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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