An Unusual Case of Synesthesia
In a 1913 article in the The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Isador Coriat describes a case of “colored pain,” which is still considered a rare form of synesthesia. These synesthetes perceive colors as they experience pain. Coriat’s subject is an intelligent forty-year-old woman suffering from anxiety, sleepwalking and headaches. As far back as she can remember she’s seen different colors when she feels pain. Pain produces clear, distinct colors and a certain “kind of pain” consistently produces a certain color.
“Each type of pain produced its individual and invariable color, for instance: Hollow pain, blue color; sore pain, red color; deep headache, vivid scarlet; superficial headache, white color; shooting neuralgic pain, white color.”
The woman sees colors as masses with no recognizable shape, except when pain “involved a jagged, longitudinal or round area, the color stimulated by this particular type of pain had a corresponding geometrical figure”. I’m guessing by this Coriat means that the woman’s pain might have a certain shape, depending on where it is on her body. But I’m not sure. This made me wonder what exactly is it to experience pain. What exactly makes a kind of pain onto which certain colors map? An understanding of pain can help us better understand “pain-color” synesthesia and to compare it to other forms of synesthesia. Here I only want to look at what Murat Aydede (2013) refers to as the act-object duality of pain. We can then think of one way this tension differentiates pain-color from grapheme-color synesthesia.
Someone with a paper cut would tell you that pain is a bodily sensation. It seems to occur somewhere in the body and is measured in ways we measure tangible objects or quantities. Some see pain as the same as any perceptual process, like hearing or seeing. Many see it as quite different. As with sound or color, you can measure pains intensity. Yet pain is different from those external properties in that it can only be accessed by the person experiencing it. Our conception of pain divides into two threads: (1) pain is something that occurs in a particular part of the body and (2) pain is a subjective, private experience. The tension between these threads is the act-object duality of pain.
In the first thread, pain exists in a location in the body that endures a certain length of time. We report pain, saying things like “my head is throbbing” or “my lower back has been aching all day.” We measure pain by comparing different instances of pain with one another. “My throat hurt more when I had mono than when I had a cold”. We also talk about how we experience pain, with words such as “feel” to describe how we attain, in a sense, the knowledge of pain in our bodies: “I feel sinus pressure.” Pain is an object, like the sight of words on this page, that we perceive through the senses. According to this view, “pains might plausibly be identified with physical features or conditions of our body parts, probably with some sort of physical damage or trauma to the tissue” (Aydede, 2013).
However, when we note pain in specific, we’re not talking about the condition of our bodies. We’re talking about the excruciating experience of pain. A person may experience pain as if it is in the body, even though she may not actually have any correlating physical condition. Consider phantom limb. Conversely, say you’re being operated on. If you had not been anesthetized, you would feel the pain of being cut open. However, since you have been anesthetized, you don’t feel any pain though your body is still being cut. This supports the second thread, which says pain is a subjective experience rather than an object of perception. While we each have our own subjective experience of words on this page, we all have access to the words as objects of perception. Only a person feeling pain has access to her pain.
If you agree with the second thread mentioned, you can see there’s a notable difference between pain-color synesthesia and grapheme-color synesthesia. We perceive pain in a different way than we perceive extramental objects, such as the number 4 and other graphemes. For one thing, as an object of perception, pain can only be accessed through an individual’s private experience. The number 4, however, is something that can be perceived by more than one person.
Another thought I had is that the experience of pain does not require any understanding of an extramental conceptual object, like the letter A or the number 2. Pain is an immediate mental experience that needs no interpretation at all.
Feel free to add your thoughts on this subject in “comments” below, and let us know if you have pain-color synesthesia and what it is like.
Aydede, M. (2013). Pain. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Coriat, I. H. (1913). An Unusual Type of Synesthesia. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 8(2), 109-112.