Top of the most interesting topics to write about this week, and not for the first time, is the subject of synesthesia which is something I’ve been aware of having all my life, though I only discovered the word used to label the phenomenon when I was in my twenties. My original post, called Walking a spiral, feeling in colour, was published over two years ago and my reason for choosing to talk about it again is that I’ve been giving some thought to ways in which I believe it might be intricately connected to fibromyalgia.
Synesthesia is a phenomenon where the usually distinct senses used to gather information get muddled up and crossed over – for instance numbers, letters and words may be perceived as colour; sounds as words, visual images or smells; scent may trigger acute emotions or even touch sensations…and so on. Much of my own experience relates to my interchangeable experience of colour and other visual data, such as geometry, with emotion, sensation, sound and symbols (including words, letters and numbers which I ‘see’ as colour). I also notice how, when I create or even anticipate creating, my whole body becomes engaged, muscles contract and release from head to toe and my face (especially) follows the ‘lines’ of what I am doing – which can make me look like I’m grimacing when I work. On the inside, its as though I’m using everything I’ve got, laying my whole being down on the work surface – which inevitably makes painting much more physically demanding than just channelling intention through an arm directing a brush tip. Its the same when I listen to music, which feels like my whole body is engaged, every cell responding as a cacophony of muscle contractions, an orchestration of body processes, like a very extreme version of tapping your foot. Yet these aren’t the only kinds of synesthesia that I experience by far and this is where it gets interesting as far as fibromyalgia is concerned.
I was recently able to put a new name to a synesthesia-related phenomenon that I’ve always experienced and that is, apparently, called ‘mirror touch synesthesia’. Understanding that I experience this phenomenon takes me one huge step beyond simply knowing that I am an empath – as so many people with fibromyalgia tend to be – into territory where I now understand that I experience actual, physiological, sensations on behalf of others. These sensations correspond with what they are experiencing; in other words, my neurones actually fire off as though their sensation is mine. This response can be triggered by actual people, through hearsay (fiction, news account) or through visual or auditory stimuli such as television drama or music.
I should add, we all do this to some extent, receiving ghost sensations on behalf of others around us (which is what makes a trip to the cinema so thrilling – allowing us to ‘be’ the character in the movie). The difference here is that most people seem to experience a frisson of excitement, a thrill of ‘what it would be like’, an emotion of excitement or tension; whereas synesthetes – with levels of intensity that vary from one person to another – actually feel the experience as though it is happening to them, like a moment of quantum entanglement played out between two people’s biology.
What the synesthete might not realise they have learned to do in daily life – and this is very consistent with how someone with fibromyalgia learns to cope with their daily experience – is underplay all of the many sensory messages they receive. In other words, in an attempt to ‘normalise’ their responses to a benchmark that appears more socially acceptable, they learn to ignore the onslaught of sensations they receive; sweeping them under the carpet, refusing to react. Gripping onto logic for dear life, their mind insists they are imagining sensations or that they simply aren’t important enough to pay attention to, may even be harmful to them, socially unacceptable, stigmatizing. They learn to hold themselves rigid, to resist all the information coming in and so begins a process of locking-up the sensory interface they were gifted as a human being. The result is that all these eager, over-active little neurones are left tirelessly firing along ‘urgent’, insistent messages to the brain – only to be repeatedly ignored. Inevitably, so much other data – important alerts to do with health and wellbeing – get caught-up in the crossfire and ignored as that person learns to shut down, to numb themselves from way too much stimuli. The only option left to this over-wrought nervous system is to make itself even louder and more insistent than before = fibromyagia.
The label ‘mirror touch’ was quite new to me when I first came upon it in an article about a doctor in the US who literally feels what his patients are experiencing as he walks about the hospital wards; something that he has managed to capitalise upon as an invaluable skill set for a doctor seeking to identify what is wrong with people who often struggle to pinpoint symptoms or who may even be unconscious when he sees them (though its not hard to imagine how this ’attribute’ could turn his vocation into a nightmare if his attitude were any different). As I read through this article, a light bulb went on in me, illuminating all the myriad ways that I, too, feel what others feel. And, of course, just as this doctor did for the first twenty or so years of his life, I guess I always assumed that what I experience is nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary – which, in some ways, its not as we all have the capacity to feel what others feel; its what makes us human, after all.
