My toddler son falls and bangs his head. An exclamation of pain comes from my mouth as I grip my legs. Hotshots, like adrenaline, course from my thighs to my ankles. It is not sensible to be cradling my own legs when my child needs a reassuring cuddle. I recover quickly and come to the rescue.
Until I read about synesthesia, it had never occurred to me that my tendency to experience the pain of others was anything but just another quirk of my personality. It doesn’t make me unique – it is quite a common brain glitch, as far as glitches go.
Estimates vary widely. Between one in 200 to one in 2,000 people are estimated to be “synesthetes”. And it seems to be an increasingly popular self-diagnosis.
What is it? Synesthesia occurs when stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences of a second one. Most commonly, it is known as the phenomenon that occurs when someone sees numbers as colours.
My “thing”, in this case, is probably a version of “mirror-touch synesthesia”. I sometimes feel the intense sensations happening to others – usually to those to whom I am emotionally connected. But not always. When I do feel them, they are experienced as shots of pain down my legs. Mostly.
I am obviously a sensitive petal. “Feeling” is cross-referenced in my brain in other ways. When I started art classes in the 1980s, I noticed that my perception of distance was very poor. It still is. When I was drawing a plaster head sculpture or nude model, I could only compute how long a line or distance should be because it would feel a certain way. It was an emotional sensation that I would recognise. Or, to put it as closely as I can describe, it is an emotional or “feeling” flavour.
I would draw the line until the feeling or mood I experienced matched the feeling or mood of the distance. It could be a comfortable, round feeling, like a bald-pated cartoon Medieval monk. Or it could be stretched and slightly anxious like a flighty heron. Often it would be an emotional flavour that I couldn’t describe in words, just like trying to describe the personality of slightly different siblings. One may have a more “full” feeling than the other.
Is that weird?
I can become physically ill if I don’t like what I see. When I was a child, we carried a bowl in the car because I would throw up if we passed through an area that I thought was ugly. It always happened in the 60s and 70s when we were passing through industrial Silverwater on the way out of Sydney to the snow. Today, if my painting is not working, I can feel queasy until I get the colour palette right. The sense of unease keeps me going until I can eliminate it.
Now that I think back on it, as a child, I also experienced numbers as friendly or not friendly. I was most comfortable with even numbers. It is probably not a coincidence that the four-digit numbers of my birthday are all even. Researchers have also noted that people who see numbers as colours tend to report associations that match the colours of the number magnets that decorated the fridges of many family homes.
I also tend to describe flavours and smells as musical tones. But perhaps we all do that. Perfumiers and winemakers often describe scents and flavours as a combination of “notes”.
I have been mulling over recently how this emotional synesthesia might have influenced my art-making – beyond the aforementioned tendency of poor colour combinations putting me off my lunch. I’m sure it has directed my preferences in the things I choose to paint and the aesthetic I have been developing – which is all about harmony and working at things until they sit nicely together as patterns, colours and subjects.
It probably also sits behind my drive to create emotional connections with others through the work, providing a touchstone for their own treasured memories.
But beyond all the questions and considerations, everything I continue to learn about psychology leads me to believe that we are all really quite odd in our own ways.