Report on my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia

This report should also be read along with my earlier posting titled I’ve got my chits together published at https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/252/

This report revised on 23rd Feb 2011 to add another observation, with more comments added February 26th 2011

Total number of observations of experiences of automatically experienced visual memories (seen in my mind’s eye) of place scenes from my past evoked by doing learned fine-motor household and everyday chores with my hands70

Records of triggers only3

Records of place visual memories evoked only 2

Period of time in which I have been recording these experiencesyears, how many unknown. (I regret that I did not think to add dates of observations to my written records on chits of paper).

Number of sets of the same triggers and experiences that have been recorded more than once only 4 (these sets have only been recorded twice, none any more than twice)

Descriptions of these four confirmed sets

  1. Carefully patting the ends of softening uncooked spaghetti into a saucepan of boiling water to make sure it goes into the water and cooks evenly and separately –> a scene of a streetscape with specific buildings in a back-street part of Fremantle, visited once with a friend years ago (friend worked there once).
  2. Browning cubes of meat in hot oil in a saucepan using a wooden spoon to turn and brown the meat while making curry or stew –> the Ogden’s restaurant on Stirling Highway in Cottesloe that I visited with family many years ago, in which customers could cook their own thick steaks and meats and seafood on a hot grill. Interestingly, I also have records of this same cooking chore evoking visual memories of two other places – some back streets of Joondanna and a part of Stock Road near where the Stock Road markets used to be. These places have no obvious connection with cooking or beef.
  3. Turning bacon over in frypan which is sticking, using an egg flipper -> semi-rural residential street that led to some popular waterfall in the hills.
  4. Trimming nails with nail scissors -> the street where I lived in my childhood/the other end of the street where I lived as a child (not the end where we lived). This is another trigger that has evoked four different scenes, the other scenes being a bush scene of a scenic but isolated road route from Perth to the Wheatbelt, and a humped narrow wooden traffic bridge at the end of the main CBD of Mandurah as it was in the 1970s or maybe the 1980s. There is no apparent thematic connection between any of these places and the chore.

Number of close but inexact matches between sets of triggers and scenes3

Descriptions of inexact matches

  1. Scraping the very last bits of peanut paste from the side of a plastic jar with a knife -> an image of Leighton Beach and this chore also evoked thinking about the concept of “The Pushbike Song” which was an Australian hit in the 1970s when I was a young child. Leighton Beach is a place that I’ve rarely swum at, but have ridden past on a bicycle a few times, in North Fremantle. The exact same chore trigger has also evoked a scene of an area of North Fremantle between Stirling Hwy and the limestone cliffs along the Swan River, an area which I once explored at least 20 years ago on a bicycle. There are obvious connections between the places evoked (both in North Freo) and the memory and the concept of riding a bicycle. This is one of many observations that demonstrate that thinking about concepts and places are very much inter-connected in my brain.
  2. Picking out the darkest, crunchiest French fry from a pack from McDonalds -> the staircase in the home of our next-door neighbours from when I was a child. Plucking carefully selected chips from a packet of potato crisps -> scene of that same staircase, as it looked back in the 1970s. The fastidious chip selection also evokes thoughts of the concept of deliberately offensive and confronting performance and conceptual art. Obviously these two triggers are very similar, and the scenes evoked are the same, but there is no apparent link between the triggers and the scenes. It is also far from obvious how the offensive art might be connected with these other things. Maybe I have always thought of our past next-door neighbours as the archetypal nice, respectable, middle-class, religious people who would be deeply offended by such art. My family didn’t deserve to have such nice neighbours, and they certainly didn’t deserve to have us living next door.
  3. Peeling paper off of a 250g butter pat, as used in baking, and cutting up chunks of butter with a butter knife while weighing it for baking are two chores that both evoke a scene of the exact same area on the top floor of a shopping centre that I visited 30 or so years ago, at the top of the escalator near a Jeans West shop.

Many of these observed sets of triggers and scenes appear to be related within categories:

Buttering crumbly scones -> an ugly back street of Wanneroo near the Wanneroo Showgrounds

Buttering toast -> an old fuel station on Wanneroo Road, not far from above location

The wiping of a little baby’s bottom and the wiping of a toddler’s bigger bottom during nappy changing trigger scenes of two WA regional locations, at Geraldton and a camping spot between Lancelin and Jurien.

Hand-washing laundry chore movements such as scrubbing, swooshing water down the sink and turning on taps evoke a number of scenes around Fremantle and also two dreary regional cities (Bunbury WA and Mackay QLD).

Stirring saucepan chores evoke scenes of Armadale and Kelmscott, adjacent SE Perth suburbs that I’m not that keen on.

Number of identical chores evoking completely different scenes 1 (beating in sugar gradually while making a pavlova with a power mixer –> scene of the front of the kindergarten that I attended (but did not enjoy) and a scene of an area near a maternity hospital, these scenes are in two different suburbs.

Number of identical scenes evoked by different chores 1 (this scene also automatically triggered thinking about an outdated concept that is logically related to the scene of a now-derelict place as it looked when it operated in the 1970s)

Number of triggers that have evoked scenes and also thinking about specific concepts (Domino Effect Synaesthesia) – 4

Number of scenes evoked by chores that are also evoked by thinking about a specific concept 2 (I have a collection of observations of memories of scenes being triggered by thinking about specific concepts.)

