common misconception. Napoleon, in fact, was taller than most men of his time; chewing gum does not seven years to digest; clicking on that link and watching that video won’t increase your THROBBING COCK’S length or girth, let alone make you irresistible to MILFS; humans possess up to 20 senses, depending on the definition of what a “sense” is.
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Along with the usual quintet, the sensation of needing to void your bowels or bladder have been distinguished not just from each other but from the sensation of “feeling”, for two examples. Others include thermoception (recognising temperature), equilibrioception (balance), proprioception (feeling the sensation of pain) and Inception (the unique sensation describing the covert joy you feel after watching a Hollywood blockbuster). So the last one hasn’t been scientifically corroborated (YET: patent pending), but scientific studies conducted late last century showed that, at least for those first three, these senses are concrete and distinct phenomena that intertwine with other senses but are not manifestations of them.
This is of some interest to science (duh), but also to its more philosophy-minded cousin-once-removed. Devotees of British Empiricism claim that all human knowledge comes from sensory experience—we can only know what we experience through touch, smell, sight, and so “reality” is dependent on “perception”. The upshot of more senses? An added insight into how we generate knowledge and experience. The existence of synesthesia must no doubt be exceptionally pertinent to these ideas; it means there are physiological grounds for synesthetic perceptions, an entire reality that non-synesthetes will never be privy to.
I don’t fancy my writing enthralling enough to read entire paragraphs of, so if you’ve skipped a couple of my tangents be aware there is one point I’m trying to make here: our senses, and the idea of what constitutes a “sense”, is way more complex that most of us realise. People with synesthesia complicate matters further, the dastardly rogues, but offer us all a new way of approaching what perception really is.
“The Synesthesia Battery”, an online resource that offers a test to anyone who wishes to determine whether they have synesthesia, defines synesthesia as “a perceptual condition of mixed senses… a stimulus in one modality involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality.” In less verbose terms, people with synesthesia basically get two or more senses for the price of one; one sense is stimulated, more than one responds. The word’s etymological origins can be traced back to the Greek “Syn” (together) and “aisthesis” (perception), a literal approximation of the simultaneous perception the word has come to mean.
The most common manifestation of synesthesia, and the one you’re most likely to have heard of, is nicknamed “colour synesthesia”. People with this variation always perceive (not see, but perceive—this is important) a particular colour when they see a different letter of the alphabet, character, or number. For some individuals, this extends to moods, concepts and unique words having their own colour. It’s not just that they associate a word with a colour, like we associate red with anger and green with jealousy, say—they actually perceive it.
As the synesthete writer Patricia Duffy puts in her poignant memoir Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: “I realised that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line… I suddenly felt marooned on my own private island of navy blue Cs, dark brown Ds, sparkling green 7s, and wine-colored Vs.”
To experience synesthesia, despite its irrefutable coolness and advantages, must be pretty lonely sometimes. The condition is rare, and science has only recently formally—and according to some synesthetes, begrudgingly—acknowledged its existence. Research on the subject is surprisingly scarce. Support groups, where people can share experiences and foster understanding and compassion, are almost unheard of outside select internet forums.
A large amount of misconceptions linger from the nascent days of scientific research. Though the symptoms of synesthesia have been documented for centuries (millennia, according to some sources), synesthetes have been variously condemned as “liars”, “fabricators” and “needy exhibitionists with overactive imaginations” in times of yore. Synesthesia has also been falsely perceived as a delusion and thus a characteristic of severe mental illness.
While it would be soothing to think that these errant opinions have been relegated to history, they still prevail in some scientific discourse. It took me five minutes perusing JSTOR to find two articles published and ratified by members of the scientific community in the last ten years that propagate these archaic conceptions. In one article, published in 2007 by the fucking Stanford Journal of Neuroscience no less, symptoms of synesthesia are conflated with schizophrenia, which is insulting to everyone involved. In another, published as recently as 2010, the condition is characterised as “a mental disorder”.
This categorisation perhaps bears more weight, at least in semantic terms—“disorder”, in its medical-dictionary definition, refers only to something that exists outside the norm. However, in common usage and in basic connotation, the word corresponds with notions of impairment, disability, otherness—even, most pejoratively, freakishness and inferiority. And in its insistence in adhering to the “normal”, the field doesn’t reflect on a difficult fundamental question: what constitutes “normal”? How do you decide what’s “abnormal”, and when does it start mattering? I’ll discuss this in greater depth in a later, hopefully more triumphant paragraph, but suffice to say that when it comes to synesthesia, scientific accuracy is sorely lacking.
To help me shed some light on the subject, I met with Tori Bright, a synesthete who experiences a comparatively rare, exceptionally under-researched variant of the condition: Mirror-Touch. Tori is Bright by name and by nature. If you think this is an egregious pun based on her intelligence and thoughtfulness, you’re right, but it also serves double duty by encapsulating her disposition aptly. She hardly needed the coffee I bribed her with; cheery and unassuming, immaculately dressed, on-point nail-polish, I warmed to her immediately as she spilt the beans on what it means to be a synesthete.
