Courtesy Vanessa Ki
Source: Courtesy Vanessa Ki

Vanessa Ki's mother found it uncanny. While pregnant with her daughter, whenever she would pass by a scanner, photocopy machine, or other appliance, her baby would kick.

“It would happen every time. And since I was born, I have been sensitive to machines," Vanessa, now 25, explains.

"I notice the buzzes constantly whereas most people would be able to drown out the noise. I feel like I have an affinity to machines. Perhaps it's because my other forms of synesthesia work similarly to the mechanisms in machines in terms of data organization, etc.”

Nessa, as she likes to be known, of Melbourne, Australia, has more than 20 varieties of synesthesia, including mirror-touch empathy.

She doesn’t simply identify with the avatars in the video games she likes to play, but literally feels the wind rushing by her as they run or pain if they fall to the ground.

A psychology student on the doctoral path, she knows it’s not herself in the game, she explains, because in real life she experiences a fear of heights which is never present as the video heroines leap and fly. She feels the gravity when they descend.

“I tend to treat my characters as me, I have emotional attachments to them in that I treat them like real people with practical limitations. I would not overwork them. I suppose it's almost like imagination going wild. I would consider if they're cold in different places and dress accordingly. I suppose I would say I care a lot more about how they dress than a normal gamer would.”

Nessa is also really good at massaging or managing injuries in other people. “I always have a knack for knowing exactly what is wrong simply by lightly tapping on them. I will know what needs to be done. I rely on my mirror-touch when validating if what I've done is correct and effective. This is further validated by the person telling me how they feel, which is how I feel as well.”

Her forms of synesthesia include tickertape, temporal-spatial, grapheme, and ordinal linguistics personification.

"With my tickertape synesthesia, it is akin to a lyric video, the words can be big and small. To fully explain what it is like, I’d have to start with what I experience visually with sounds. For me, sounds are visually projected in front of me in a 3D place very much like what everyone else sees, except this visual canvas is blank. No colour. It’s kind of black, but not quite (I think blind people may understand what I mean, there’s no visual information but it isn’t exactly the colour black). "

When sounds appear or catch her attention, it becomes a splash of color, pattern, shape, and texture depending on the timbre. "It can be very fine dots, or an overall air-brushed area (this happens for white noise/the general quietness of things because we can’t ever get total quietness), a rectangle, etc. The timbres produce a certain texture that is compatible with how it sounds like. For a whispery soft violin, it is misty. For a strong emotional electric guitar solo, it is like a string of paint, twisting like ribbon across the air."

Not only does music produce visuals for Nessa, but any noise would. "For an intelligible language to me, such noise will take form in their spelling, in addition to the colour of one’s voice, the way they speak, the volume/stress of words. It is also compatible with the direction of the speech, they appear as they would from the direction they sound. If it is quiet, the writing is squished up in the corner chattering away. What happens to language I don’t understand? Well, according to my brain, it is akin to singing/noise—they merely appear in shapes like other non-speech noises."

Nessa' basic grapheme form of synesthesia—colored letters and numbers—are consistent across several languages she's studied. "For writing that I understand, they appear in colours according to the meaning and sound attached. Most interestingly, phonetic languages appear rather consistently; for the sound ‘g’ across all languages that I have attempted to learn (Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Cyrillic, Mongolian), they are all lime green or some close variant depending on the subtle stress. Comparatively, ‘k’ which is a harsher ‘g’ is a dark green, which will also appear in all scripts with similar sounds. So the green hue is dependent on how strong the g/k sound would be. Similarly, ‘b’ is a soft sound in red while ‘p’ is a harsher sound in pink, the intensity of the consonant will determine the hue of red/pink. As for unintelligible scripts, they merely appear like swirls and scribbles to me, and they do have colours, only that they are coloured according to shapes. For me, shapes have their respective colours too, a triangle is green, circle is red, oval is pink, rectangle is orange, pentagon is a light green, hexagon is teal, etc. So the rules for random scribbles would be based on these shapes."

Nessa also gets visuals and feels textures for taste, smell and touch. "Imagine layers in Photoshop—my visuals are exactly that. If you choose to display all layers, all of my visuals from touch, smell, taste, and sound will overlap. However, I can also choose to only display whichever visual from a particular sensory input as well and it will only display that sensation. You can argue that for a synesthete like me, I have five folds of visual field: real life, sound field, touch field, taste field, and smell field. Only downside is that I can’t always choose to display a particular sensory domain if one particular sensory input dominates. For example, if someone wears heavy perfume, I cannot ignore it even if I want to focus on sound field."

She finds one form of synesthesia particularly useful—her temporal-spatial kind. "I have good memory for dates if I choose to file in my virtual calendar. It is also projected in my visual field separate from real world but it only appears when I need it. For example, if I am talking about time/days/history/ or events, I would launch it and be able to see exactly what I noted down for that day. However, it is a little tricky to translate as I note it down in shape and patterns and smells, etc. It is more memorable in this way and it is less likely to be corrupted than your typical episodic memory. I simply search up that sensation and extract words and meanings from them."

Nessa also has ordinal linguistics personification. "As discussed, my world/brain language is made of scribbles and immediate sensory information. Even when dreaming or thinking about concepts, my brain is constantly drawing up scribbles and attaching sensory information to the information. Any information will contain their respective sensation and scribbles. I separate my basic sensations from scribbles because the scribbles are an inherent language whereas my sensations are also another language I use to file my memories. When I dream, sometimes, it is purely synesthetic."

She says that this means, she does not see "the real world," nor experience any real-world sensation.

"They are purely written in my brain language. I don’t hear any human speech either. However, I understand the dream’s story as much as I understand real world events—it’s just a little tricky translating back to human language. So, this mechanism occurs as long as I am thinking, in the background behind my sensory fields that I experience from basic senses. Extending from this, I also ascribe characters and personalities to my sensations; these are done in the form of brain scribbles. For ‘b’ letter, this is a girl who is fashion conscious and not sociable. I know this because my brain scribbles tell me so, plus my synesthetic sensations also confirm the same information. So my brain scribbles not only hold meaningful information, but they also describe personality/character in those meaningful information."

Nessa finds advantages to her unique system. "I am a very logical person and my scribbles allow me to pick up concepts very quickly as they are created while I think. It is very easy to visualize and connect many information together this way.

The disadvantages include some sensory overload and sensitivity. "Plus, my focus on sensations and non-person subjects dampen my ability to pay attention to social, person-based subjects. I have poor recognition for people I have met (although if I have their names and face, I can accurately describe their personality without knowing them at all) and don’t ascribe importance to people in the way others do. I do not have a differentiation between friends and strangers so I treat them the same way. While I still pick up social cues and can interact adaptively, my attention is focused on the non-personal qualities. It's like I'm in 24/7 work-mode and have difficulty attaching to people emotionally."

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