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Ghost in the Machine

15-year-old Houston synesthete experiencing mirror-touch with machines

Let's call her "Kaylee." Her Mom says that's OK. The young Texan chose the pseudonym herself, taking it from a character who talks to machines on Fox's "Firefly" science fiction series. But this Kaylee is not a fiction. And as this teen synesthete is underage and still living in a world that doesn't quite understand her trait, we've decided to protect her identity. It is also important to note that she didn't seek publicity. I sought her out after learning about her in the synesthesia community.

Kaylee just gave me an astonishing interview in which she described synesthesia related to machinery. Of the 60 or more types of synesthesias now identified, it seems to most correspond to mirror-touch in which someone literally feels the pain or emotion of another—but until now, that "other" was usually human.

I recall talking with the gifted Russian psychologist, synesthesia researcher and coordinator of the website of the Russian synesthesia community, Dr. Anton Sidoroff-Dorso, about how synesthesia seems to be evolving with technology. Of all our many cross-associations, it seems that we can blend senses with nearly any stimulus, including brand new ones. But frankly, Kaylee's case goes beyond anything I'd previously imagined.

Dr. Sidoroff-Dorso,, had this to say about Kaylee:

Teen girl silhouette by Mike Baird

Kaylee has empathy for the inanimate. Image: Mike Baird.

"If this case can be verified, I will rank it most revealing about human nature! This is because of the degree that we can 'appropriate' the observable world, even to the extent of empathising with non-living things. Animation of non-living objects, the elements or natural phenomena, personification in rituals, emotional attachment to, repulsion from or even identification with robots and machinery can be found far and wide in fiction and anthropology. In psychology (and in Russian psychology in particular) the issue of tool use is interpreted as a phenomenological and functional incorporation of a certain instrument as part of one's body that leads to indiscriminate manipulation of the tool as (if) one's own limb and body scheme. The process occurs in stages, and the rubber hand illusion draws much on that (so, it is more than sensory integration). Recent neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that the human brain reacts very much similarly to maltreatment of a robot toy as it experiences abuse of a human - the same limbic areas light up.

"So, the case you are talking about can be contemplated as ultimate phenomenological and functional integration - that is, empathic or emotional integration. Generally, in humans it seems to happen for reasons of (re)adaptation when one embarks on charting a new and yet unbeknownst existential territory. As we know that synaesthetic reactions idiosyncratically supervenes on multifarious types of cognitive categorisation, it comes as little surprise that some synaesthetic individuals will evince their unusual perceptions in relation to gadgetry as well, because in the age of ubiquitous computing human beings are more and more beginning to see 'artificial' as 'natural' since one is knee-high, and, for this reason, this synaesthetic type of meaning making will start embracing animated electronic appliances and anthropomorphised robots from very early on. To stretch it a bit far, analysing the ways of enlivening the world synaesthetically, we can describe this case of empathy-based synaesthesia as bot-bond synaesthesia."

Kaylee's case raises so many interesting questions. While the current discussion is about when computers will achieve parity with humans, perhaps humans are evolving toward machines?

I thank this brave and fascinating young woman, and her caring mother, for shedding light on her experiences in the following Q&A:

Which machines do you feel an affinity for? Can you describe the touch and movement sensations?

I feel a connection to pretty much everything with some kind of mechanically-powered moving part. This includes cars, robots, escalators, locks, levers, etc.

Since I was a kid, I’ve learned to “tune out” or ignore most machines and other synesthetic reactions to the best of my ability, both to appear normal and to reduce interrupting sensations.

The best analogy I can use to explain it is a radio. My senses are my radio, picking up stimulus and playing it back in my brain, and various machines are radio stations I can tune in on. For example, if I’m in a mall, surrounded by escalators, elevators, motor vehicles, clocks, and other junk, they’re too many stations for my “radio” to process. Unlike most forms of synesthesia, this doesn’t result in a sensory overload - in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. I feel no machine-touch reaction, like my senses are too overwhelmed to process anything. The only way I can “tune in” to a machine in this situation is by focusing on one thing in particular, and ignoring my surroundings. If there’s only one machine in my field of vision, then it’s automatically my focus.