What exactly is mirror-touch? “When I see someone touch someone else, I feel it… I feel the sensation. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like… when I see someone tap someone on the shoulder, I literally feel a ‘ghost-touch’ of someone tapping me on the shoulder.” What do these “ghost-touches” feel like? “It’s hard to explain, sorry! The closest thing is pins and needles, but I’ve felt pins and needles before and it’s not like that, just a bit similar. Sometimes I feel the exact sensation but only if I’ve experienced it before, mostly it’s like a tingling, but a tangible one.” I put it to her that it must be impossible to explain to someone who doesn’t have the condition; “you know I can’t feel your ghost-touch, bro” if you will. “Exactly! It’s just like that.”
“I took a film course last year on horror movies, and that was interesting.” Pardon? “Yeah, I only had to walk out of one—Evil Dead. Oh, and Hostel… that scene where the guy gets his achilles tendon snipped? So much pain… I couldn’t walk for hours afterwards because I was afraid it would come back.” The film course must have been an excruciating experience! “Not as much as you’d think—I have what I call a ‘fiction filter’, and I don’t usually feel pain if I haven’t experienced it myself anyway.” I inquired whether the fiction filter was something she developed over time or something she was born with. She thinks a while before answering. “I think it’s something I’ve developed because it’s gotten easier over time, and I think I’ve definitely become more desensitised, but I honestly don’t know. I couldn’t tell you.”
When it comes to more innocuous ghost-touches, I posit that it must be distracting. “Not really,” she rebukes gently, “and why would it? It’s something I’ve had my whole life, so I’ve never had to get used to it. It’s just natural for me.” What about, err, y’know, umm, sorry to ask a salacious question, but, uhh… “Ha, that’s the first question most people ask me: [in dudebro tones] ‘what’s it like when you watch porn?’. I tell them I don’t really watch porn,” she says, laughing. “But again, I don’t know what it’s like for people who don’t have Mirror-Touch, whether they get excited in the same way I do. I guess they must not, that I must get excited in a different way, but I don’t know whether it’s just different paths to the same ending.” Nice entendre. “Thanks! Yeah, I don’t know… if the Mirror-Touch made me feel twice as much pleasure as pain, it would be a lot easier… or maybe not.” We both giggle a bit and I drop the subject.
It would certainly be spectacularly unfortunate if she didn’t feel pleasure or neutral sensations to compensate for the pain, because it sounds bloody awful. “In my first year, this guy was telling us this story about how he broke his arm after falling off a trampoline, and I didn’t want to say ‘stop’ because I was knew at a hostel and I didn’t want to be that girl, even though I wanted to make him stop so much. Every time I’d think about it, my arm would hurt. This happened for weeks” So it’s not just visual, in the moment? It’s your imagination too? “Exactly, yeah,” she confirms. Her right arm is visibly tensing.
Tori first realised that she perceived touch differently in the cruel and unusual circumstances outlined in the first paragraph; before that, especially because of her Mum’s similar sensitivity (“I think she might have it, but she doesn’t really want to admit it or acknowledge it, y’know?”), she assumed everyone felt the same. “And then—you know how sometimes you find out about something, even a particular word, and it pops up everywhere you go?”. I do. “Well it was like that—that night I listened to a podcast before I went to bed, to help me sleep, and it was about Mirror-Touch Synesthesia and I realised ‘hey—that’s what I have! That’s me!’.”
A trip to a neurologist, for unrelated reasons, confirmed Tori’s suspicions. She met the three criteria that are required for a formal diagnosis. The doctor couldn’t offer her any more than affirmation. The first medically confirmed case of this disorder, despite its prevalence, occurred in—I jest not—2005. (An estimated 2.5 per cent of a given population experiences Mirror-Touch to varying degrees, though few of this percentile are aware they have the condition.)
As such, very little is known about what causes Mirror-Touch. According to Tori’s neurologist, some research had tentatively uncovered a link between Mirror-Touch and epilepsy—which Tori’s elder sister has. If this hypothesis was corroborated, it would indict the Temporal Lobe as the major culprit. However, other studies have witnessed increased activity in the premotor cortex and insular cortex—among others—in Mirror-Touch synesthetes. Where Mirror-Touch stems from remains, as with other forms of synesthesia, a mystery, the domain of endless hypothesising, aborted research and frenzied debate.
