Personality and the Brain, Part 5

People's psychic abilities can be explained by a peculiar crossing of the senses

Posted Oct 21, 2016

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

Another factor appears to play a role in explaining the shift in artistic interest we found in Leigh Erceg, who acquired extraordinary abilities after a brain injury. This was revealed in the fMRI study of Leigh’s brain. Recall that in this study Leigh was asked to close her eyes and listen to a mix of piano scales and silence. Since Leigh was listening to sounds, we expected to find increased activity in the auditory cortex—the part of the brain that processes sound—during the piano scales when compared to the silence. Since her eyes were closed, we did not expect to find a difference in the visual parts of the brain that would have any interesting connection to the musical notes. But the fMRI study revealed another astonishing fact about Leigh. Even though her eyes were closed, we also found increased activity in her visual cortex in response to the piano scales compared to the silence. Leigh apparently was processing sound differently from most people. Sounds were triggering to something that was visual in nature.

This is a phenomenon that is also found in many people with a condition known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is an extraordinary way of perceiving the world, involving experiences of connections between seemingly unrelated sensations. For example, the number three may lead to a perception of copper green, the word “kiss” may flood the mouth with the flavor of bread soaked in tomato soup, and the key of C# minor may elicit a bright purple spiral radiating from the center of the visual field.

Having these colliding senses can, in rare cases, be a debilitating condition, such as when all the rainbow’s colors brutally penetrate the visual field of a particularly sensitive sound-color synesthete. Most synesthetes, however, describe their unusual sensations as pleasant or helpful. Synesthesia appears to enable people to enhance their memory capacities and to perform mental feats related to their synesthetic abilities.

Source: Megan Pohlmann, used with permission

Our research subject Megan, for example, has a peculiar tactile synesthesia that enables her to feel other people’s pain, pain that we normally would only see in the form of a facial expression. This form of synesthesia is also known as mirror-touch synesthesia. It’s a phenomenon where a person feels the same as or something similar to a person she can see being touched. For example, if a mirror-touch synesthete sees you being touched on the right shoulder, she too might feel a sensation of being touched on the shoulder. Megan regularly relies on her mirror-touch synesthesia in her work as a nurse.

Synesthesia can sometimes explain phenomena that have hitherto seemed like magic. At the 2011 Toward a Science of Conscious Conference in Stockholm, I stumbled upon Naama Kostiner, a self-proclaimed psychic and synesthete. Naama was able to provide descriptions of dozens of people’s auras and then repeat every word a few days later. Recently Emilio Gómez Milán and his colleagues in Spain found that the ability to see people’s auras probably is a form of synesthesia, which they call “emotional synesthesia.” To carry out the study, the researchers interviewed synesthetes, including a “healer” from Granada, Esteban Sánchez Casas, known as “El Santón de Baza.” The local people believe El Santón has paranormal powers but the researchers found out that what he has is a form of synesthesia. El Santón has face-color synesthesia and touch-mirror synesthesia. Face-color synesthesia arises when there is neural connection between face processing and color. For these synesthetes, different faces are associated with unique colors.

Many synesthetes have enhanced artistic abilities and express their synesthetic visions musically or in visual arts. As it turns out, Leigh does indeed experience synesthesia, which explains the visual activity in response to sound in fMRI study. Leigh reports seeing colors in response to musical notes and spoken words. To confirm that she has the condition, we had her take the synesthesia battery, an online series of tests can be used reliably to diagnose certain types of synesthesia, including sound-color synesthesia.

You can read the next chapter of this true tale tomorrow. Part 4 can be found here. For further information about this and similar cases of extraordinary human ability, you can read our book The Superhuman Mind.

Penguin, used with permission
Source: Penguin, used with permission