The synesthesia – sensitivity – chronic pain link

As regular readers will know, I am a synesthete and therefore have a long-running interest in the subject of synesthesia, a phenomenon where sensory data gathered from all the various senses gets mixed up, crossed over or compounded in some weird and wonderful ways where normally they are kept separate. There are now many articles about the relatively rare phenomenon of synesthesia, offering far more detail than this, including my own if you search this blog by topic to the right of this page, so I will bypass describing it to get onto the point of this post.

One such article is an interesting post in “Psychology Today“, written by Michael A Jawer (my author of the moment; I’m still reading his fascinating book “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Brain, the Body and the Emotions”) in which he cites a couple of contradicory-seeming-but-are-they-really theories about what synethesia is. First, he quotes a theory put forward by Daphne Maurer of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada:

She suggests that all of us are born perceiving across sense modalities and that we learn to differentiate senses in reaction to the cognitive logjam we experience as babies. Looking at it the other way ‘round, Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University pictures synesthesia as a breakdown in the normal maturation of the brain. The two views aren’t necessarily incompatible. If all of us are born synesthetes, cognitive maturation would imply that connections between brain regions be “pruned” during infancy. If this process is interrupted or impaired, the person would remain synesthetic.

Immediately I read this, I had a “yes!” moment ripple through me as it slotted into place with all the thought I gave to the matter of attachment in infancy when I was reading about it (again, in Jawer’s book) and writing my post Held the other week. Since opening that lid up, I feel like I’ve been recalling all sorts of sensations of what it actually felt like to be me in very early infancy, like I have been transporting myself back to my childhood bedroom to re-experience the sights, sounds and feelings of that era, especially when left alone for long periods and in the dark sensory soup of nightime.

It feels like I am getting very close to understanding something so important about the way I am wired when I seem to consistently recall how I was afforded an unusual amount of “left alone time” and thus freedom as a young child, due to the preoccupations of other family members and the fact I elected to be a “good baby” and not make too much fuss in order to be handled and held. Given that…and this goes for the rest of my childhood…I became largely self-entertaining, used to contentedly playing alone in my own little world, drawing pictures or making things and, later, reading my books but pretty much always left to my own devices. The only other times I strongly recall are spending time with my dad outdoors where, being a man of very few words, we used to literally soak up all the subtle sights, sounds and sensations of nature in a togetherness borne of nothing needing to be said. My mother would laugh at us for being like a pair of old pensioners sat side by side on a cold day, wrapped up in scarves and coats, feeling the garden more so than doing anything in it. Years later, I credited him with unwittingly teaching me how to meditate but this practice made me a pretty unusual kid, now I think about it.

Because I was naturally so self-sufficient, introvert and quiet, I was treated like a mini-adult (which is what I felt like on the inside, I so vividly recall)…and, as such, it was almost as though I parented myself in those formative years. It was a brother who taught me to count and my sister who taught me to read…more as one might teach a pet a new trick…but I don’t remember that kind of interaction with parents. I had very little contact with anyone outside the house until I went to school at age five and then couldn’t wait to get home, to my own space, in the evenings and holidays. Family life was largely a blur going on around me but, in some subtle yet important way, exclusive of me as my siblings were much older, requiring different attentions and I was left largely unattended. All three had left home by the time I was 6 and so I lived very quietly with a borderline elderly couple (my father was already into his sixties); again, left to my own devices.

In Held, I speculated that this is why I developed such an intimate relationships with the whole sensory environment around me, even sensations of things that can’t be seen and thus which, in many ordinary parenting regimes, would be negated or dismissed very quickly. For instance, a child says they can feel a presence or a differential in the energy of a room, though it can’t be seen or logically demonstrated, and a parent would normally say “don’t be silly” so the child would generally stop believing in it, as so instructed. I do remember some vivid encounters I had with more bizarre sensory experiences, inside and out of me, that I knew…if I told anyone else…they would quickly dismiss,  so I didn’t; though I did often comment outloud about “energies” shifting or feeling one way or another to my mother, who tolerated this as one of my endearing peculiarities. Yet, although she didn’t understand it, at least she didnt tell me I was wrong or should curb myself for fear of scaring people off at school; and I eventually found friends with whom I could make such observations without rocks being thrown. It felt like I was born with a very full set of sensory abilities which life tried to prune back, but which I was very determined to hold onto and, due to my considerable freedoms, I was able to…perhaps longer than most.