The lack of knowledge affects Mirror-Touch synesthetes in a more personal way. There is no real medical advice, no support groups. Developing strategies to combat the deleterious effects of the condition is very much an individual—and onerous—task. This is not necessarily true in Tori’s case. She grew up in Sanson—a tiny locale near Bulls with “an antique shop, a dairy and a fish and chip shop [according to Tori, the best in the country]”—and attended high school in Feilding. The support services for even conditions as well-known as dyslexia are notoriously deficient in rural New Zealand, but Tori managed by developing coping strategies: going outside and getting fresh air when necessary, focussing her thoughts away from triggering ones, avoiding certain stimuli. While she is nonchalant about these experiences, I suspect that these processes were cultivated in the midst of rather difficult trial-and-error.
Moving to Wellington for university did not bring her into contact with other Mirror-Touch synesthetes. She has met two other people with synesthesia in her life, neither of whom had her particular brand (one had an equally rare type, “spatial synesthesia”, who aligns numerical sequences as points in space in their head). The internet has helpful communities—Tori is especially fond of Reddit’s r/synesthesia board—but even that focusses on colour synthesia, or the kind that makes you smell bacon when you see, say, a fire hose, or taste wasabi when you hear a note on a violin. She’s had one moment of particular pride: she related her experience and someone identified, saying “I’ve always thought there was something wrong with me… now I know there’s not. That’s what it is!”
“And I mean, I know, I don’t know if they were trolling, ‘no-one lies on the internet’ and everything, but still.”
What ultimately struck me about Tori was that she was so, well, normal. This is not to say she was generic, or boring—quite the opposite—but that her life has charted familiar territory. She moved to Wellington for the university experience and independence. She has worked in a call centre to help herself out financially. She lives in a grungy but great student flat, drinks on occasion, she wants to study post-grad film in England and travel Europe. She was raised by two Mums—which you can read more about in a tender, heartfelt piece written for this magazine—but aside from that her childhood was typically happy and pleasant. Her experiences mirrored mine, yours, your friends.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone with synesthesia is well-adjusted, socially confident, lacking in eccentric bugaboos or picadillos. But the way the condition is framed as a “disorder” lends credence to the perception of synesthetes as some kind of other—maybe gifted, maybe weird, but certainly not like you or me.
These tidy delineated categories belie a weird truth that there is a common humanity running through each of us, no matter how we perceive our external worlds. I was interested to learn that deaf people sign to themselves in the same way that we talk to ourselves; deafmutes utter phrases to themselves involuntarily, no matter how learned.
This isn’t to say that people with synesthesia have nothing unique to offer. While no-one could ever mistake me for a science major, I thought it interesting that Tori mentioned “seeing anxious people play with their hands makes me feel anxious”, especially given that for many GPs in New Zealand, the first port of call when treating anxiety is medication that prevents the physiological effects of anxiety, not the psychological ones. She believes that while she’s not endlessly sympathetic, her physical empathy has translated to advanced emotional empathy—a feeling supported by research that found markedly higher empathy levels in people with synesthesia.
Speaking of research: if you’ve ever felt hunger, there might be an element of synesthesia in your genetic make-up too. According to one group of researchers, “hunger” is a sensation comprised of four separate senses: taste, smell, touch and sight. If the research bears delicious-smelling fruit, it might demonstrate an evolutionary purpose to synesthesia. Shit—it might even support the idea, espoused by Cracked commenter/scientific genius Ricky Zapf, “I beleive that synthesia is the next step in human evelution”.
In a similar vein that can only be described as “buzzy as fuck”, there has been a documented case where a colorblind synesthete has reported perceiving colors she couldn’t “see” in her day-to-day life. This anomaly is of tremendous importance to scientists studying perception and probably a fair few philosophy professors too—it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine one of them crying “the land of the Noumenal has been confirmed!”, spilling coffee down their anorak in the process.
It isn’t only as participants in science experiments that synesthetes make their mark. Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and physicist Richard Feynman saw equations in colour, which enabled him to solve them with increased efficacy. Olivier Messiaen and Pharrell are two synesthetes who have incorporated their condition into music to tremendous effect. Messiaen even created chords based on his perception of colour in music that “he may not have discovered otherwise”.
The classic mind-experiment, usually relayed to me by some body-stoned friend or other, that “what if my red isn’t what your red looks like?”, reveals a harsher truth that it realises. We can never know anyone fully because we can never share their perception, see through their eyes, walk a mile in their feet, listen to that Arctic Monkeys album that you love but they hate, through their taringas. It can be as drastically different as the African tribe who can’t perceive blue but can perceive variations of green that all other eyes cannot, or as close-to-alike as a .05 difference in our short-sightedness. Every synesthete and every non-synesthete perceives an entirely unique world according to their unique brain make-up.
This need not, however, be a depressing or lonely realisation. We are wonderfully one-of-a-kind. The commonalities between the way we use our senses brings us together, inspires camaraderie, even as we are inevitably apart; the differences keeps it interesting. When I asked Tori whether she liked having synesthesia, she replied “I do, I really do. I’m weirdly proud of it. It’s something special about me. I’ve never had trouble making friends because of it, but I have something, something tangible, that no-one else has.
“And it’s a fucking great party trick.”