Synesthete Lidell Simpson composes sounds he senses in his "inner hearing."
Courtesy Lidell Simpson
Lidell Simpson likes to say that though he's deaf, he's never known a day of silence in his life. His "inner" synesthetic hearing sounds something like a techno dance song and he works to recreate the sounds so that other people can hear what he does. This southern gentleman, who hails from Mississippi, was so misunderstood as a child doctors first recommended he be institutionalized. His mother wouldn't allow it and now he not only speaks several languages but contributes to our understanding of synesthesia with his own research. This is our Q&A.
1. When did you first notice your synesthesia?
For a while I had to really think about this since I consider it to be a most important question as to exactly when my synesthesia manifested itself. I have a good memory and can even remember things in my life before the age of two. My mother expressed surprise of my memory of Grandmother — who passed before I was two. I have no recollection of categorizing my world in a synesthetic manner before wearing hearing aids. So it would be between the age of 4 and 5 when I started experiencing synesthesia. Recent work by researcher Anrej Kral suggested to me that my synesthesia is acquired. He did research on the auditory cortex of congenitally deaf cats. He found that the auditory cortex rewires itself to detect motion and have a much greater developed peripheral vision. He is researching the effects of neuroplasticity after cochlear implants. Although he made no mention of synesthesia, it made sense to me. I first met Dr. V. S. Ramachandran at the San Diego conference hosted by the American Synesthesia Association. He hypothesized that my synesthesia was the result of the visual center rewiring itself into the auditory cortex due to lack of stimulation. The result is that after being fitted with hearing aids, the visual impulses became coupled with auditory stimuli. He is studying how stimuli from cochlear implants make neural connections as the brain learn how to process sound. His research has a very serious implication for me raising an important question. I have very very bad ears and already two doctors have recommended I consider implants. Kral's theory of function coupling and de-coupling of neural inputs have serous implications for me. As the brain rewires itself responding to a new stimulus from a cochlear implant would it de-couple my synesthesia? I can not bear the thought of living without it. It would be a form of "blindness."
2. Which forms of synesthesia do you have?
Motion to sound, touch and taste, smell to sound; emotion to sound -- hell, just about everything has sound. Anything that changes state gives sonic information. I once called it Photonic Hearing.
3. When did you learn there was a name for it?
I was about 13 years old when I first learned the word synesthesia. I even call my vision to sound synesthesia "photonic hearing," since lights have the most impact. The description made perfect sense to me as sensory input from one modality evoking a response of a different sensory modality. But it was only then regarded as a quirk and something this is not quite normal even though it was linked to several creative artists and poets. It was not until serious scientific investigations by Dr. Richard Cytowic and Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen that it was brought to its respectable place in neuroscience.
4. Can you describe your "inner hearing"?
One I described it to a fellow synesthete and researcher from Amsterdam, Olympia Colizoli. She remarked "Wow! You hear techno!" Indeed a lot of it does sound techno when there are a lot of rhythmic motions going around me. It also has a rather alien quality that it is hard to duplicate. I have made a few music tracks incorporating the synesthetic sounds I hear. The sounds I hear around me are consistent. If I see an approaching light I would hear its motion and the pitch would increase as it approaches, just like the Doppler Effect. Everything I see moving makes sounds. They are not random. It is meaningful and it conveys information about what I am seeing. I have been deaf all my life and I have never known silence. When I used to work for Saks as operations analyst in the IT department, synesthesia worked to my advantage. I guess it is the way I think in a non-verbal and non-visual manners. Totally sound. I often try to find solutions to processing problems I see out things outside and observe -- whether they are trees moving, clouds moving, just the sounds I hear from my vision where an idea arises to solve the processing problem. I would go back in and code the solution. I don't think my co-workers never understood my quirky way of problem solving. I can not creatively solve problems when constrained from the source of my ideas.
I lip read and if I turn off the volume of the TV set, I will still hear the voices coming out of the actors' mouths. Actually it really gets noisier hearing everything I see that moves. Even sounds have taste. This is important for me to enjoy a good meal. Recently had a most beautiful and tasty lamb shank. Sadly for me the restaurant quickly filled up with people and all the noise of the chitter chatter was so great that I can no longer hear the taste. That was when I lost all the flavor. Just bland. Turning off my hearing aid would not help since a little ambient sound help the taste. Russian syensthete Solomon Shereshevky said the reason soft music is played in restaurants is to make the food taste better. I agree.
