some vacation!

When you're a rural telecommuter, being locked out is a lonely business.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

my brain is finally of interest to someone

Last Tuesday, a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo came to my house and spent a couple of hours testing my brain. This was a follow-up to the on-line synaesthesia study that I mentioned in earlier posts.

My own type of colour-number association is not as vibrant as some peoples' synaesthesia in which seeing or hearing a specific digit or letter causes the person's visual field to be temporarily coloured by "blobs", "screens" or "auras" of colour. I get the "sensation" of certain numbers when I see certain colours. Perhaps the best description of my experience is that it feels like the seeking process your brain goes through when something is on the tip of your tongue. The fact that I associate certain symbols with specific colours qualified me for testing.

The researchers set up a laptop and screen on my kitchen table and asked me to choose specific digits that represented distinctly vibrant shades of the primary colours red, blue, yellow and green (for me they were 4,7,2,3). I was asked to choose the exact colours from a Pantone-style chart. They then created a series of coloured numbers which could be flashed on the screen for me: a red 4, a red 7, a red 2, a red 3 and so on for each colour and digit combination.

First they did a test run: the researchers flashed each coloured digit on the screen in random sequence and asked me to identify the number I saw as quickly as possible into a microphone which recorded the time from image-flash to my blurted word. I assumed the theory is that a red 4 (which is a correct match) would be easier and therefore quicker for me to identify than say, a green 4 (the wrong colour match). To my surprise, this did not, in fact, seem to be the case when I was asked to call out number names. A 7 was a 7, regardless of colour.

Then came the brain cramp: when I was asked to identify the colour of each image on the screen, it was virtually impossible for me to identify the colour without concerted effort if the corresponding digit was not "correct". So, a red 4, and I could say "red", no problem. A yellow 4, however, felt like I was fighting my way through molasses to form the word "yellow" and make it come out of my mouth. A yellow 7 actually made me feel anxious and queasy when it flashed on the screen. This was a revelation to me.

Since all of evolution is a process of differentiating attributes (including one's senses) from one another, synaesthesia seems to be an evolutionary throwback. Research into syneasthesia suggests that it is a product of brain development in utero. If the part of the brain normally proscribed for a certain type of sensory process is unavailable at the time in which the body normally forms those neural nets, another part of the brain may be used for those processes. Idiosynchratic neural nets are formed which permanently link 2 or more normally distinct senses.

In other words, if wise old mother nature can't get the job done one way, she'll try another. Some people have no overlapping of senses whatsoever. Some, like me, have a faint sensation of sensory mixing. Others are overpowered by stimulus: something as simple as the fridge turning on creates a light-show of colours, smells and textures.

I had never noticed that my synaesthetic associations had any effect on any mental function before in my life. Obviously, they do. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those who actually see colours with each digit or letter (rather than "sense" numbers, as I do) to swim through this extra layer of perception.

It was a welcome relief to me when I stumbled across anecdotal evidence that synaesthetes often do poorly at math and at learning second languages. Math, grammar and French were the only courses in my entire school career that gave me any distress (I was carrying 85-90% averages across the board in other subjects, but would repeatedly fail both math and french, despite putting the work in). I remember thinking "I can HEAR the language perfectly well, I can even get by in a conversation, so why do I fail every test?".

It was also a welcome relief to read that synaesthetes report a significantly higher than average level of diagnosis for ADHD and clinical depression. As someone who struggles (and fails) to keep order in even the simplest of tasks and then becomes emotionally overwhelmed by these repeated small failures, this is good news, indeed.

I'm not crazy, I'm just wired that way!


At 3:56 PM, Blogger Justin Beach said...

Glad you're back - I'd been wondering where you went.



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