Over a period of a year or two I have been keeping a record of my fine motor movements -> visual memories of places synaesthesia. This is a type of synaesthesia that I have never seen described in anecdotes or in the scientific literature. This synaesthesia is relevant to the strange phenomenon that I described in my first post in this blog because the strange phenomenon involves face recognition, and there seems to be some type of scientific consensus that there is a close association in the brain between face recognition and scene recognition, and there are only two types of things that I see in my mind’s eye as visualised memories triggered by synaesthesia – one person’s face (in the strange phenomenon), and scenes of places that I have visited in the past. Face and place recognition are both thought to be both done in the same part of the brain or adjacent parts of the brain (Sacks 2010 p. 102), most likely in the fusiform gyrus, so I have good reasons to believe there is something interesting going on in my fusiform gyrus, or in the structure of the nerves that connect it to the rest of the brain. The fact that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, a type of synaesthesia associated associated with extra activation in the fusiform gyrus (Rouw and Scholte 2007) and greater volume in the grey matter of the right fusiform gyrus (Weiss and Fink 2008) only adds to the certainty that my fusiform gyrus is not your average fusiform gyrus. Face recognition appears to generally rely on the fusiform gyrus in the right side of the brain, which is exactly the part of my brain that should have an unusually great volume of grey matter, given that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Anyone who has an keen interest in evolutionary psychology should have noticed here an important hint as to why grapheme-colour synaesthetes have evolved. Perhaps as a group our face recognition abilities are enhanced? Someone should do a study. So, my grapheme -> colour synaesthesia, my fine-motor chore -> scene memory synaesthesia and my strange phenomenon, in which the sight of a face is a synaesthesia trigger for a visual memory of another face, are three unusual neurological oddities of mine that are clearly inter-connected. This is why me seeing visual memories of places that I’ve been to in past while cooking or washing things is an important piece of the puzzle in my investigation of the strange phenomenon, though it isn’t completely clear what we are to conclude from this information. I explained how learned fine-motor movements fit into this puzzle in my post The Opposite of Benson’s Syndrome? which can be found by clicking on the tag for “Benson’s syndrome”, so I won’t repeat that part of the story here.
This fine-motor movement-triggered synaesthesia typically happens when I am doing very mundane household chores. When I do one very specific movement with my hands and arms (housework), it will trigger in my mind’s eye a vivid visual memory of one very specific scene of a place that I have visited some time in my past. Another very specific chore will trigger a visual memory of some other very specific place, and there are many different examples of this effect. The funny thing about this type of synaesthesia is that it never seems to trigger a memory of a place that I visit often or keenly anticipate revisiting – the places that I get to revisit via memory are places that I no longer have a connection to, such as homes that relatives moved out of decades ago or beaches that I no longer live near, or places that I wasn’t much impressed with, such as dreary regional cities like Bunbury and Mackay, miserable public places or ugly streetscapes in working-class suburbs. This is why I sometimes call this my dragged down memory lane synaesthesia. It helps to make the drudgery of housework doubly uninspiring.
This memory-related synaesthesia is like being bored in two places at once. It’s like being in two places at once while not wishing to be in either. In fact, I have in the past wondered if the emotion of boredom could play a part in this phenomenon. This thing is a bit of a bummer, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is disturbing. If this synaesthesia was just a bit different it could give rise to some enjoyable daydreams. It could take me back to the home that I grew up in, or a return visit to the top of Uluru, or to a vibrant playground teeming with happy children, but it doesn’t. I don’t have such luck, but then again, maybe this is a good thing. I can imagine that if this type of synaesthesia took me back in time to places that are more desirable than my present environment, I might just be tempted to live in the past in a world of memories. I have wondered if the people who do seem to enjoy living in the past have a type of synaesthesia like the one that I experience, but which brings back more positive memories. I think this could be quite insidious, but this is all just speculation.
Over a long time I have been trying to document this synaesthesia by writing down what the trigger and the visualized memory was whenever I experience this effect. As the details are eminently forgettable, they are usually forgotten a moment after they are experienced, so I make an effort to stop my chores and find a chit of paper and jot down this information. I have planned to collect all these bits of paper and the idea is that I should find that over time that I’ve recorded exactly the same sets of motor triggers and visualised places more than once, confirming that this is a reliable and repeatable phenomenon, and not just random thoughts while doing chores. If this happens it will look like genuine synaesthesia.
This week I was cooking a béchamel sauce, and I found that when I scraped the thick sauce from the sides of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, I automatically saw in my mind’s eye a streetscape somewhere in North Fremantle that I visited once on a bicycle about a quarter of a century ago. I went looking for a chit of paper, but couldn’t see any handy. Then I forgot what the place was that had just flashed through my memory. Then I stirred the sauce again as I didn’t want it to burn, and again I saw in my memory that empty carpark at the back of some large old two-storey public or business building with reddish bricks somewhere in North Freo. Then I forgot the place again. It was only after three stirs of the pot that I managed to scribble a record of what I had seen and forgotten. That carpark is a very unmemorable carpark, if it still exists at all. Not all of the places that this synaesthesia evokes are old and only visited long ago. When I cut up and tear apart chicken thigh fillets while preparing dinner I will receive a visual memory of an alleyway and a carpark close to a Nando’s chicken-based fast-food outlet in a fairly new suburb of Perth. Sometimes there seems to be a conceptual link between the chore and the place, a chicken chore evoking a streetscape beside a Nando’s, squeezing lemon juice evoking a scene of a garden where a game of “oranges and lemons” was played at a children’s party that I attended as a young child, crushing passionfruit pulp against a strainer with the back of a spoon evoking an ancient memory of an aunt’s garden which probably had a passionfruit vine in it.
