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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

[Wherein our hero stumbles upon the worlds very first Synesthete, and quiety wishes that he too had super powers...]

This is not the kind of post I normally make, but in doing some research for another subject I came across something that's quite fascinating.

But first, a preamble. Yeah, THAT shot through his head. And you thought you were tough...

Every first year Psych students becomes familiar with a number of case studies. The most famous is probably Phinaes Gage. Gage (1823 - 1860) worked on a railroad early in his adult life - he was a responsible, sensible and dilligent man and was recognized so - he was the foreman of construction with his own rail crew. Then, one day, while tamping a hole full of explosives with an iron rod, the black powder ignited and - in what can only be described as a probability that is a single decimal place followed by many, many, zeros - the iron rod blasted up through his cheek, his frontal lobe, out the top of his head and sent Gage flying. Reported, he stood up and walked away. After the incident Gage was an impulsive, irrational, aggressive man. A changed man. Gage changed the course of our understanding of Neuroscience and Brain Function.

There is also HM - After suffering for many years of dibilitating siezures doctors decided in 1953 to cut out a sizeable portion of his Hippocampus and Amygdala. The poor bastard was never again able to form a new memory.

Then there's Little Albert - Little Albert had the unfortunate luck to be subjected to Watson's study of fear conditiong. The little guy was presented with a toy white rat and then someone would bang a couple of pots together behind his head and scare the crap out of him. The conditioning was so successful the little guy was terrified of anything white therafter, including Santa Clause.

In doing a bit of research (for something else entirely) I came across Georg Sachs - An Austrian Albino born in 1786 who appears to be the first documented case of Synesthesia.

Now if you don't know synesthesia it's like having super-powers (that's the way I see it, anyway). Synesthetes have this weird cross-modal sensory experience where they can experience words and letters or musical tones and timbres as colour; they may perceive time as distance; experience touch or colour as emotion; they might experience numbers as shapes (or colours, or anything, really), hell, some of them experience ideas and concepts as colours or emotions. Some of them claim they can do math by adding shapes and colours. Holy flip! (I understand it's a rough process, but it works by approximations...).

Anywho, besides me wanting to be able to layer my every day experience with cross-modal-sensory experiences (sans the LSD) I'd like to point out a few things this Sachs fellow said. I think it reflects something that might have been lost in today's more dry and academic process:

There is much which either never comes before the eyes, or which cannot be reckoned with usual sight, that either does not belong to the sense of vision, or which is not perceptible to the senses, which, in the mind of the brother, inspires dark ideas of different colors, so intimate and recurring, that cannot be conceived of, or only scarcely and with difficulty, without a certain attention. I cannot express it better than to say that a colored idea appears to him. For some, however, this seems due more to a certain coincidence than to regulated impressions, whereby the color and the article in which the idea is connected, which affects the mind, seem to stand in harmony. Some ideas convey the colors by themselves, even if the feelings move all in heaven to differ.

Particularly those things which form a simple series; e.g., numbers, the days of the week, the time periods of history and of human life, the letters of the alphabet, intervals of the musical scale, and other such similar things, adopt those colors. These introduce themselves to the mind as if a series of visible objects in dark space, formless and noticeably of different colors. With some, the idea of the color is so dark that one can scarcely differentiate between the colors; with others, it is much more clear.

He goes on to explain his experience with numbers (10, as if it were white glass; 11, milk-colored; 100, white, scarcely bright; 110 and 111, extremely shiny), days of the week (Sunday is white, sometimes yellowish; Monday grey, Tuesday has a dark and uncertain color; Wednesday yellow) and a few other examples.

I wonder, by his prose, how much has been lost in the battle between the lay-man and scientific establishment in the communication of ideas; I wonder what the state of education might be if all such descriptions were written so artfully.

At any rate it's just a discovery I wanted to share. Georg Sachs was the first described synesthete and, in the current era, is a forgotten figure. Not that it's necessary for such things to be associated with people to understand, but I think it does a lot to make such things accessible. Particularly when it's estimated that up toف/20 within the population have some form of trait synesthetic experience.

If you experience any kind of cross-modal stimulation you might have some degree of synesthesia. Take the test and find out. Though I must say, unless you suspect you have it, your probably wasting your time. In the mean time I await the day I can voluntarily re-wire my brain so I can trigger emotions by touch, do maths by colour, and paint concepts in my mind....

Jewanski, J., Day, S., & Ward, J. (2009). A Colorful Albino: The First Documented Case of Synaesthesia, by Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812 Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 18 (3), 293-303 DOI: 10.1080/09647040802431946

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I have not had synesthesia experiences (either natural or stimulated) but I thought the article was very interesting. Are people who experience the phenomenon particularly good at anything? I didn't get from your post what the superpower was associated with associating colors with words. How does it benefit the person?

I hope you'll talk more about unusual phenomena of the mind.

Just on a side note, those rainbow lips you posted as the opening image? Mesmorizing.

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I call it super powers just cause it sounds like it makes life so much more interesting...
It's difficult to say whether it gives them any kind of benefit. I understand that many people who have perfect pitch also have some degree of tone/colour synesthesia. But it's hard to say whether the synesthesia facilitates perfect pitch, or they just have really highly tuned sensory apparutus.
Then you've got the savants, those people with a freakish, outlier-type ability in maths, or music, or painting, or memory. Here you find lots of folks with synesthesia, but again, it's hard to disentangle cause-and-effect, additionally it's hard to say if their freaky math ability and the synesthesia share a similiar root cause (say, autistic spectrum stuff).
However, even if cause/effect is all tangled up I've heard arguments that suggest it's another mode of reasoning. You and I might rationally and logically try to reason out a particular mathametic problem; whereas a synesthete has a more abstract way to reason about it - they can mentally reason a math problems in terms of geometry, or colour, a sound. It's not going to be perfect, but it's an option open to them...

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I wonder if during human tribalistic period, shamans and other religious figures had a higher % of synesthetes (either total or partial). Could this be the origin of some weird legends?
Very interesting article about real life "super" humans!

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The only way that the number would diminish in populations between sometime in the past and now would be if having synesthesia had some kind of reproductive cost associated with it, and to the best of my knowledge it doesn't.
But since you say shamans, etc, one can get synesthetic experiences by taking psilocybin and other shamanic hallucinogens.
Even though the average person doesn't have synesthesia, we do understand the concept implicity, we use such statements as:
"I see what you're saying", "that sound makes my skin crawl", "Something smells fishy"...
it seems most of us do a little cross-referencing all the time...

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I totally have the letter/color thing, and remember having this as long as I've known the alphabet. However, I don't have any of the other things in the preliminary quiz, nor do I have superpowers (SO FAR).

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Well, you're a scientist. That increases your risk of super-freaky lab accidents more than the average person. I hold out hope you will develop super-powers

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I always knew Doc Becca was a superhero...

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My sister is a hard core Synethete. She sees every letter in a different color, every day of the week, every number..More interestingly though, if something is writen in a certain color and it does not match her color for it, then it feels to her physically wrong, like nails on a chalk board almost.
She's given talks about this at the Uni, I'm sure she'd be happy to talk to you about it, or even write a blog if you'd like to know more from someone who is wired that way.
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