“I have no idea,” said Holliston High School senior Mikaela Mari.
This was Mari’s response when asked if she knew what synesthesia was. When asked to guess what it may be, she said “when you don’t forget?”
Synesthesia is due to “crossed wires” of the regions that control senses in the brain. More specifically, it is defined as a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense stimulates another unrelated sense, such as when hearing a sound, one sees a color. Mari is not the only who who is uninformed, however.
Synesthesia is an underreported condition and fairly unbeknownst to the public. One of the main problems with research in the past was convincing people that it is a real condition.
Abbi O’Leary is a recently graduated HHS senior from the class of 2017 who has synesthesia.
As O’Leary puts it, “I would have been burned as a witch” if she was alive 150 years ago.
O’Leary is a synesthete. She experiences five types of synesthesia including sound-color, color-taste, color-smell, grapheme-color and sound-touch. The sense that comes first in the description is the one that triggers the other unrelated sense, such as when she hears a sound, she sees a color. Grapheme-color is the association of colors with words, letters, months of the year, etc.
O’Leary is a free spirit. On the day of her interview, she was wearing a black flowered dress with bell sleeves that sailed through the air as she used her hands to enunciate her words.
O’Leary attempts to describe the experience to me, using one of the many metaphors she has thought of after being asked so often: “if you look at your phone and then picture the color purple, you can see your phone right? And you can see the color? And you know which one’s there and which one’s not there?… It’s like that for me but I don’t have to think about the color; it’s just there. And I can see both things and I know which one is there and which one isn’t.”
O’Leary has known she’s had synesthesia since she was born, but wasn’t able to put a name to it until eighth grade.
When asked if she remembered a time when she didn’t have synesthesia, she was a little perplexed and asked “no, do you remember a time when you couldn’t see?” A fair point.
O’Leary first heard the term synesthesia when she read a book called “The Name of This Book Is Secret” by Pseudonymous Bosch, in which there is a character with synesthesia. She didn’t recognize her own situation, however, and wished she could be like the character.
Later in eighth grade, she heard a girl at camp talking about her own sound-color synesthesia, and in O’Leary’s words, “basically assaulted her” to get more information. After this, she was able to put a name to her extraordinary senses.
Scientists are not exactly sure what causes synesthesia or exactly how it occurs.
Biology teacher at HHS, Mrs. Caroline Steiner, echoes this sentiment saying: “it’s difficult to say [why synesthesia occurs] because there are so many parts of the brain and they’re all so integrated.”
A prevailing theory, found on Scitable by Nature Education, about synesthesia says, “until late adolescence, our brains are constantly growing, generating new neurons and forging new tracts between them. However, alongside this cell production is a process called ‘pruning.’ This is where unessential neurons and connections, ones that are rarely used, die off… However, in the brains of synesthetes it is possible that this process is somewhat suppressed, leaving greater amounts of white matter between key sensory regions. Synesthesia, then, may be evidence of an over-connected brain, lacking in pruning.”.
Recently, scientists have made some exciting discoveries about the grapheme-color form of synesthesia.
According to Scitable by Nature Education, “synesthesia occurs when there is additional ‘cross-talk’ between neurons in different sensory regions of the brain. Initial activation in one area ‘spills over’ into neighboring regions, creating a sensory effect from the stimulation of those neurons. For example, seeing a word or letter activates the aptly named visual word form area, or VWFA… where visual information is processed. The VWFA is adjacent to area V4, another visual part of the brain responsible for experiencing color. In people with grapheme-color synesthesia, greater connectivity between VWFA and V4 can result in the… firing of V4 neurons when they see letters, giving them the sensation of perceiving color at the same time.”
This is a long way of saying that when O’Leary sees the letter a her brain registers the letter, but also sends a signal to the part of her brain that sees color and registers the color red.
Synesthesia provides O’Leary with indescribable images and sensations, but also can give her painful sensory overload. On the positive side, the way she describes synesthesia sounds like something out of a fairy tale or fantastic poem.
She says music is like “silk scarves” over her vision and that each person’s voice has not only a unique color, but a texture and opacity as well.
When asked what sounds look like to her in color form, she scuffed her hand on the desk repeatedly and said “it looks like I’m kicking up little sheets of color.” She shook a plastic water bottle and described the color as “radiating out” from the bottle.
Memorizing is child’s play to her, and her reading and writing skills have always been above and beyond her age level. Words are not just abstract images that sit on a page. They are tactile to her; she can mold and manipulate them anyway she pleases.
This condition has allowed her to develop a unique talent: talking backwards. She has “been able to talk backwards as long as she has been able to talk forwards” and was one of the first indicators of her condition.
But the negative aspects of synesthesia are as nasty as the positive are pleasant. When O’Leary experiences sensory overload, she says it feels like “she has no skin and all the colors are just whooshing past her.”
The touch sensations she feels from sound become painful instead of the normal finger running along her spine or brush on the ankle and the colors flying across her eyes begin to obscure her vision. When this happens she needs to get to a quiet place with little outside stimuli to return to normal.
This can happen at events when O’Leary wants to enjoy herself and take away from the experience. Most notably, it has happened at an Ed Sheeran concert and the Homecoming dance last year. Lesser versions of this can happen in class as well if she is trying to focus.
Normally she is able to filter out excess stimuli, just as an average person does not feel their clothes touching them constantly or notice a fan whirring after a few minutes.
When she needs to concentrate however, and there are people talking or playing music, she begins to notice those stimuli more and sees the colors and feels the touches associated with those sounds, then she smells and tastes those colors and the sensory information snowballs.
In addition to causing these symptoms, synesthesia can also make her seem less kind and understanding than she is.
For example, in one of her classes the other day, someone was playing music and it tasted so bad to her that she had to ask the person to turn it off. There are also people O’Leary likes, but finds it difficult to be around because of the color she associates with them.
The color she associates with a person is different than the color of their voice and develops as she gets to know someone. The pleasantness of the color is in no way a reflection of the person and if a nice person develops a terrible color, it is simply an unfortunate coincidence of her brain.
O’Leary deals with absurdly high amounts of sensory information each day that the average person couldn’t even begin to fathom. Therefore, she is constantly asked about what it feels like. While others may become frustrated and annoyed, O’Leary’s kind and generous spirit shines through when she patiently explains synesthesia to anyone who asks.
Throughout her interview, she consistently tried to respond in a way everyone could understand and never once grew tired of answering question after question. Her synesthesia in a fascinating part of her personality, but her character is the facet that shines through the most.