Yet there’s a subtle but important difference between empathizing with how a person feels if they, say, burn their hand or cut their finger – and yes, we all know how these things feel, from our own experience-bank – and quite another to feel an actual replica of the sensation they are having, as though it just happened to us. A propensity to do this can make you withdraw from the world, over time, and I see now how it shut down my ability to watch television, to be in crowds, to be around people that were too boisterous or prone to physical rough-housing; I can’t easily bear hospital wards or dentist surgeries, graphic information jumping out of my newsfeed or sport. If someone stubs their toe, I’ve been known to let out an ‘ow’ and really mean it; a burnt finger or scraped knee can send an electric shock wave through me or feel like my skin has been grazed right off. A person wearing clothes sloppily, their unbelted trousers hanging down, or with hair hanging over their eyes can make me squirm with the discomfort of it. On more than one occasion that I can easily recount, I’ve felt like I would drop to the floor when someone received a physical blow somewhere near me – even in jest – and proximity to violence, aggression, anger or hysteria can leave me a physical wreck for hours or days, as though the life-force has been wrung out of me. On the upside, I can watch a bird in flight and be the bird, my perspective switched in an instant; can feel the silken glide of a swan, the light elixir of frothing water against skin as I watch a coot dive for food in the river, feel sun on head watching a lamb curled up in the sunshine. I’m not standing beneath the waterfall, I AM the waterfall. I can pranayama-breathe a rainbow that floods me with colour.
The thing is, if you’re prone to feeling everything ‘as though’ its yours just by being in proximity to others, how overstimulated is your nervous system going to get, over time, and how could this contribute to the kind of systemic overwhelm that is typical of someone with fibromyalgia, often described as a condition where people ‘feel too much’ or whose pain sensors ‘over react’ to the point that their neurology goes haywire or burns out altogether.
Since spotlighting this trait, I’ve been able to witness how I experience it in the most extraordinary ways, related to the most bizarre situations, and not always related to other people as inanimate objects can have just the same effect on me. I recently passed a church where the pillars by the entrance were made up of a row of classical statues that appeared to be supporting the weight of the roof and observed how I experienced a subtle but real tension in my skull and neck, a tangible experience of weight compressing me downwards – all experienced in a tiny flash of experience that would have been so easy to overlook but which, I could well imagine, may have materialised as an inexplicable neck or headache moments later if the very fact of being conscious of the trigger hadn’t deactivated it as soon as the visual stimulus was removed from my eyes. If an object is pushed into a very tight space, I feel it as fleeting claustrophobia or tension in my muscles. Something lopsidedly broken can make me long to fix it as though to rectify an imbalance in myself. When objects get damaged or destroyed, given away carelessly or mistreated, I ‘feel’ it in all my cells – have laughed at myself many times for the extreme anthropomorphism that means I worry about the fate of belongings donated to jumble sales or letters posted in the mailbox on a cold winter’s night. Funny as they sound, there’s no getting away from the admission that these things bother me in ways both subtle and real and I can think of at least one other person (also a synesthete) who knows exactly how these bizarre-sounding traits feel because we’ve laughed about it together.
In my own experience, mirror touch synaesthesia particularly relates to geography and ‘feeling myself as’ the landscape and what happens – or has happened – to those places; something which informs the complex relationship and, often, deep resonance that I have with certain locations. Crossing bridges, turning corners, driving long stretches, finding a different route, climbing up or down, completing or repeating journeys, returning home and linking places can feel like inner landscapes have been reconciled, healed, left behind, journeyed through, joined, unknotted, transformed and transitioned in ways that goes far beyond metaphor – this is me being the landscape, experiencing as it and using it as my expanded self in order to explore all that I am as a consciousness.
