An Unusual Case of Synesthesia

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...

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Synesthesia on TV

Synesthesia on TV

Last night’s episode of the hit crime-stopper series Criminal Minds featured a character with synesthesia. The show, for those not in the know, is a slightly different take on the usual procedural cop drama. It follows a team of profilers from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), who, during the course of each episode, work to create a psychological profile of some violent criminal. Their profile eventually provides them with enough information to capture the criminal, usually just before he or she strikes again (like I said, it’s only ‘slightly different’). In this week’s episode (spoiler alert!), the team is chasing a killer who leaves the words “Hear your evil / Speak your evil” in red paint on his victims’ walls. The bizarre nature of the crime is enough to draw the attention of the FBI’s BAU. After a brief detour chasing an obvious red-herring suspect, the agents are called to another crime scene where the words “Hear your red/see your red” are scrawled again in red paint. At this point in the show, the boy-genius agent, Dr. Spencer Reid, starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Their investigation leads them to the killer’s work place, a call center that handles credit card costumers with overdue bills. On a recorded call, the killer becomes verbally abusive, calling a customer a liar, saying, “I can see your words”. It finally dawns on the team, thanks again to boy-genius Dr. Reid, that their suspect has synesthesia. Reid explains, “He sees the people’s words in different colors depending on what type of person he thinks they are”. White words are for good people, orange words are for liars, and red words are for evil people. The killer is apparently on a mission to exterminate all of the people he has encountered that his synesthesia indicates are evil. This is as deep as the discussion of the killer’s synesthesia goes before he is captured and the show turns its attention back to a personal story arc having to do with an agent’s dead father. However, this case, entirely fictional or not, can tell us interesting things about perception and the mind in general. The most interesting point to be made has to do with the kind of synesthesia the killer has. He associates the negative or positive feelings he gets from a person with certain colors, as mentioned above. The first of this associated pair brings to mind the work of neuroscientist Antonio Demasio and his book, Descartes Error, which explores the somatic marker hypothesis, which holds that there is a great deal of emotional information being used in the decision making process and in connection with other higher order tasks. My...

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Case Study Q&A: Megan, 25, Female, Part 1

Case Study Q&A: Megan, 25, Female, Part 1

From our case studies page you can learn a little about Megan, a synesthete in the St. Louis area, who contacted us this summer after discovering our research. Here, in her own words, Megan tells us a little more about her life as a synesthete.Can you describe when and how it was that you realized there was something remarkable about the way you perceive the world? What were your first expressions of synesthesia that you remember?  I only realized that I had synesthesia because my grandpa told me. I remember once being upset in kindergarten because colored letters on blocks there weren’t “right.” I told the teacher that an A [on a block] wasn’t an A. I don’t remember what color it was in, but it wasn’t yellow. Therefore, it was not an A. My mom was frustrated because she didn’t understand why I wouldn’t say it was an A, since she knew I knew the alphabet. I only learned recently of some of my other forms of synesthesia. It took me thinking about it a lot and writing down my thoughts as I went about my day. I didn’t realize just how different I was until then.Describe the history of synesthesia in your family. You have mentioned that your grandfather was a synesthete. What is the story with that? My mother’s father was a synesthete. I asked his mother, my great grandma, about it, and she doesn’t like to talk about it—I guess it’s a generational thing. At least two of my cousins have it as well. My grandpa knew he was different growing up from what I understand. He was a computer programmer and mentioned his colored letters, etc. to one of his co-workers in the navy. His co-worker recognized it as synesthesia, and that’s when my grandpa had a name for it. He never mentioned it to anyone else until he read that it was genetic, on the internet some 30 years later. That’s when he asked all of his grandkids, “What is 3?” He and I shared colored letters. However, he also had colored hearing and perfect pitch. He could name any song by just hearing one note from it. We used to play that game a lot. You are a nurse. Are there ways that synesthesia affects your work, which makes being a nurse a different experience for you as opposed to non-synesthetes whom you know?  Yes. I am exceptionally good at picking up on others’ feelings. I can anticipate their needs more because of it. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes not. It’s easy to help put a family at ease when they are stressed, but it’s very difficult to feel their emotions when they are losing a loved...

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Can Synesthetic and Non-Synesthetic Perceptual Experience be identical?

Can Synesthetic and Non-Synesthetic Perceptual Experience be identical?

by Ben Conover and Tim Wu This question is philosophically interesting because it is closely related to the claim that synaesthesia might constitute a counterexample to functionalism. Roughly speaking, functionalism holds that the identity of a type of mental state is determined by its causal role. However, synaesthesia seems to be an example of the same type of mental state has different functional roles. For example, a sound-color synaesthete has a yellow color experience when hearing a certain sound and looking at a yellow patch, thus the mental state of experiencing yellow color is caused by two different stimuli. Jeffrey Gray (2003) argues that two experiences are of the same type but they have different functional roles and this contradicts functionalism’s claim. Gray’s objection is discussed extensively in Fiona Macpherson’s paper Synaesthesia, Functionalism and Phenomenology(2007). She objects that synesthetic experience is not “of the same kind” as non-synesthetic experience and that Gray does not provide arguments against weaker accounts of functionalism. More specifically, it might be said that, in the previous example of a sound-color synesthete, her yellow color experience caused synesthetically and experience caused non- synesthetically are different. Thus they are not the same type of mental state and do not constitute a counterexample to funtionalism. However, how does she argue that those experiences are different? One of the objective evidence she cites is the experiment conducted by Mattingley et al. (2001). Researchers found that while normal color perception and synesthetic experiences are similar in Stroop priming effects and letter-based covert intramodal priming, synesthetically induced colors do not give rise to covert intramodal priming effects. As argued by Susan Hurley and Alva Noë (2003), this might suggest that synesthetic color experience does not have all the properties of normal color experience, so synesthetic and non-synesthetic perceptual experience are not identical. However, Mattingley et al.’s experiment does not clearly show that whether the subject is consciously experiencing the covert priming, and under what level of exposure of covert priming can synesthetic color experience be induced. We want to know, under what level of exposure of covert priming normal subjects can display covert priming effects, and under what level synesthetes’ color experience can be induced so as to produce display covert priming effects. If no statistically significant difference between these two levels of exposure can be found, Gray’s criticism may hold. Further empirical work needs to be carried out to establish the correct...

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