For many examples of this synaesthesia no conceptual link between the trigger chore and the evoked scene is apparent, but I have reason to believe that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with conceptual thinking. Another type of synaesthesia that I experience is thoughts about particular concepts triggering visualised memories of places that I have visited in the past. As far as I know this is another type of synaesthesia that I have that hasn’t been described by scientists. I know that this type of synaesthesia is mixed up with the type triggered by fine-motor tasks, because some visualised scenes are involved with both types. This type of messy complexity is not characteristic of descriptions of synaesthesia that are typically found in the scientific literature. I believe this difference between reality and literature is due to the methods of science imposing an over-simplified framework of neatly separated types of synaesthesia which does not really reflect the organic and complex structure of real synesthete brains. Would you really expect that a neurological condition that has been described as “crossed wires” or “mixed senses” would fit neatly within a set of sharply delineated categories?
One thing that I’ve noticed with this synaesthesia is that the memories can be evoked in the same way as normal memories, but are not evoked like memories by the synaesthesia. I can remember that I remember a back street of central Fremantle when I gently push the hard ends of softening spaghetti into a pot of boiling water with my hands, but unless I have made the effort to remember that this happens, I will not be able to just summon up the correct memory that goes with the task unless I actually do it and make the synaesthesia happen. I can also simply try to recall what that part of Freo looks like for navigational reasons, but I suspect that the visual memory that I retrieve in that way will not be as clear or as specific as the spontaneous vision in my mind’s eye that I get from the synaesthesia.
I think it is interesting that my fine-motor triggered synaesthesia seems to indicate that, at least in my brain, memories of places that one does not anticipate revisiting are stored in a separate place than visual memories of places that I visit often or that I would really love to visit again one day. By what mechanism are these memories sorted into separate places, and when during the forming of these memories does this sorting happen? I don’t know if this is stuff that is already known to neuroscientists. Perhaps I unconsciously take more effort in attending to places that I don’t foresee returning to soon, so that a better memory of the place is formed for long-term storage, and for some reason these superior-quality place memories are the only ones triggered by this synaesthesia.
Another thing that is interesting about this synaesthesia is that it is almost indistinguishable from my normal stream of consciousness when my conscious mind is pretty much idle and undistracted while I’m doing tasks that are so well learned that they are done almost automatically. If I didn’t have a keen interest in synaesthesia I would never have identified this seeing of scenes in my mind’s eye as synaesthesia or anything out of the ordinary. Before I figured out that synaesthesia is involved, I had thought that the reason why I often thought of the same places when doing particular chores was possibly because a random neurological paring of task and memory was reinforcing itself each time I did that chore, and two unrelated things were by accident becoming wedded in my mind. Later I realised that there was a set of fine-motor movements which were individually and fixedly paired with another set of visual memories of scenes, and then I realised that this was synaesthesia, because this type of situation is typical of synaesthesia, where you can get a set of letters of the alphabet paired individually and permanently with a set of colours. The fact that synaesthesia can be so subtle raises a number of questions. How many subtle types of synaesthesia have not yet been identified and studied by science? How many people are synesthetes but don’t realise? How much do my synaesthesia and other neurological oddities influence my idle thoughts and daydreams? Does this matter? How much does synaesthesia influence the way all synaesthetes think? Are the idle thoughts of “normal” non-synaesthete people influenced by subtle and undetected synaesthesias? Is there an interesting diversity in the subject matter of people’s idle thoughts and daydreams which is attributable to neurological differences? Does this matter? All of this seems like small potatoes when one compares this synaesthesia stuff with the influnce that things like sex, worries, enthusiasm and mental illnesses can have on people’s everyday thoughts, but still, I have to wonder, are there people out there who think about faces, voices, objects or text as much as I automatically tend to think about places and scenes?
I decided that this week was the week for gathering up the chits of paper and notes at the bottom of shopping lists that I’ve been collecting for I don’t know how long, stuffed into a file, typed on a sheet and sitting in a heap next to my computer, and sort through what I have recorded. Is this how science is conducted? It doesn’t seem terribly scientific. I have counted my chits and records of this synaesthesia, and I’ve laid them out on the bed and looked at all of the connections. The patterns I have found are much more chaotic but interesting and connected than I had expected. A brief report is in the works.
Jäncke L, Beeli G, Eulig C, Hänggi J. The neuroanatomy of grapheme-color synesthesia. Eur J Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;29(6):1287-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19302164
Rouw, Romke and Scholte, H. Steven Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia. Nature Neuroscience. Volume 10 Number 6 June 2007. http://www.fmrib.ox.ac.uk/systems-plasticity/jc/potential-papers/rouw_2007.pdf
Sacks, Oliver The mind’s eye. Picador, 2010.
Weiss, Peter H. and Fink, Gereon R. Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex. Brain (2009) 132 (1): 65-70. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn304 First published online: November 21, 2008. http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/132/1/65.full