Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Today's psychologically incorrect quote from a famous person:

"I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me."
- President John F. Kennedy

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Are you sure that your brain is normal?

The recent report in New Scientist, which is cited after this article, confirms something that I have discovered myself about synaesthesia; that you can have various forms of synaesthesia but not be at all aware that you have them. I know this because for the last couple of years I have been steadily adding to the list of the different types of synaesthesia that I have. I've given up counting. Until now I'd just thought that so many of the idiosyncratic associations that my brain makes between unrelated things were just random thoughts, but once one becomes familiar with the patterns and characteristics of synaesthesia, it becomes apparent that there's so much more to synaesthesia than a colourful alphabet.

When I wear a fragrance I like to match the colour of the clothes that I am wearing that day with an appropriate perfume for that colour. It's interesting that one of the research studies reported in New Scientist seems to have identified such associations as possibly being another type of synaesthesia. I have suspected as much for a while. For me some colour/perfume matches are probably culturally influenced, such as a vanilla fragrance with a white shirt. Some matches are not so obvious. Like many of the study subjects I would categorize lavender as a green smell (which is one reason why I was so fond of an unusual type of lavender that I used to grow in my garden that had green flowers). Lavender is a fragrant plant that has flowers that are generally the "wrong" colour for their floral fragrance. Another obscure example is the African species Pelargonium gibbosum, or the gouty geranium. It has tiny limey green flowers in the summer time that only open at night, and are only scented from around sunset to midnight. I have grown it because of it's strange scent, which is kind of like bubblegum or jonquils, and it is definitely a magenta-coloured smell. I can't help thinking that the colour of this flower is some kind of joke by mother nature; such a grand, feminine smell wafting from such nerdy-looking little blooms. If you do grow this plant in your garden, or wish to grow it, and you live in Australia, please keep it in a pot and don't let any part of it find it's way onto vacant land or bushland, as it has the potential to spread in natural environments and become a terrible weed. I have often wondered whether matching perfumes with colours marks the theoretical borderland between normal cultural and metaphorical thinking, and abnormal synaesthesia. It appears to me that there are non-random associations between the colours of perfume packaging or names of perfumes and the scents being marketed. For example, years ago I used to love a perfume by Guerlain named l'Heure Bleue. It indeed did have a smell that I thought was blue. I wore it with blue clothes. I plead guilty to once owning a bottle of the agressively spicy fragrance "Ambush" which had a hot pink coloured plastic cap that was a perfect match to the smell. A most appropriately named fragrance.

I have a prediction to make regarding synaesthesia/synesthesia: so many newly-described types of synaesthesia will come to light through synaesthetes sharing first-hand anecdotes and researchers describing new case studies, that the synaesthesia researchers who have been keeping a record of the different types of synaesthesia will abandon their list-compiling, and may conclude that synaesthesia is not so much a collection of specific types of experiences, but is more like a different type of brain.

I've got one complaint about the article in New Scientist; I think the title is misleading, as I don't think the research reported is evidence that everyone does or might have synaesthesia. It only appears to be evidence that until now researchers might have mis-identified some synaesthetes as non-synaesthetes. I personally do not believe that all people are latent synaesthetes, and I am sceptical of the idea that all people go through a normal stage of having synaesthesia early in life, which they normally grow out of. Either you have the gene or you don't - that's what I think.

Do we all have some synaesthetic ability?
by Alison Motluk
New Scientist. September 30th 2008.