Summary: D’Arcy Carter provides insight into her experiences with synesthesia.
Source: Neuroscience News.
One of my first experiences with synesthesia happened during a time when I had no idea what it was called. I was in 8th-grade science class having what I deemed at the time a “visual allergy” to seeing hedgehogs in a textbook. I called it that because I was uncomfortable. Upon sight, a vigorous tickle rolled up my spine, overlayed by a dense feeling that turned my stomach sour. Years later I would learn that moments like these are not the result of a visual allergy, but instead, are a form of synesthesia.
The neurological phenomenon is considered a union of the senses. It occurs when the stimulation of one sense involuntarily provokes another one. Occasionally my mind processes what I see in a cross-wiring circumstance causing a dual-sensory experience. Wild, I know.
Initially, I had some wavering anxiety about it, though I was never really worried. When it started there were only a few select images that generated a synesthetic experience, but as I matured my sensitivity to other assorted visuals blossomed along with me.
I remember the first time my eyes glimpsed a certain shape, or texture that triggered me. I felt the usual—a strong physical sensation. Only this time the feeling was so strong it hit me with a side of anxiety. The number one offender is the appearance of certain fish. If the arrangement of the scales is not pleasing to my unusual eye, my senses begin to two-step.
In my world, aquariums are almost always met with trepidation. All fish with a morphology of a down-turned mouth, such as bottom feeders in a fish tank, evokes an expanding skin-crawling response that begins at the base of my neck and shifts upwards towards my skull. Instinctively, I look away to lose the feeling, although sometimes the awareness remains.
A tiny asymmetrical paint bubble on my bathroom wall once sent me marching into the kitchen for a butter knife. Its malformed shape set off something akin to an alarm that rang out in my head. Needless to say, I was uneasy. I jumped out of the bathtub, went for the knife, and removed the paint chip with a hurried scratching motion. The chip hit the ground, and then I was fine. This level of agitation surprised me. Before getting the knife, I tried shutting my eyes to block out the anomaly in the wall, but it did nothing. Neither did the idea of leaving the room. As long as I knew it was there, I was affected—so I cut it off. The nature of my synesthetic experience varies. Adjectives like “psychedelic” or “startling” can be used to describe it, but not all of its parts are challenging.
My condition has indeed evolved. I am not limited to the happening of visual stimuli overlapping with feeling—other things crisscross as well. The moments when touch combines with colors make me smile. The brush of a soft hand is powder blue in my mind’s eye. An unintentional bump from a stranger is sometimes green. And men who give me butterflies have a yellow vibe about them. It happens in a flash. A special one.
There are degrees to my unorthodox way. My synesthesia is either branded superhero or nemesis. Superhero is seeing colors when I’m not supposed to, or when the experience is light, lovely, and nearly translucent. Nemesis is vivid. Nemesis has claws. Nemesis is when I find myself demolishing bathroom walls with butter knives for relief.
Back when it all started, I kept telling myself that common think tanks aren’t wired this way. I wondered, “Something must be wrong with me, right? Could padded walls be a part of my home décor one day?” In my case, maybe—just not for synesthesia though. My idiosyncrasies aside, after extensive research I know that my mind’s style of expression is not a mental illness. I just have a unique way of taking in information.
Prior to this realization, I decided to consult my doctor two years ago. As expected, she assured me that nothing was wrong. Her verdict was concise: my brain is assembled differently. She went on to point out that my form of synesthesia (sight + feeling) is almost identical to people with Autism who have difficulty processing sensory information.
The correlation between the two never crossed my mind, but it made sense. Those with Autism may be over-or-under sensitive to stimuli, and their speech and/or behavior can also be affected. Both conditions share character similarities, but having synesthesia does not always indicate Autism. I am not Autistic, but a jumbling of the senses is common among those who are which suggests that the two could share the same biology.
Suddenly, I had a fresh perspective. Yes, I will never be friends with hedgehogs and blowfish, but my intolerance to those boogeymen is comparable to someone with Autism experiencing sensory overload. Bottom line: Autistic minds are not faulty, and neither is mine. I think nearly everyone experiences some form of sensory cohabitation at times. Even if it is barely noticeable.
Consider what happens when some people are exposed to the sound of fingernails assaulting a chalkboard. Most people cringe. This is the moment when auditory sense links with physical sensation. Simply put—two of your senses are twerking at the same time. Another form that is ragingly popular right now is the tingle-inducing trend called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).
Last time I checked, millions have logged on to Youtube, or tuned into miscellaneous podcasts to hear people use their voice, sounds, or gesticulations to stimulate ASMR. The result prompts a physical response (tingles or fuzziness) within the body, as well as a calming psychological effect (relaxation, drowsiness, peacefulness, etc.).
When ASMR is sparked, it causes an auditory-tactile response equivalent to a synesthetic flash. Now certainly not all ASMR enthusiasts have full-blown synesthesia. Maybe it’s me, but the revelation that people who are unfamiliar with the condition can feel what I feel cuts away at some of the absurdity and the improbability of it. The brain is a powerful and complex structure housing all kinds of tricks. Who knows? Maybe synesthesia affects us all—just in muted fashion for some.
Not long ago I would have used this theory to make myself feel more secure about the way that I am, but there is no need. To me, it is a gift—even the nemesis side. One of the reasons why I can recall faces and memories in startling detail is because of the bright hues, or the unique sensation that accompanied the moment. It allows me to deeper associate people, places, and things. My brain recollects in surprising ways. “You know him. His name is Vic and his handshake was purple.” You don’t forget that. There are times I do forget and divulge these thoughts out loud. Not everyone understands, which is fine. Everyone sees things differently. And I would know.
D’Arcy Brishon Carter is a journalist, visual artist, and screenwriter who’s written several original scripts for television and film. She’s also a neuroscience communicator and researcher. Twitter: @lion_gypsy | Instagram: @lion_gypsy
D’Arcy Brishon Carter
The image is in the public domain.