In new places that I visit, the feelings that I tune in to, that determine whether I like that place or not, go way beyond surface aesthetics or whether my hotel room is what I expected and feel much more akin to my senses connecting with the state of wellbeing of that place – which is so often informed by what that place has ‘been though’ in either near or distant history – and then feeling those sensations as though they are my own. Any trauma held in the landscape can transfer to my own mood as surely as I feel the mood of a person nearby. I have been to places where I almost can’t bear the vibe, feel doubled up in grief for no reason or want to run away; others where I am cradled in a such a deep sense of profound wellbeing that nothing in the obvious environment can explain it. At surface level, this skill set helps me choose holidays and restaurants, has informed house purchases and turns in the road…and my family have long since learned not to argue with these determinations, for all they can seem to run quite contrary to logic at times, especially when they are hungry and I turn away from a place where we could eat (though these instincts have never let me down).
The biggest light bulb for me is how synesthesia informs my sensitivity to weather, ‘space weather’ (as written about many times before), the seismic grumblings and shifts of mother earth and both natural or manmade disasters – all of which I can sometimes feel being mirrored in my body, often before I even ‘know’ they have happened.
So I have a theory, one that I suspect is not that far off the mark, which is that people with synesthesia are far more likely to develop a condition such as fibromyalgia than someone without it. This theory is based on the simple premise that experiential data is received by them in ways that are extraordinarily broad-based and cross-sensory – which is to say that, for every piece of data being received, multiple sensations can get stimulated at a time (a bit like being in a multi-sensory cinema rather than a conventional one) instead of just one or two. Throw in the fact that some synesthetes are prone to experiencing ‘other peoples stuff’ as though it is their own and, suddenly, they are receiving many times more sensory data than the average person. Its a spin on the world that can allow life to be experienced as a vibrant, fantastical, multi-layered, sensation party when things are going well – but, under certain circumstance, it can result in the sensory circuitboard tripping all its switches or becoming so overwhelmed that almost every sensation is treated as a potential threat.
So, how to turn all that around and reinstate synesthesia as the sensory play-thing, the enhanced-level experience, the premium movie ticket, that it really is? Well, synesthesia has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest gifts of my life – not only for the benefits it offers to me as an artist and writer but for the countless other ways that it enhances my sensory experiences and joins them all up in ways both weird and wonderful. The thing is, nightmarish as ‘feeling what other people are feeling’ might sound, on paper, I can’t help discerning what a gift this could also be – perceived in a whole new way – which is to regard it as one giant step closer to unity consciousness. After all, removing all barriers, labels and compartments to know yourself literally ‘as’ the world you live in is yet another mile or two closer to experiencing yourself in the broadest way possible, as ‘all that is’, an expanded consciousness that knows no ‘other’, only oneness. A world in which we all experienced like this would wave goodbye to conflict forever.
There’s another way of looking at all this and the lesson of it arrives in the form of a question – “if I can dismiss another’s pain as ‘not mine’ though I feel it as real, what if I could let my own go just as easily?” Seen in that light, a new possibility is that mirror touch synesthesia has the potential to teach us how no pain can hurt us – not really – and that the matter of who it belongs to, or how long it goes on for, is as interchangeable as the interpretation that we give to it or, literally, what we expect to happen; so, could this be quantum living in action? As a synesthete, we can even change the ‘colour’ of a sensation, give it a more rounded shape, attach to it some gentle music or a softer base-note, allow it to take us on a fantastical journey…whatever works best for us. Whether you have synesthesia or not, perhaps the root challenge for those of us with fibromyalgia is to learn how to stop hurting ourselves and that means learning how to stop experiencing any pain as uniquely ‘ours’, as hard or stuck but, rather, allowing that so called ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sensations may be just a stream of different colours or shapes passing through the interface of our existence.
His book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by physician Oliver Sacks (along with “The Man Who Tasted Shapes” by Richard Cytowic) was one of the first I came across about the lifetime experience that I once assumed was uniquely mine. In his more recent book “Musicophilia”, he proposes that “We might all be colored-hearing synesthetes until we lose connections between these two areas [color and hearing areas of the brain] somewhere about three months of age.” For more on this latest study, you can dip into an article in the NY Times.
Finally: synesthetes keep some interesting company – a very long list of famous people exists on Wikipedia but Frankenstein? Here’s the giveaway quote: “It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time…”