So, as per the theory Jawer mentions above, I have always held that children are born with a great many more sensory abilities than we later have and that we routinely cull them as we learn what it is “appropriate” for us to continue being aware of (and if we are constantly discouraged or belittled for our observations, we are going to cull whatever broader or less “scientifically corroborated” experiences we are having pretty quickly). Perhaps Jawer is right in his theory that, potentially, all children are born with synesthesia yet only some of us manage to keep this going due to conditioning and the kind of experiences that make these skills undervalued or even a threat if they draw unwanted attention to the child. I certainly drew that; and yet I soldiered on through all the years of feeling like I existed on the fringe of my school peers…until I found one friend who met me where I was during my teen years and a handful more in early adult life.

Perhaps having a family who were, in many ways, unusual helped; indeed, perhaps there was even a genetic predisposition to this kind of  sensation processing after all (if so, I suspect it came from my introvert yet deeply sensitive father). Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge propose that “synesthesia results from a genetically driven overabundance of neural connections in the brain”, so maybe that was pre-wired and my sensory freedoms, as an infant, enabled me to work on those to bring them to life.

Whatever the reason,  I managed to bypass the need to surrender my broadest sensory observations by keeping them to myself and having the freedom to do so; no one demanded that I share my deep and innermosts with them unless I wanted to. Perhaps those observations were deemed far too important to me to give up so easily, in the way of alternate entertainment to what the mainstream offered in a world where I largely relied on myself for stimulating distraction. In fact, I now suspect that any traumas I had as a child (such as being bullied at school), rather than causing me to cut-off my extra-sensory abilities, made me much more prone to relying on them for an alternate experience to what was going on in day-to-day life, as a form of escapism. Or at least to start with; later on, into adulthood, this ability to “feel everything” must have become equated with chronic pain as I sense a withdrawal from it in my late twenties, when things became all too much for me. Yet, by some miracle, I kept my synesthesia and all its associated extra-sensory awareness in full flow until well into those years and it is still there, if given less free rein than it used to have; and I plan to work on that. Whenever I stop long enought to appreciate synesthesia, out of the maesltrom of “too much sensation” in my often challenging physical experiences, I realise how much I treasure it and would love to spend more time enjoying it. “If you ask synesthetes if they’d wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no,” says Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, who studies synesthesia at the University of Cambridge; and I would concur.

Its well-known that our neurons and synapses bear remarkable resemblance to a tree which, over time, through use and learning, we prune back to accommodate the particular lifestyle and habits we have adopted. To quote an article in New Scientist: “During puberty the body carries out a kind of topiary, snipping away some synapses while allowing others to strengthen. Over a few years, the number of synapses roughly halves, and the adult brain emerges”. What I am saying is, what if the super-sensitive person and/or synesthete is the same as anyone else to begin with except that, for whatever reason (including parenting, schooling and degree of exposure to trauma), they omit to prune back what are considered to be peripheral and thus unimportant branches of the very same neurology that we are all born with….thus ending up with a far bushier, more sensorily aware and experientially diverse “tree” to other people, by the time they reach adulthood?

It’s not too hard to imagine how many more people may once have grown into adulthood with a much broader range of sensory awareness in days of bigger families, pre-industrial revolution; resulting in far more individuals that we would label “psychic” or what most modern people would consider to be disarmingly in touch with the paranormal. Because, in those days and in fairly rustic circumstances, perhaps more folk were left to explore their own sensory landscape, with less interference from the twin forces of “parenting” and “schooling” (though the lock-down of “religion” may well have had a similar limiting effect). Perhaps the world wasn’t such a harsh place to be hyper-sensitive in, back then (most of the time); or at least, with infinitely less exposure to information on a global scale.

I thank my lucky stars for parents who interfered so little, producing as they did four extremely bright and exploratory children with, now, some amazing grandchildren doing incredible things (we count an accomplished astrophysicist and a huge range of very diverse vocations amongst our number). If they had been more prescriptive, who knows how that would have gone. These days, I am often appalled to overhear parents addressing their young ones in the typical sing-song voice learned off TV programs as they virtually prescribe to their children what and how to think or demand to know every second-thought their child is having, only to dissect it with “logic”. My parents never did any of that; nor did they fill up all our schedule with extra-curricular activities. The lost art of “time alone” has much to answer for, as does far too much reliance on TV and computer for the kind of external entertainment we may once have enjoyed inside our very own range of experiences. I’m newly grateful to have had all the liberties that I enjoyed as a child, and regard those years with all new respect and appreciation, as a result of this exercise.

