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Maps of the Mind and the World

Patricia Lynne Duffy charts neural diversity while traveling the globe

A Q&A with the synesthete and UN language instructor Patricia Lynne Duffy, an author and co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association.

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their World was the first book about synesthesia by a synesthete. What inspired you to write it and share your experiences when the research was just beginning?

Back in 1993, my husband, Josh, happened across an article in the Economist magazine about renewed research in the field of synesthesia. The article described a team of synesthesia researchers in London headed by the celebrated Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen. The team was studying people who experienced words as having color.

I can't tell you how excited I was to read that article about synesthesia -- the mysterious perception I'd felt so alone with for years. It was great to know about others out there who experienced perceptions like mine. I was determined to learn more-so I started by writing to Dr. Baron-Cohen and even made a "pilgrimage" to London to meet him that very next summer. As my research continued, I wanted very much to get word out to the general public about synesthesia, so began writing about it.

Synesthete and author Patricia Lynne Duffy

Synesthete and author Patricia Lynne Duffy.

You are equal parts interested, I think, in inner life and outer life. Can you talk a little bit about the two? It seems to me you are interested in both the inner map of the mind and the map of the globe...

Synesthete and author Patricia Lynne Duffy

Synesthete and author Patricia Lynne Duffy.

You are equal parts interested, I think, in inner life and outer life. Can you talk a little bit about the two? It seems to me you are interested in both the inner map of the mind and the map of the globe...

Our inner and outer worlds constantly interact. My work at the UN has put me in contact with people from all over the world and it is fascinating to learn about the different "lenses" through which they view the world. There are so many different perceptions of life that derive from different cultural experiences.

I think in recent decades, all of us have come to better appreciate human cultural diversity and have recognized that human strength is in its diversity. I hope the study of synesthesia opens the door to a greater appreciation of human neural diversity.

Our diverse perceptions of life indicate that each of us has a little piece of the perceptual puzzle that is the mystery of life-we need to put our different pieces together to address our tough global problems and reach our common goals. Making an effort to understand ways of perceiving very different from our own is key to the survival of all on the planet.

Please tell me about your work at the UN and which projects are most important to you.

I work as an instructor in the UN Language and Communications Programme. The way we use language is so key to how we communicate with other people-in fact, it is so key to our survival. How we express ourselves has everything to do with how well we work together, make peace with each other, survive together. Because I feel language is so important, promoting literacy around the world is especially close to my heart. Every year, I, along with some colleagues, organize events to support literacy projects: the UN Book Fair for Literacy and Authors-for-Literacy, where prominent authors give readings and their publishers donate books. Participating authors have included masters of the written word, such as Paul Auster and Oscar Hijuelos. Contributions taken in at these events go to a UN staff-supported fund for literacy projects.

In the course of my work for the UN, I had the chance to visit a couple of these literacy projects -- the Kitengesa Community Library in Uganda and the Anne-Marie Morisset Foundation in Haiti -- and saw first-hand how the local people's lives were transformed by having greater access to reading materials and training in the written word.

I am also fascinated by the very different ways that each of us learns and code language -- we each process and learn language in a way that is unique. I believe these unique ways of processing are crucial to the evolution of language.

In the synesthesia community, you are widely respected as the keeper of literary references to synesthesia. What are some of the most beautiful/interesting ones?

Speaking of literacy and unique ways of coding language-a fascinating character, Clara is in the beautiful novel, Saudade by Katherine Vaz. Clara is deaf, unable to speak and cut off from others. Later she learns to use her special synesthetic, color-relationship to language to learn to share her perceptions and connect to the world.

How did The American Synesthesia Association, which you co-founded, change the landscape for synesthetes in the US?

Our ASA conferences have enabled so many synesthetes to understand the value of their unique way of perceiving and connect to others with similar perceptions. The ASA conferences are special because they bring together so many communities: synesthetes, scientists, painters, filmmakers, writers, philosophers-a whole host of people exploring synesthesia from their different points of view-and putting their knowledge together.

Maybe this is a good moment to thank my original research-mentor, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen for putting me in touch with Carol Steen, my hard-working ASA co-founder.

Which nations make the best use of color to your eye? India? Those in Africa?

I am always amazed that color is so evocative-it allows nations to express their history, culture, and spirit.

When I was in Haiti for the UN last June, I was very struck by the wonderfully colorful paintings and crafts made by Haitian artists and artisans-there are even amazingly big, colorful taxis on the street "tap taps." Tap taps are painted an array of collage-like colors-colors that brighten even the earthquake-damaged streets and represent the irrepressible spirit of the Haitian people.

Please tell me how it felt to win the Distinguished Alumni Award at Columbia Teachers College.

It was a very special life moment for me-the award acknowledged my efforts in two different areas-helping to promote literacy projects and also helping to bring renewed attention to the field of synesthesia research through writing my book, Blue Cats.

What do you see for the future of the synesthesia community around the world? Do you have a wish list of developments?

The synesthesia community has opened a door to celebrating the vast diversity of human perceptions. Each of us-whether synesthete or non-synesthete-views life through a one-of-a-kind lens and makes a one-of-a-kind inner map of the world around us.

I hope the synesthesia community continues to be a leader in the appreciation of human perceptual diversity. I am fascinated by the fact that each time any of us looks at the world each sees it in a way never been seen before; filtered through our one-of-a-kind neural patterns, as unique as our fingerprints.

Ms. Duffy's informative website on the topic of synesthesia is The word "cat" is blue to her and the word "kitten" is chartreuse.

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