Tag Archives: Migraine

Unusual experiences that perhaps do not have proper names

Wakewisdom – If you wake up “feeling” a particular opinion about some question or matter in your life, do consider it very seriously, because it is a message from your unconscious mind which is more coldly objective than one’s daytime mind, which has a dangerous bias towards optimism and self-delusion. The one single thought sitting inside your head when you wake up is well worth noting, should you wake with one.

Midmorningkeynote – Whatever one is thinking, feeling, experiencing, doing or listening to at 10 o’clock in the morning sets the tone for the whole day, and might reverberate through one’s thoughts at later times of the day. Music enjoyed at this time of day could develop into an earworm.

Drowsyloudness – Do sounds suddenly sound louder and somehow closer or interior when you feel tired, drowsy or are half-asleep? Does a sense of the timing of sounds disappear, making sounds seem somehow isolated or freed in time? Does it feel as though some barrier between you and sounds around you fails when you are sleepy? No? That’s a pity, because it can be quite a trippy thing if you choose to listen to an epic piece of music while half asleep, and there’s no need to dabble in dangerous and expensive drugs. Might I suggest listening to “A Canyon” by Philip Glass when you are half-way to the land of nod? Thank me later.

Necksqueak – Being able to hear the sounds of the internal workings of one’s body, like the squeak of tendons rubbing when I move my neck, or the sound of blood pulsing through small blood vessels inside ears, is a bad thing for me, because for me it means a bad headache is on the way.

Sightbliss – I suspect that this one is also associated with headaches. It doesn’t happen often. Hard to describe and subtle. Yesterday I experienced a brief moment of it (and it is typically an effect that lasts only moments) while we were walking back from the beach just after sunset. I had a bit of a headache at the time, but not severe. The trigger seems to be an abrupt decrease in outdoor light levels, as typically happens after sunset, and could possibly be triggered by the addition of cloud-cover. I can’t point to any way in which the eyesight clearly alters, it is more like an awareness of seeing or an openness to visual stimuli abruptly increases. Sometimes it feels like the eyes are suddenly flooded with vision, and in hindsight it seems as though eyesight was previously inferior by comparison. My theory is that it is an unknown adaptation to night-time vision, or a point of abrupt transition between a more neurologically-guarded mode for daytime vision, to a less defensive and more sensitive mode of nocturnal visual processing. I don’t think it is as simple as an opening of the pupils, because the openness of the pupils changes all the time, but this experience is quite rare.

Earwormmessages – Next time you have a piece of music that won’t stop going round and round in your mind, consider the lyrics or the title of the piece of music. Is it a wise reflection on things that are currently happening in your life, or is it just a very catchy tune, or both? I’d like to make it clear that this is not “hearing voices”. It is the involuntary experience of having a tune in one’s head which just happens to have lyrics that seem to be a commentary on the current events in one’s life.

Are the flashbacks that are an element of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a troublesome variety of synaesthesia and/or related to the Tetris effect?

I’m going to explain why I think this question is worth considering.

I have recently been reading a most interesting book that has been descibed as a “medical memoir”. I have read that the fiction writer Siri Hustvedt has mirror-touch synaesthesia, and I was rather interested in reading about that, but the main topic of Hustvedt’s book The Shaking Woman is her search for an explanation for her seizure-like shaking episodes that are triggered by public speaking.

One thing that I’ve noted is that both Siri and her late father have experienced PTSD-type flashbacks of traumatic memories (warfare, car accident). Like myself, Siri Hustvedt has also experienced the Tetris effect, which is like PTSD flashbacks in that it is an involuntary experience of a visual memory. I don’t experience the Tetris effect much these days, but when I do it is typically in response to a full day of weeding or some other outdoor repetitive work. I don’t think scientists know how common the Tetris effect is, and if it is a thing that everyone experiences then it wouldn’t mean a thing that the novelist and I both experience it. I have at least one other close blood relative who has also experienced the Tetris effect quite a few times. The Tetris effect operates through an unknown memory system, possibly related to procedural memory, according to the Wikipedia. I would think that the Tetris effect would have some type of visual memory system as its basis. It is interesting that Hustvedt’s mysterious shaking episodes were dampened-down but not completely cured by the drug propranolol, which (according to the book) is also used to treat high blood pressure, migraine, performance anxiety and PTSD. Hustvedt seems to have a lot of whatever mechanism is the basis of PTSD, which I guess might be a very strong or hyperconnected visual memory system in her brain. I would think this system is also probably responsible for the Tetris effect. Another reason to believe that the Tetris effect and PTSD operate in the same brain system is that a study described in the Wikipedia found that playing a Tetris-like video game soon after a traumatic event “….reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards”. I guess a specific memory system becomes overloaded with memories if the game is used as preventative treatment, so less of the traumatic memories can be encoded properly for long-term storage.