While trying to understand synesthesia, I looked heavily into the neurobiological approach and brain imaging. I was getting a bit lost trying to make sense why they manifest as they do. One day I picked up an interesting essay by Russian neuropsychologist Bulat Galeyev. He reminded me what I had forgotten. He said synesthesia is not a psychic anomaly but it is a form of non-verbal thinking. Also he said the study of any concrete manifestation of synesthesia is impossible without taking into account cultural context. My whole thought process is purely synesthetic sound. What does it sound like? A good example everyone have hear not even knowing it made its origin in synesthesia. There is a track in Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" called "Run." The rolling rhythms of varying sound waves propagating through space bears much resemblance to the sounds of my thoughts. I later learned that Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett was a synesthete! This album is no question a big favorite among synesthetes.
5. Can you provide a link to what it sounds like so readers can experience it?
6. What do you think needs to be done for synesthetes? Is it much understood?
Lidell Simpson met Deepak Chopra while presenting at the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson this year.
Courtesy Lidell Simpson
We are learning more and more all the time. It is really providing a window into the inner workings of the human mind. This even has great philosophical implications to the theory of consciousness and epistemology. There is nothing abnormal about synesthesia. Synesthetes just perceive a different texture of reality. This is a direct link between synesthesia and creativity. And no wonder that synesthete artists are a cut above the rest. Many will be found in the creme de la crop of talents.
But sadly, this is subject that is largely ignored by the medical profession and in its training. Despite over two decades of proven research and in the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not regard synesthesia as a disorder. Synesthetes sometimes get misdiagnosed as having a mental or psychiatric disorder that needed treatment and many are medicated unnecessarily. In face we all could be synesthetes and many of just totally unaware. For us, synesthesia is mundane. Nothing that we go wowing about. It is not like those who take drugs and experience synesthesia temporarily being totally captivated by the experiences. To us, it can be so mundane and we hardly give it an thought. But sometimes in certain situations in can be a distraction. Sean Day, president of the American Synesthesia Association once said to me, "just because one smells a foul odor, one would not do away with the sense of smell". Yes, synesthesia needs to be given more attention in medical training and stop the harm being done unknowingly. The same goes to the educational systems since several synesthete children were labeled as disruptive trying to come to terms with comes natural. Nothing worse for a synesthete is being taught that such thinking is abnormal. This can cause some level of anxiety for some. When Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes came out, it was a total relief to many and no doubt saved those who questioned their own sanity. Maybe to a degree everyone is a synesthete and just the more unusual ones are the one getting all the attention like colored hearing, colored grapheme, tasting words. Many documentaries have been done about synesthesia and even still, perhaps unwittingly displayed is as a curiosity like a side show. Little is done to really emphasize how it all relates to everyone in understanding how we think and our evolution. I even believe that language has its root in synesthesia. Synesthesia is at the root of art and music, and it becomes, I dare say, a meme being copied by nonsynesthetes because they understand in an unconscious level after all everyone has the same synesthetic crosstalk between senses. But the synesthetes experience the crosstalk consciously.
7. Are you musical? Any other art talents?
I used to do oil, water color, pastel and charcoal. but haven't lately and have composed some synesthesia music. I even found synesthesia to be an advantage to me for sports fencing. My instructor one said I may have an unfair advantage.
8. What's life like in Mississippi?
Mississippi is mellow and laid back. And you know what, despite of all the negative national media reports, the best kept secret is that it is really the best place to live and has a low cost of living. It has a slower pace and much more relaxed with wonderful scenery. Very lovely is the little-known town of Carrollton, my mother's hometown — a perfect time capsule where there are many homes that predate the Civil War. We have Carrollton and Germany has Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Some scenes of the movie The Help were filmed at the historic home of Senator J.Z. George "Coatesworth" as the Foote. One will find true southern charm and hospitality here with its famous fried catfish here and of course the blues. The Mississippi Delta gave birth to the blues and B.B. King.
9. Your sense of rhythm is so good Madonna once danced with you! How much of the club music that night did you hear and how much did you see or feel?
