Tuesday, July 06, 2010

I have been reading wednesday is indigo blue (Cytowic, Eagleman 2009.), a book about synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological condition (a rather harsh word for such a rich experience) in which people perceive sensory input that most would perceive in a singular (one sense only) way, in a multisensory fashion. For example, a synesthete might read a book and experience flashes of color in their mind as they read the words, or feel/see colors when they hear music, and so on. Synesthesia fascinates me, but I am having a hard time reading this book.

For one thing, I don't think that I am synesthetic, and yet, I sometimes do have a multisensory experience from what should be a single-sense experience. Cotton balls squeak horribly...and pulling wads of spun cotton out of a tight pill bottle is my idea of torment. There is a particular shade of orange that I hate because I feel orange when I have migraines, or a nasty mixture of orange and dirty yellow-green if I have a migraine + nausea. I cannot conceive of time without visualizing it as a circle graph in 3 dimensions, and as a child I could only think of numbers as transparent black figures ascending infinitely into space sort of like stairs. They like to go up, so subtracting them is a lot harder than adding them. To do any mind of math, I have to visualize it, and this is why fractions are easy and borrowing is not. People think I am crazy or attention seeking when I talk about these things, so I generally don't.

The book mentions eidetic memory, commonly (and inaccurately, IMHO) known as photographic memory. A better way to express it: visual memory. They tell about a detailed test to differentiate people with a true eidetic memory from those who are simply experiencing an afterimage. Criteria are as follows: an image must be reported, it must be positively colored (as opposed to the negative image an afterimage would have), must be projected onto an easel rather than contained within one's head, described in present tense, and accompanied by eye movements to demonstrate that the person is "seeing" the image. Until about 5 years ago, when I read Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures, I was under the impression that all people thought and remembered things visually. I still cannot conceive of any other way to think/remember. The above test is to remember squares or shapes on a plain background, which seems kind of stupid to me in its limitations, but, whatever.... My questions regarding this are: is a visual memory different from an eidetic memory, and if so, how? Is a true photographic memory different from an eidetic memory or a visual memory?

Next, I read the part of the book which talks about the differences between recollection of color in synesthetes and "normal" people, and this is what disturbed me the most. In a study by Julia Simner where people described shades of color, normal people named 5 shades of green, whereas synesthetes listed 52. Now, I cannot imagine anyone short of a red-green colorblind person being mentally limited to 5 shades of green! This appalls me! Can this possibly be true of the population at large? Is this why people seem so....so....(how to put it)....so dulled to the beauty around them, so unvalueing of it? (yeah, i do know that wasn't a word, but I couldn't think of anything better- sorry). If they were looking at a lot of plants, would they then list more shades of green? The idea that they might not sort of freaks me out. Is this why people don't appreciate art very much?

So I had to stop reading the book for now. I am still sort of upset.