So, like some tarzan-child who is virtually self-reared in a tribe that is as different-seeming to itself as can be, did I simply fail to trim back my own sensory “branches”. The result being synesthesia, which I gave up trying to explain to other family members at a very early age, only to leave it off the agenda until I was in my early twenties and told an aghast brother, who clearly thought I was quite mad. The first time I felt safe enough to bring this out into the open was when I became part of a university study into synesthesia, something which I happened upon via a call for volunteers while I was a student. Until then, I hadn’t even managed to give it a name but from then on, I was fascinated and, actually, quite proud of my newly labelled skill.

How synesthesia “goes” for the average person, into adulthood, probably varies according to how well the rest of their life goes. As Jawer discusses, if the road is smooth, it may remain a bizarre yet creative skill set that I can well imagining feeding into, say, a music or art career or providing amusement around the dinner table. I suspect the difficulty comes when the associated high-sensitivity that it entails starts to deliver “too much” sensory data of the wrong type. When life becomes challenging and you are wide open to a vast playing field of inter-related sensations compared to the more narrow range of the next person, it is very easy to become overwhelmed. I recognise the portion of my own life where this occurred and then how the beginnings of chronic pain bedded in…

Jawer talks about this in the article and in his book: synesthesia has overlaps with heightened sensitivity and both have overlaps with chronic pain. All of these phenomenon overlap in me so you can see why I am so interested. It’s as though chronic pain is the down side of the see-saw on which synaesthesia is the colourful gift at the highest end (I really wouldn’t be without it and the sensory adventures it takes me on) and sensitivity is the mixing pot of both, made up of both pluses and minuses, depending on how challenging these heightened sensitivities make the experience of life. I have also noticed how my synethesia seems less active in proportion to how much chronic pain I am in; as though the cursory tale of “feeling too much” has finally induced me to prune back some of my more sensory branches, which makes me wonder if it is possible for me to reinstate my love of the synesthesia experience as a means of tipping the balance of my life away from pain. It wouldn’t be the first time I have used a love of art, of music, of colour, of beauty, of sensuality and of all-round playfulness across all the interwoven sensory experiences of being alive as a means to healing myself and I am quite sure it wont be the last; the key being to remember how I am in control of that see-saw…it doesn’t control me. It also begs the question, could we all become synesthetes if we wanted to; is it ever too late? Could we draw on the very earliest memories of our lives to reinstate it, if we so wished; as a means to healing or making life more creative, playful, expressive and fun? Could we learn to overspill our own boundaries and mix things up, in ways that benefit us?

I find I can even appreciate the whole up-and-down ride I have been on via these overlapping experiences since all three aspects have played a key part in me getting to know myself…and others…somewhat better than I would have done otherwise. In order to recover myself, I have had to delve deeply into what brought these traits about and why we don’t all have them, appraising them for what they have condributed to my experience and every evolution I have ever been through. Jawer believes “that the genesis is the same” for them all and that “being highly sensitive could be an illuminator, in other words, of the path we all take to becoming individuals”; which is how I also regard it, like a torch beam into an unfathomable space. For without the extreme cases of sensory experience, of which I seem to be one, we would not get to probe and thus better understand how we all develop from foetus and through infancy and beyond, nor how parenting and other variables profoundly influence or even limit that development; which gives us so much scope to explore as-yet unrealised human potential. If those of us with these foibles are the spotlight on what it means to be human and the fuller range of experiential potential that we all arrive with as infants, before we hone our neurology in one direction or another, than I guess that’s another positive to add to it all. I like to think that us synesthetes add colour to the whole picture of what it means to be human and, put it this way, life is never boring when you have it.

Resources:

Sensory Sensitivity and Synesthesia: Hypersensitivity is an oft-noted feature of synesthesia – Michael A Jawer, Psychology Today

Everyday fantasia: The world of synesthesia – Siri Carpenter, American Psychological Association

Sensory Sensitivity: An Overlooked Thread – Michael A Jawer, Psychology Today

The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion: How Feelings Link the Brain, the Body and the Emotions – Michael A Jawer

Brain’s synaptic pruning continues into your 20s – By Wendy Zukerman and Andrew Purcell, New Scientist

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