The way I feel the movement of a machine depends mostly on where the machine is positioned in relation to my body. If it’s somewhere near me but not touching me, or if I’m touching it but not influenced by it, then it’s as if the machine is an extra limb, or an extension of me. I feel and am aware of my own body and the fact that I am not the machine; no part of the machine is analogous to a part of my body. It’s as if the machine and I are connected, and I can feel what it feels through that lens without actually “becoming” it. The more extreme the movement is, the stronger I feel it. For example, when watching cars crash in a movie, I feel them as they’re ripped and crush, and I usually have to turn away and cut myself off from the stimulus.

This is different, however, when I am in or on the machine, and directly influenced by its motion, like when I’m riding in a car or on a boat. Then, I am the machine, in a traditional mirror-touch experience. I feel accelerating as a shift of balance (the more rapid the acceleration, the more severe the shift) in my lower body/feet, as if I am standing and leaning forward, about to fall. When the car begins to brake, I feel as if my arms are extended in front of me, and my hands and wrist and flexing up.

What other forms of synesthesia do you have? Do any other members of your family experience it as well?

I have grapheme-color (associative), personality-color (associative), color-number (associative), sound-touch, sound-kinetic, and sometimes mirror-touch reactions to people, but not often. I don’t talk about synesthesia with my extended family much, so I’m not sure whether or not any of them have it. I know my stepmother used to have graphmeme-color syn, but it faded in her early twenties.

When did you realize you were a synesthete? What were your earliest synesthetic experiences?

My senses have always been pretty screwed up, but I didn’t know I actually had synesthesia until I read an article about it from a science blog I follow on Tumblr. The earliest true synesthetic reaction I can remember having was in first grade, when my class was learning about the senses. The teacher was giving examples of sensations and asking us to identify what senses we perceived them with, and I tried to argue that people “feel” their dogs barking and scratching at the door.

How has it been for you describing synesthesia to other people? How do friends, family, teachers, react?

I haven’t had too much of a problem explaining synesthesia to people. With my family, I can usually cite times I had problems with my senses as a child, and explain that it’s actually a semi-common phenomenon. My friends think it’s a little weird, but they generally go with the flow and tend to enjoy quizzing me on the colors of various people, words, and numbers. I haven’t tried explaining synesthesia to my teachers, but I do remember a teacher in 8th grade telling a story about a synesthete she once taught.

What do you think synesthesia means? Is it useful to you?

My synesthesia is helpful when trying to remember long streams of numbers or words, and it also gives me a better understanding of physics and mechanical designs.

What would you like to do professionally one day? What are your hobbies?

Professionally, I’d prefer to do some kind of science or engineering. At the moment I favor mechanical engineering, but I’m a sophomore in high school so that’ll most likely change by the time I graduate. I enjoy reading, playing tennis, and graphic design. I’m also on a team that competes in FIRST robotics, an engineering competition for high school students.

I wonder what you think synesthesia means to human evolution? Why do you think we are like this?

Frankly, I don't think I've done enough research about synesthesia to provide a defensible scientific answer. I do believe that synesthesia gives people a unique perspective, which can be beneficial in any discussion, especially in today's society.

Please describe how you feel for a lock, a lever and other devices you mentioned besides cars.

Locks are very, very cool. They're very elegant in their design, and they serve their purpose well. When using a lock on a door, I feel aware of the pins rising and falling against the key as if I'm running my finger under them instead of a key. When watching or manipulating a lever in action, I feel and am aware of the forces acting on it. When on an escalator, I feel the movement of the steps on the conveyor as if they're the notches up my spine, and the arm rest as the skin at the top of my upper arm and shoulder. Clocks are so delicate and minute in their design and visible movement I barely feel them tickle the hair on my arms. Robots that have the typical rectangular drive train feel like cars, just smaller. Ironically, robots that have been designed to look like/mimic human bodies are stranger to connect to, because their similarity to my already-existing limbs is confusing.

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