Hustvedt and I have quite a few things in common. We are both synaesthetes, we have both experienced the Tetris effect, we have also both experienced and migraine headaches, and we have both apparently had brain-based experiences of involuntarily-retrieved visual memories. In her book Hustvedt did not spell out explicitly that her flashbacks included visual content, and she did mention the memory of sound, but I’m happy to assume that anything labelled as a “flashback” included visual content. My involuntarily-retrieved visual memories are two different types of synaesthesia which I’ve experienced which trigger visual memories of scenes or a face. Hustvedt’s shaking episodes are like synaesthesia in that they have a very specific trigger (public speaking) and a very specific manifestation (violent body tremors without apparent anxiety, or under the influence of propranolol, an “electric buzz” quiver throughout the body).

There seem to be a lot of things here that are inter-connected. My experiences of my fine-motor->visual memories of scenes synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon, which is I believe a hybrid of face recognition and synaesthesia in which seeing one face under very specific conditions triggers an involuntary experience of a very old memory of the face of another person, show that synaesthesia concurrents or triggered additional sensory experiences can be in some ways similar to PTSD flashbacks, but without any accompanying psychological distress. My fine-motor-triggered visual memories are very subtle and hardly noticeable, while the face memory evoked in The Strange Phenomenon is more of an intrusion into ordinary consciousness. I’d like to put forward the theory that the flashbacks of PTSD (and not any of the other distressing features of PTSD) are synaesthesia concurrents that just happen to be distressing visual or sensory memories. I guess they must have some type of trigger, and I guess could be something purely sensory, very subtle or ordinary. I have never experienced PTSD myself, probably because I have fortunately never been in the type of extremely traumatic situation that causes this psychological syndrome, so I can only guess at what PTSD flashbacks are really like from what I’ve read. Are PTSD flashbacks the result of a type of synaesthesia that can manifest as quite a subtle experience, but are only troublesome or exceptional because of the very unpleasant nature of the memories evoked? Are synaesthetes more likely to develop PTSD if exposed to trauma than non-synaesthetes exposed to equivalent situations? It’s just a theory!

Wikipedia contributors Tetris effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tetris_effect&oldid=448999724

The Shaking Woman. The Book Show. Radio National. April 22 2010.  http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2010/2878610.htm

Link between face recognition and synaesthesia becoming obvious – interesting new article about tone-deafness and prosopagnosia in Scientific American magazine

This interesting recent article explains the many similarities between tone-deafness and face-blindness, and how both conditions can be caused by “structural disconnection” rather than damage to the specific parts of the brain that “do” face recognition or musical perception. The distinction between the developmental and congenital forms of these conditions are explained.

You don’t need to be a genius to see that the “structural disconnection” discussed in this article could be seen as the opposite of synaesthesia, but just in case that isn’t completely obvious, synaesthesia is mentioned at the very end of the article, in the notes about the author of this article, who is a scientist at Trinity College in Ireland who studies “the genes involved in wiring the brain and their possible involvement in psychiatric disorders and perceptual conditions, including synaesthesia.” Indeed!

A word of caution – I don’t think there is anything in this article that says that prosopagnosics are more likely to be tone-deaf, or vice versa. Although it would seem a sensible assumption that a group of traits should be found together: good face recognition should be found with intact or great or maybe even excellent ability to consciously comprehend musical notes (perfect pitch or absolute pitch), should be found with synaesthesia, but this is not always the case. Apparently there are synaesthetes who are also very poor at face recognition, and the synaesthete author Vladimir Nabokov has been reported by Oliver Sacks to have possibly had “a profound amusia” (Sacks 2007, 2008 p. 109-110), based on a passage that Nabokov wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. I think amusia is a fancy word for tone-deafness. In the book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes a number of different types of amusia, and interestingly, this prosopangnosic author also describes in his book some episodes of  amusia that he experienced which were a part of the aura of his  migraine headaches. There are so many connections here that it’s almost like looking at a plate of spaghetti!

Are people who have perfect pitch better than average at face recognition? Are super-recognizers synaesthetes? Is perfect pitch unusually common in synaesthetes? Are the opposite deficits associated with each other? Get to work, researchers!

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain. Revised and expanded edition. Picador, 2007, 2008.

Tranel, D. Damasio, A. R. Knowledge without awareness: an autonomic index of facial recognition by prosopagnosics. Science. 1985 Jun 21;228(4706):1453-4. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/228/4706/1453.abstract  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012303

 

Postscript 2013 – I’ve had comments from at least one person who is apparently a definite and high-profile super-recognizer to the effect that she is not a synaesthete, so that’s a strike against the idea that supers are synaesthetes. Regardless, I reserve the right to point out that some researchers have found that some study subjects who claim to not have synaesthesia have returned test results that suggest that they are, so it appears to be possible to be a synaesthete and not know it.