Types of triggers include food preparation chores, laundry hand-washing, grooming, nappy change, hair, makeup. Only 1 trigger from a task performed outside the home – swiping a bank card through an EFTPOS machine.

Types of scenes evoked include many places from early childhood, but not all of the places from my childhood. A scene from our neighbours’ home is evoked, but no scenes of my own childhood home. The church attended sporadically during boring primary school religion classes (“scripture”) is “seen”, but there are no scenes of the church that I attended with my family regularly on Sundays. Areas in the vicinity of homes that I used to live in years ago are well represented, as are homes of friends and family visited now and then many years ago (people and places that in some cases no longer exist). Also places visited for fun long ago but not recently are well represented, such as Fremantle. Interstate and WA regional places that I have visited alone as an adult or with family as a child or teen are well represented, but places interstate that I visited with a boyfriend many years ago are noticeably not evoked by this synaesthesia.

Memories in the vicinity of both of the Perth area showgrounds that I have ever visited are evoked – the Claremont and the Wanneroo Showgrounds. Showgrounds are a peculiar type of place, I visit them occasionally and unpredictably but not regularly, and they don’t change much (the neglect of these places is obvious), so memorizing them well at each visit is useful. When I last visited the Claremont Showgrounds during a music festival I could not resist the urge to walk about in the summer heat and crowds, looking at all of the areas that were open to the public.

Three dull regional WA locations are among scenes evoked by this synaesthesia , as are two interstate dull regional places (Bowen and Mackay). A good proportion of the places evoked are places that I have visited only once. All of the scenes evoked are very specific, scenes that one could see by looking in one direction while standing in one place. These are not the concepts of places or street names, they are actual visual scenes. The places evoked are not as uniformly dull or depressing as I had expected them to be. Some quite pleasant locations in Fremantle are evoked.

Scenes that are NOT evoked include my own past or present homes, shopping centres that I currently shop at, homes of close family members that I have visited regularly, the high schools that I attended (my high school years were a stressful time in my life), any of the past or present homes of my best friend (who I have been in contact with since early childhood), or the best places in WA, Perth or interstate that I have visited. Clearly there is a pattern in the type of places that are and are not evoked by this phenomenon. This phenomenon does not evoke visual memories of places that I am or have been keen to revisit, or places that I have revisited frequently, or places that I presently anticipate revisiting often. Clearly there is an important area of the brain that encodes these place memories that is not connected at all with this phenomenon. Clearly I have place memories stored in two different and separate parts of the brain, one operating like the stack of a library, the other operating like the main lending shelves of a library. Clearly there is some process by which my visual memories of places are sorted into two different categories. A recently published journal paper titled Sleep selectively enhances memory expected to be of future relevance indicates that a person’s expectations about memories can affect the way those memories are stored in the brain (Wilhelm et al 2011). It appears that sleep selectively enhances some other specific types of memories, so clearly “memories aint memories”.

Interstate places that I visited when I was touring with a boyfriend many years ago are not evoked by this synaesthesia, while some interstate places that I visited alone during that same period are evoked. Why the difference? Perhaps my BF at the time was a distraction from properly looking at and encoding visual memories of these places in the Eastern States. I tend to think the reason why these memories are absent is the same reason why my memories of high school are not evoked by this synaesthesia.

Discussion

I believe that the total number of observed pairings (sixty-nine) shows that this is a real phenomenon. I know that I am not intentionally thinking of places while I do household chores, and this automatic visualizing of scenes appears to be not driven by any logical train of thought, because for most pairings there is no logical link. For a couple of pairs of chores and scenes there are apparent conceptual links, but for most there is no apparent logical or temporal link between the chore trigger and the visual scene.

I have not observed any habit of thinking about things that are not scenes of places while I do household chores. I don’t recall seeing involuntarily in my mind’s eye to any unusual degree faces or colours or scenes of people or abstract images, but I do recall seeing many scenes of many places. This thing with seeing scenes is not just random thoughts. Visual memories of faces are not mixed up with this phenomenon, a fact which supports the idea that the processing of faces and scenes do not take place in exactly the same part of the brain (as some scientists have suggested), but the fact that the strange phenomenon, in which I involuntarily “saw” in my mind’s eye a memory of a face, is the only other type of phenomenon besides this one that I have ever experienced in which I have received an involuntary visual memory, in an experience that has characteristics of synaesthesia, suggests that the processing of faces and scenes are linked, similar and special in the way they operate in my brain.