It was pure chance. I had no idea I was dancing with her since she was disguised. But I kept getting a nagging feeling. Only after she was whisked away by security did I learn who my mystery dance partner was. Stunned was the word. I enjoyed dancing. Our brains are actually hard-wired to move to sound. We often unconsciously bob our head or sway to the beat of the music we listen to. I do think that that we all can tend to associate a shape to a particular sound. Maybe I do it to a much greater degree and I sway to the sound-shapes of the music. Even the club lights I will hear as sound adding to what the DJ is playing. So there has been a few time I go up tot he booth telling the lighting guy he is doing it all wrong and guide him. The sound I hear from the lights must not clash with the music, just plain annoying. Submitting totally to the music and let the deejay be your puppeteer controlling your moves is like a state of Zen. Surrender to the music. My best friend Marshall once said, "those who dance are considered insane by those who don't hear the music."
10. You once told me your mom was recommended to institutionalize you as a child — so little they understood back then. You're now one of the smartest people I know! Can you talk about what her parenting meant to you?
My grandmother suspected I may be deaf when I was four. The first trip to specialists was a bad memory. They ran several tests for my hearing. The final test they wired electrodes on my legs. They gave me a sound then an electric shock. The logic is that I was to be conditioned to react to an anticipated shock upon hearing a sound. Truth be told, I have no love for B.F.Skinner. I did nothing but cried myself to sleep. I was diagnosed as having aphasia and I was not deaf. It was recommended I be put in an institution.
On a return trip to Memphis I was taken to a neurotologist. He confirmed the diagnosis of sensorioneural deafness. He recommend that my family relocate to a city with a deaf school where I would learn to sign. He expressed little hope that I will ever talk. Well I think we both know how that turned out.
I'd like to stress it's important to get a second opinion. As for parenting, you will be what your parents believe you are. My parents did not accept the specialists' answers. I was fitted with hearing aids and mainstreamed into kindergarten when I just turned 5. I did not miss a beat. Note that I did not speak at all until I was fitted with hearing aids just before I was 5.
Many years later I was at that neurotologist, Dr, John J. Shea, Jr. He took me into the surgical ward where he had patients on gurneys waiting on surgery. He told them that I have very bad ears but I hear better than most people. Shea is the pioneering surgeon that perfected the stapedectomy that restored hearing to millions and invented many of the surgical equipments used today.
11. You're a polyglot! How many languages do you speak?
At one time I was studying German, Russian and Arabic at the same time. The funny thing have to deal with preconceived notion about deafness would not approve my courses beyond to German courses saying this not a realistic goal due to my limitations. I forged his signature. Learing Russian was surprisingly easy compared to German which was a struggle. I guess I took Arabic because I like the sound of prayers in Arabic. The sounds made sense in a synesthetic way. One does not have to know Arabic listening and cannot not help knowing that the speaker is calling to a higher power. The flow of the prayer songs are uplifting. One need not know the words, just flow with the sounds. It takes you upwards like a stairway.
Also seeing the world through the lens of another languages actually changes your perception of reality even your personality.
12. What is your own synesthesia research about?
To better understand my own synesthesia. The study of forms, like colored grapheme synesthesia can yield clues about other forms. I have been soaking in the last decade many presentation in synesthesia conferences. I have spoken at conferences in the U.S., England, Germany and Spain. What we learn about synesthesia is going to change the way we understand reality as much as the quantum physicists have done. It can no longer be ignored.
13. Where is synesthesia going in the future?
There will be more synesthesia-based technology for one, like the seeing tongue. No question it will impact and change our understanding how the brain process information. It also give insight about the "Temporal Binding Problem." How is our reality is constructed in such a coherent manner when all of your sensory data are in effect being processed out of sequence, so to speak? Our minds create our own reality.
I have attended conferences that were held at medical centers and it was rather disheartening not seeing any interest among doctors. Not worth their time, It just a interesting quirk and considered irrelevant. That is a mistake, and when they encounter it in their patient, it is often dismissed or misdiagnosed for worst. More awareness is needed to get the message across its implication to the well being of a synesthete patient. There are many out there than previously thought. Many were aware of having synesthesia for years until they make a statement that brought it to the surface. For when I really got a response when I asked them if they can her the blinking of a radio tower light. I never mentioned it again for many years. Many will repeat such similar stories,.
We just experience the world in a much richer way that it can be so ineffable that can only be expressed by art whether it's poetry, painting or music.