On synesthesia, perception, and trauma – 10 May 2016

A friend of mine, creator of Amygdala Magazine and therapist Dwight Hurst, runs his own practice and studies the human brain. He recently asked me to take some time to explain my personal experiences with synesthesia, a perceptual disturbance where sounds are seen and colors are heard (broadly speaking) and look at it in a larger context. I have tried to look at the development of my own experiences against the backdrop of my life as it was before and after the onset of the condition.

None of this is intended to be self-indulgent or braggadocios or hagiographical, merely to recount the development of a condition.

On synesthesia,

When I was 9 years old, I suffered from severe head trauma and almost bled to death in the school office waiting on an ambulance. I had done a backflip off a cement pole (I wanted to be in the olympics as a younger man), and instead of landing on my feet, I landed on my head, on a cement beam. The immediate pain was numbed until I pushed back my hair and looked at my hand, finding it covered in blood. I ran into the office and waited, bleeding to death with severe head trauma, as a secretary consulted the archives for the number to 911.

Arriving at a local hospital, I was given a sedative (which didn’t work) and then the doctor gradually deadened the area around the contusion on my head with shots of cortisone. I felt each needle scrape against the inside of my head. He sewed my head up (37 stitches, starting just above my right eye and running down to the top of my right ear) and wrapped my head in bandages. When I was wheeled out of the emergency room, the entire world was shouting at me. The colors of the regular world were *loud* – red and blue took on ominous, personalized characters, forever working against each other. All sounds were colorful too: the music of Mozart, for example, seemed to push colors in rapid sprays out of my speakers. And when I explained this to my parents, they assumed it was down to my head injury, and that the “hallucinations” would stop. They didn’t.

 

Every sound has a color and every color has a sound. They are more or less uniform, too, as in they’re consistent and not arbitrary. Not only that, I managed to recover huge amounts of random information that had been shut off to my active mind, and since that moment, I have forgotten very few moments. Numbers have personalities, and my working of mathematics after my accident was more intuitive and easier for me to picture, and despite always being an A student, my ability to work in regards to my earlier efforts in certain types of maths was extraordinarily improved – I learned calculus, trigonometry, and analytical geometry before my accident. Afterwards I would be able to work proficiently in hugely complex equations in relativity and quantum physics, before I was a teenager. I was always good with language and words, speaking 3 languages by the time I was 5 (Russian, French, and English) and after my accident (at age 9), my ability to learn was exponentially accelerated.

Before the accident, I was thought of as a child prodigy, a child who learned at an extreme rate and excelled in many areas of academia. By the end of my first grade year, I was teaching half of the class in the back of the room. In the second grade, I took the SAT’s for the first time and left 3 answers blank, resulting in a 1580 (which was the highest result in the school’s history for almost 11 years – when I retook it at age 17 and got a 1595). I went into the 3rd grade being prepped for college, taking courses in Gifted and Talented programs, interviewing at universities and local colleges. I took the Mensa exam at the urging of my teachers and began to write my first short stories. Halfway through my 3rd grade year is when my accident took place. Everything was disrupted, and as my intelligence had once been a source of enjoyment and pride, it became a terrible curse: everybody who spoke to me had an inherent color to their voice, and some people with pretty voices (voices I would normally think lovely) beamed out horrible mixtures of colors, to the point where I would have to do something I still do today when I hear something dissonant: I cover my eyes to protect myself from the assault. (The colors come through my eyelids, alas, so it’s often pointless).
Today, I know that synesthesia is a word that to a great extent explains what I experience through my senses, which I once was told were hallucinations. I learned of synesthesia through Vladimir Nabokov – famed author of Lolita and former Cornell English teacher. It was his autobiographical work Speak, Memory that clued me in on what synesthesia means in a broader sense, and that it does not always follow brain trauma. My therapists originally believed my accident had led to something rare called “onset savantism” – something to explain my memory and ability to pick up languages, play instruments, to paint and draw and sketch, to write, and to do complex mathematics. The question is whether or not my early indications of ability would have come to their full fruition without the accident, and if I had not hit my head would the synesthesia have ever started.

The question is meaningless, though, as the experience of synesthesia is now so engrained in my life and the way I think and relate to the world that the idea of it never having been a part of my sensual experience is foreign to me. It is at some times a great aid in my working with music or new and challenging material, but a horrible burden when attempting to enjoy popular music. The dissonance has always been deeply offputting to me, which drew me toward classical music. There is a language of sound, and some musicians know about the color dynamic of their music, and use it to paint larger images for the more acutely attuned listeners.
I don’t know what I’d be without it, or what would my state of mind and intelligence be had I not injured myself; before, I was thought to be a prodigy, a wunderkind, afterwards, I went in every direction possible trying to prove it. To marginal success, mind. I cannot imagine a world in which the music of Beethoven isn’t an elaborate visual, textural experience of sight, or a world in which images, such as paintings and architecture and art, do not give off consistent, prolonged suites of sound and tone. The swirling clouds of van Gogh operate in the key of B, sometimes in its relative minor, and when the color changes, the sound changes. This is true of music as well. If the wrong note is played, the color palette becomes confused and disorienting to the senses of sight and sound trying to communicate a larger sensory experience than perhaps the mind was built to take-in on a daily basis. Some users of hallucinogens claim to experience synesthesia in the hearing of color and the seeing of sound, and while that is synesthesia, it is a very narrow and limited sensual experience of it.

 

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