It is clear that thinking about concepts is to a degree mixed up with this type of synaesthesia. I am not aware of any published account of any other type of synaesthesia in which three (rather than two) different types of thinking are atypically interconnected. It is important to bear in mind that I experience another type of synaesthesia or synaesthesia-like phenomenon in which concepts are reliably associated with specific places. In some examples, being at the place triggers thinking about the concept associated with it, and in some examples thinking about the concept triggers a visual memory of the place, and in some examples it goes both ways.  I have recorded over twenty examples of this synaesthesia over the years. This type of synaesthesia appears to be the result of the involuntary “method of loci” memorization that I and two first-degree synaesthete relatives experience. I hope to sometime find the time to type up a report about this. All of this inter-connection of different types of cognition, including thinking about concepts, indicates that it is impossible to identify a point of demarcation between synaesthesia and normal, functional thinking. Synesthesia gives rise to examples of cognition that seem senseless and random, but it also most likely helps to form and enhance brain structures that give rise to useful, sensible and accurate thinking. One should not automatically dismiss any synaesthesia association as random nonsense.

The fact that the scenes “seen” in my fine motor task -> visual place memory synaesthesia are exclusively obsolete, ugly or dreary suggests that this is a real phenomenon – why would I intentionally create such an unappealing experience? The patterns observed also suggest that this experience is based on real connections within my brain. Many patterns and some confirmed identical matches (four) between separately observed sets of synaesthesia experiences have been found, indicating that this is based on neural structures that have some stability, but I do not believe that the pairings between chores and scenes are permanent. I believe they fade and possibly change and are created in time. I believe this is the best explanation for the small number of repeated observations of identical pairings.

This is a phenomenon in which a large set of examples of one type of neurological event (learned tasks done by the hand) have triggered individually a large set of examples of another type of neurological event (visualizing memories of scenes of places). This is a pattern that is typical of synaesthesia. In this respect, this phenomenon very much resembles synaesthesia, but this phenomenon does not very adequately match some other characteristics of synaesthesia that have been cited by researchers. This seems to be a changeable and not reliable phenomenon, and it often appears to lack a rigid relationship between one specific trigger and one specific experience. This phenomenon appears to be more branched, more changeable and more inter-connected than synaesthesia as it is typically described, with some apparent connections to neural structures that are involved with conceptual thinking. I guess neural plasticity could be an explanation for why this type of synaesthesia seems to be more chaotic and changeable than other well-known types of synaesthesia. Perhaps this is a type of synaesthesia that involves more changeable parts of the brain than do other types of synaesthesia. I guess one would expect to find neural plasticity in parts of the brain that are responsible for learning about new concepts and learned motor skills, as humans are capable of learning new tricks and new ideas at any stage of the lifespan. In general, the picure that seems to have emerged from the data that I have collected is of a number of multi-branched hubs connecting chores, scenes and sometimes concepts in a way that is not very predictable. This is quite different from the conventional idea of synaesthesia as orderly groups of individual, one-way and reliable connections between two and only two things that are not usually connected.

In my opinion, synaesthesia researchers should consider whether some of the characteristics that have been accepted as defining features of synaesthesia are only a reflection of characteristics of the specific parts of the brain in which the well-recognized forms of synaesthesia take place. Synaesthesia will be a purely sensory experience when it happens between two parts of the brain that process sensory functions. Synaesthesia will be obvious, easy to describe, easy to verify and easy to study when it reliably and discretely triggers very specific colours in situations in which experiences of colours are not normally evoked. What could be more clear and obvious than atypical experiences that are helpfully colour-coded? One wouldn’t need to be Einstein to identify such a phenomenon. Synaesthesia will be a spatial experience when it involves a part of the brain that processes spatial thinking. Synaesthesia will be an emotional experience when it involves the temporal lobe(s). Synaesthesia will be a rigid, discrete and fixed phenomenon when it involves a part of the brain that processes thinking about learning about things that are discrete and do not change over time, things such as alphabets, numbers, days of the week and any of the many other learned sequences of stable knowledge that are typically learned very early in one’s education and early in one’s life. Synaesthesia might involve personal and social considerations when it involves a part of the brain that processes faces, considering the wealth of highly personal information that can be read in a face. Synaesthesia might superficially resemble the symptoms of visual disorders or psychosis when it involves parts of the brain that process vision or hearing or conceptual thinking or socially important cognitive functions such as processing faces or voices. Such forms of synaesthesia might routinely be kept secret by those who experience them (for obvious reasons), or could conceivably be misdiagnosed, and might thus remain unknown to synaesthesia researchers. Synaesthesia might resemble nostalgia, normal remembering or daydreaming when it involves parts of the brain that process memories, and thus might not be identified as synaesthesia by the person experiencing it. Synaesthesia might be highly changeable and fluid when it involves a part or parts of the brain that are used for learning new skills and learning skills that can fall into disuse, or parts of the brain that are used for the highly unstable experience of performing. Synaesthesia researchers need to consider whether they have been studying only the lowest-hanging fruit during the very long period of time that synaesthesia has been studied.

I believe the biggest barrier to having my hand chore-visual scene memory experience recognized as a type of synaesthesia might be demonstrating that it is atypical, because I believe it is an experience so subtle and hard to distinguish from apparently random “wandering” of the mind that it could be tricky to demonstrate its presence or absence in most people.

References

Ines Wilhelm, Susanne Diekelmann, Ina Molzow, Amr Ayoub, Matthias Mölle, and Jan Born Sleep Selectively Enhances Memory Expected to Be of Future Relevance. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1563-1569; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3575-10.2011. http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/short/31/5/1563

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