There are lots of big personalities in the synesthesia community, perhaps none so jazzy as CC Hart of San Francisco, who goes by the handle "Vox Synaesthetica" on social media.
Tonight, Vox will be live Tweeting her synesthetic impressions of the San Francisco Opera's production of “Carmen." (See what I mean? Jazzy!) Find her on Twitter @voxsyn for those of you who would like to follow.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to reveal Bizet's most striking and celebrated opera from a synesthetic perspective. And because synesthesia is triggered by sensation, it's impossible for me to say now what my impressions might be. The San Francisco Opera is the second largest opera company in North America; I'm sure I'll be surprised and delighted by Carmen. I'm so looking forward to the live Tweet!"
Can you give examples of experiencing mirror-touch with clients?
VOX: I frequently experience mirror-touch phenomena in my work, and I've learned to use it to my advantage. I've been practicing therapeutic massage for more than 20 years, so I have a significant background in anatomy, kinesiology, human biomechanics etc. When I'm working on a client and I want to access my academic information or my knowledge of manual therapy, I need to look away from my client. Sometimes, I'll look at the wall, or an object in the room. I do this because as soon as I look at my client's body and watch my hands working, I feel like I am the one receiving the massage. For example, last night I worked on a man who has significant low back pain. I used my palpation skills to locate a muscle called the quadratus lumborum (often shortened to QL), which seems to be part of his problem. As I worked with his right QL and watched my hands do their work, it felt like my own right QL was getting the treatment. This mirror-touch experience feels really good, but can also be a bit distracting. So, when I want to think about how I might address trigger points in that QL muscle, I need to look at the wall, or a painting in the room, or sometimes I close my eyes. As long as I'm not looking at my hands or my client's body, I can really focus on my knowledge base and manual therapy skill set. And, when I'm getting fatigued at work, or if I simply want to enjoy the pleasant aspects of mirror-touch, I'll look at my hands as I provide a therapeutic massage session.
Which synesthesias do you have?
VOX: I have grapheme-color, number forms, spatial-sequential, time units-color (i.e. colored days of the week, colored months of the year) mirror-touch, mirror-proprioception, synesthesia-for-pain (I think of my mirror-proprioception and synesthesia for pain as aspects of mirror-touch) and sound-to-color/pattern. A few days ago I had a really vivid taste-to-color/pattern experience. This synesthesia visits me unreliably. And as a kid, I had color-tactile synesthesia; I felt colors inside my mouth, not as flavors but as tactile experiences such as cold, hot, coarse, soft, bumpy, etc.
I also have synesthesia-for-pain; I get stinging electrical pain that shoots down my sacral dermatomes when I see another person's wounds or injuries. Like all of my synesthesias, this experience has been with me my entire life. When I was about 3 years old, I remember going to the market with my mother and my older sister, who was 5 years old or so. The market had a heavy, swinging door that one could either push in or pull open. My sister tried to push the door open, but she wasn't strong enough. The door swung closed on her finger, ripping her fingernail off. As blood dripped down her hand, I felt a sizzling electrical pain shoot down my legs, from my hips to my heels. It was very painful and came in quick flashes. I feel that same pain zap down my legs even now as I write about my memory of that day. And in my work, I often see people's wounds: heavily bruised ankle sprains, for example, or road rash from a bicycle accident. When I see these injuries, I get searing electrical pain that shoots down the backs of my legs. This also happens when I see broken glass, hypodermic needles, and other sharp or ruptured objects
You have an MFA -- what do you write?
VOX: I write essays about my experiences with synesthesia. An essay about my synesthetic perceptions of the wreck of the Costa Concordia will be published this summer. I also wrote a young adult novel featuring a protagonist who is a synesthete; this work was my MFA thesis, and I'm currently re-writing it in hopes of publication. I write some poetry too. And I blog my reflections on the synesthetic experience at http://www.voxsynaesthetica.com.
I loved the colorful dress you wore to the recent UK synesthesia meet -- can you tell us more about it?
VOX: I recently presented at the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association annual symposium at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. I was a little nervous about presenting my experiences with synesthesia to so many leaders in the synesthesia research community. I always feel great when I wear vivid colors and interesting designs, and I'd only brought a simple grey wool dress with me. So, I went shopping in Dublin and discovered the flagship boutique for Irish designer Jennifer Rothwell. She worked under Norma Kamali in New York for many years before returning to Ireland to launch her own line. I bought her “Isabella” dress, which is vibrantly printed multi-hued silk crepe de chine, fully lined in violet crepe de chine. It feels like a dream to wear, but I also think it represents my life as a synesthete. The colors and patterns on the dress come together in unexpected ways. It's emblematic of my experiences with synesthesia.
What do you think is the value of synesthesia in the world?
VOX: I think synesthesia can serve as a lens for exploring perception. Contemporary neuroscience has documented the differences in how a synesthete's brain perceives sensory stimuli. I think those neurological differences become an incubator for novel ways of perceiving that can foster art and innovation. For example, Nabokov was a color-grapheme synesthete. He saw all of his letters and numbers in color as did his mother and his son. And while Nabokov is recognized as a literary genius, he was also an amateur lepidopterist, who categorized the various and subtle shades of blue in New World butterflies. From his nuanced cataloguing of blues, Nabokov theorized an evolutionary pattern for blue pigmentation. It wasn't until the 1990's that his research was validated by the entomological community; Nabokov was pretty much spot on about the evolution and distribution of blue-winged butterflies from Asia into the Americas. I believe his color-based synesthetic perception fostered novel thinking. And while I'm not suggesting every synesthete is a genius or capable of grand discoveries and/or artistic mastery, I do think synesthesia contributes to innovative ways transforming perception into meaning. Those synesthetes who can move that meaning out into the world via their vocation or creative endeavors may have something extraordinary to offer this world.
I really feel that the blossoming neurodiversity movement has so much to offer our global community. I'm glad that synesthesia is generating public interest in neurodiversity, and I hope neuroscience continues to reveal how strange and lovely our brains truly are.