Sunday, January 13, 2013

Are famous synaesthetes a particular type of person?

Last year I had a crack at writing and publishing a couple of little books through the ebook publisher Smashwords. I was curious to see just how do-able the whole process is, and found it surprisingly easy. What an amazing thing is this age of computers and the internet! One of my books is a freebie about the enigmatic and fascinating Opal Whiteley, and the other is a modestly-priced biographical work which grew out of ideas in the first book. "Famous synaesthetes" is a theme that runs through my two books, a topic that I know a thing or two about since establishing in 2008 and continually adding to my huge online list of famous synaesthetes, which is one of the most popular posts at this blog.

In my second book I drew numerous comparisons between three mysterious, most fascinating, famous and to arguably tragic people: Val Lewton, the respected producer of 1940s Hollywood horror films, Helen Demidenko/Darville, the Australian debut novelist who managed to ignite a fire-storm of controversy on a number of different intellectual fronts in the 1990s in Australia, and Jani Schofield, the tragic Californian girl with a controversial psychiatric diagnosis who was placed at the centre of an international media circus in 2009 by her parents. The fourth unusual personality discussed in my book is a fictional but to an unknown degree autobiographical character created by Lewton, the young girl Amy in the classic psychological movie Curse of the Cat People. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I think I might be the only person in the world to write a book exploring commonalities in the biographies of this particular collection of personalities.

In the course of writing my second book I compared Lewton’s exceptional memory for novels and literature combined with a prodigious ability to memorise such texts at speed with the legendary memory of Solomon Shereshevskii, the Russian memory performer and journalist who was tested and examined over a span of decades by the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria. Luria’s case study of Shereshevskii was published in the book The Mind of a Mnemonist in 1968. In addition to Shereshevskii’s memory, the variety of types of synaesthesia that Shereshevskii experienced was documented in Luria’s influential book. In my book I also pointed out similarities between Lewton and another famous synaesthete. I noted that the Lewton biographer Joel Siegel had compared the attention to details evident in Lewton’s work with the concern with details shown by the Russian synaesthete novelist Vladimir Nabokov. As I reflected upon the biographical and neuropsychological facts that I had learned about Lewton, Shereshevskii and Nabokov, an ever-growing list was compiled, a list of common traits. The size of this list suggests to me that here is something that needs to be explained. I believe I have seen a pattern, a type of person. What do you think? Just a handful of coincidences?

All three men were born in Russia (Lewton’s birthplace, Yalta, was part of Russia at the time). Two of the men were named Vladimir (Lewton’s real first name). Two had Jewish heritage (Nabokov didn’t, but married a Jew). All three men were probably or definitely born with intellectual gifts; Lewton with a prodigious boyhood obsession with stories and literature, Nabokov passing through a curious early period of mathematical savantism (documented in his autobiography Speak, Memory), and Shereshevskii coming from a family in which intellectual gifts were evident in other family members. Two of the men definitely spoke Russian and also English in childhood (I don’t know whether Shereshevskii knew English as a boy). Nabokov and Lewton were both certainly gifted with words, both published novelists and Nabokov a polyglot. All three men had worked as writers (Shereshevskii was a journalist when he was “discovered” as a case of exceptional memory by Luria). Joel’s point about Nabokov and Lewton both showed a remarkable appreciation and care for details is a valid one, and I would cite Shereshevskii’s detailed accounts of his own synaesthesia in Luria’s book and his savant-level ability to recall huge volumes of seemingly meaningless data as evidence of an exceptional ability to focus on and process details. All three men had memories that have been described as eidetic or photographic. All three men created scenes in their minds for a living; Lewton an uncredited movie director in addition to screenwriter and producer, and also a novelist, Shereshevskii memorizing huge volumes of data apparently in a visual format, and Nabokov creating visual images in his fictional and autobiographical books. All three were synaesthetes (duh!). Two definitely had multiple types of synaesthesia, while we can only assume that the one type of synaesthesia that Lewton had was not an isolated phenomenon, because it is the norm for synaesthetes to experience more than one variety. Two of the men definitely had grapheme-colour synaesthesia (Nabokov and Shereshevskii both gave detailed descriptions) and all three experienced types of synaesthesia associated with graphemes (letters or numbers). One should take care not to overstate the significance of three people all having grapheme-colour synaesthesia, as it is an unusual characteristic, but not nearly as rare as some second-rate scientists have claimed. Nevertheless, I feel that I’ve identified a pattern in common with these fascinating famous men. You could call it a syndrome. I wouldn’t. You could call it a neurodevelopmental pattern and point to genetics as the origin, but I wouldn’t want to overlook the effects of a boy’s place in society. One could argue that these three individuals were nothing more peculiar than highly intelligent, but that would beg the question of whether synaesthesia is that common among the very bright. You could call my pattern a collection of coincidences. I disagree, because when I consider the biographies of some other famous synaesthetes, the pattern appears to be confirmed. Do you want to know what I think is the most intriguing trait that these three men had in common? It’s one of the more odd and scientifically unexplored varieties of synaesthesia, thought by some researchers to be possibly linked with social cognition. What peculiar mental experience is or was common to the novelist Nabokov, the memory genius Shereshevskii, film producer Val Lewton, the fictional child movie character Amy, troubled young Jani Schofield, the enigmatic American child diarist Opal Whiteley who was most famous in the 1920s, and also the author of this blog post? Buy my book and find out!

The Mysterious Mind of Opal Whiteley: Four Unique Lives Compared.
by Lili Marlene
Publisher: Smashwords.

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