Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What is the source of synesthesia?

Mrs. ESE once had an experience with the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.

Granted it was when she was rather young and it was due to an experiment with a mild altering substance, but the concept was relatively the same. She claimed she could "taste yellow." Many other people have similar experiences without drugs of any kid. It just kind of happens. The schism between senses evaporates and they cross. Synesthetes claim to "see" smells or "hear" numbers. Or they may "see" music as in the case of artist Melissa McCraken. She "sees" songs as colors and textures and then paints what she sees. Here's a gallery of her impressive synthesetic work, but of course I'm going to single out her image for "Life on Mars":

I've written about synesthesia before, citing my own small bit of it. Up until recently, I saw the days of the week as fuzzy, gauzy gradations of black to gray. David countered that I likely just saw a calendar of one sort or another as a small child and that somehow established this visualization of a "week" in my head. I wish that I could accurately describe how I visualize days because it's unlike any calendar I can ever remember seeing. Still, David's cynical skeptical viewpoint is not unique. In fact, it appears to be the stance that at least a few neuroscientists take.

In fact, a recently published study calls synesthesia a brain disorder. As the study says:

"We did not find any clear evidence of structural brain alterations in synesthetes, either local differences or differences in connectivity, at least when considering the data with no a priori…"

This conclusion came from the comparison of MRIs of 19 synesthetes against control. The authors suggest more prosaic origins for condition, somewhat along the lines of David's argument. For example, if you associate colors with letters, that may simply be due to blocks you saw as a kid. While that may surely be the source of a many cases, I'm not so sure about others.

I just know that I would love to experience synesthesia and the creative boost that often appears to accompany it. Here's to hoping that there might one day be a transhuman solution. Perhaps, as Kurzweil posits in The Singularity is Near, implants or nanotech in the brain's synapses well help make the virtual into concrete, at least in the brain's experience. This might allow me to one day "smell" a letter or "taste" a color. For right now, however, I'm going to categorize synesthesia as a "brain disorder I wish I had."

Can I swap depression for it?

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