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Kristian Marlow, M.S.
Kristian Marlow

Living An “Ordinary” Life With Extraordinary Abilities

A nurse, wife and mother with synesthesia

By Amy Broadway, member of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research

What’s your mother’s birthday? Rather than shuffling through your daily planner, instead focus on a virtual calendar that circles around your body. Literally see today as something right in front you. Past months circle to your left, and future months circle to your right. On a date to the right, see a green splotch that denotes your mother. Now you know when to get that birthday card. This is how Megan, one of our case studies at our lab, keeps track of birthdays and other important occasions.

"If I want to 'view' a certain day to make plans, I try to 'go there' in my field of vision. I think I must stare into space and not make eye contact with people a lot," she says.

Megan is grapheme-color synesthete. Synesthesia is a persistent condition in which perception through one sensory faculty elicits another, involuntary sensation. As a grapheme-color synesthete, Megan involuntarily perceives certain colors tied to what she sees or thinks about. Dates, personalities, piano keys, letters are examples of things that have particular colors bound to them. As a projector grapheme-color synesthete, Megan sees these colors projected in the world outside of her. For example, when she sees the number 4, she sees a green “4” hovering above the symbol actually present.

One might think that these instances would interfere with Megan’s life. You can imagine her continually sorting through a flurry of colors and shapes all around her that other people do not see. However, as Megan’s mental calendar shows, synesthesia can enhance her life. She can use it as a tool for memory. She can also appreciate activities, like listening to music, in ways that other people do not. Megan works as a nurse outside of St. Louis and is married, with a young son. On the surface, her daily life seems ordinary, but her perceptual experiences make it exceptional.

Unlike mothers who don’t see colors superimposed on letters, Megan was able to color coordinate her son’s name. “My husband and I agreed on a boy name right away: Caleb Maximus. Caleb is very cobalt/babyish blue. Maximus is red,” she explains.

Source: Rhonda Favor Studios
Megan, and family with custom colorless blocks
Source: Rhonda Favor Studios

Caleb has not been tested for synesthesia and is too young to fully describe such experiences. But when making parenting decisions, Megan considers that he too may have the condition. When she was growing up, she remembers, she would become frustrated by colored letters or numbers which did not match her synesthetic colors. To avoid this kink in the learning process, for Christmas Megan gave Caleb a custom set of blocks, which displays only black letters and numbers. That way if he is a synesthete, he will be able to “see them in his own way."

In addition to grapheme-color synesthesia, Megan exhibits signs of mirror-touch synesthesia. Mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS) occurs in individuals who feel what other people feel in a more salient way than most of us. MTS is not simply empathizing. Studies have shown that when those with MTS observe someone being touched or touching something, they will feel as if they are also being touched or touching something. For example, if someone with MTS sees someone scratching his face, she will feel as if her face is being scratched or that her fingers are scratching something. Megan’s synesthesia does not express itself in quite this way. She reports feeling others’ emotions as if she is having them on her own. As a nurse, this is helpful for attending to patients.

“I can anticipate their needs more because of it. Sometimes it's good, but sometimes not. It's easy to help put a family at ease when they are stressed, but it's very difficult to feel their emotions when they are losing a loved one or are very anxious.”

While feeling others’ anguish can be exhausting, Megan also has emotionally invigorating experiences from synesthesia. Listening to music is particularly enjoyable. The sound of music evokes different colors and the feeling of being physically touched. The sound of the piano feels like taps on her face. She may even feel as if she is being slapped on the face by music. This might sound painful, but it’s actually an ecstatic experience for Megan.

“Live music is the best, however I tend to draw attention to myself at shows because I'm the weird girl in the audience crying for no reason. Even instruments that shouldn't typically move others make me cry. I cried listening to a banjo at Dollywood—my husband was a little weirded out by that.”

Having a “superhuman mind” does not always mean you don’t have to work during the week or do chores when you get home. Unlike Superman—torn between the role of superhero and everyday Clark Kent—many people, like Megan, integrate extraordinary abilities into “ordinary” lives. You can follow a three-part interview with Megan on our lab blog. Find out if you have synesthesia by taking the the Synesthesia Battery.

Photos by Rhonda Favor Studios

Blocks furnished by Little Sapling Toys

About the Author
Kristian Marlow, M.S.

Kristian Marlow is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab.

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