Reality Check: Seeing Words, Tasting Sounds
24 Sep, 2013
Alongside the expansive Infinity event, Marvel is publishing an equally apocalyptic tale in Uncanny Avengers, given shape by the twisted imagination of writer Rick Remender. Therein the Avengers Unity Division, a group comprised of both human and mutant superheroes, must face the terrible judgment of Uriel and his twin sister Eimin, the time-displaced progeny of Archangel and the Horseman named Pestilence.
In addition to their genetic gifts of energy razors and acid production, the Apocalypse Twins have been bestowed with other skills by their future-warping benefactor, Kang the Conqueror. While Uriel can create pockets of artificial, accelerated time, Eimin presents time-space synesthesia, enabling her to see the future in the tones of organ music.
From Uncanny Avengers #8
Remender has become known for his off-the-wall concepts and strange storytelling ideas, but perhaps the most bizarre thing about the abilities endowed to his new antagonists — is that one of them is real.
The Many Become One
The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek roots that mean “together” and “sensation,” and describes a condition in which normal sensory stimuli produce reactions of other, additional senses in those affected. Recent estimates hold that as many as 1 in 23 people may have some form of synesthesia, which covers over 60 specific types of plural perceptions.
Check out this video by Richard Cytowic, the neurologist who brought synesthesia back into the public consciousness during the 1980s, that illustrates some of the different types.
In one of the most common manifestations, inherent in up to 1 in 90 of us, the written forms of individual letters and numbers take on particular colored hues when read, even if the text itself is black. Other kinds of synesthesia can produce colors from sounds (a mental plane Dazzler?), put numbers into spatial positions (where, for example, “1” might be closer than “2”), and, in rare cases, cause every spoken word to have its own taste.
There is limited commonality between grapheme-color synesthetes, as most perceive “A” to be red and “S” to be yellow, for instance, but the differences are greater. Most individual synesthetic perceptions don’t match those of others.
Synesthesia vs. Psi
It’s important to note that synesthesia is not a type of hallucination, as neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out, as it is a constant, physiologic happening based on a stimulus, whereas a hallucination is not regular and isn’t usually caused by outside perception. Synesthesia is a 100% genuine phenomenon the reality of which has been proven. Have you ever done that test where someone shows you the word “blue” in red text, then asks you to name the color of the text without taking too long to think about it or blurting out “blue”? Turns out synesthetes have the same problem when the word is colored differently in their heads. That’s a measureable effect.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty fucking incredible. Of course no one’s been shown to predict the future using synesthesia like Eimin can, which begs the question – why not? There are lots of so-called psychics out there making fantastic claims and boasting impressive success, so why haven’t their abilities been similarly documented? All kinds of different types, too – remote viewing, precognition, clairvoyance, psychometry – and not one can meet the evidential standards of synesthesia? Not even with a million dollars on the line? That should probably tell us something.
There isn’t much objective evidence for the existence of “auras,” fields of luminous radiation that supposedly surround individuals. Studies show that some aura-readers may in fact be synesthetes, while others might just be fantasy-prone.
A Real-Life Superpower
Eimin considers her synesthesia to be a curse, but most real world synesthetes can’t imagine their lives without it. Many don’t even realize they’re different until mentioning something like how that guy had a “green-sounding name,” only to have the person they’re speaking to look at them like they’ve sprouted giant, leathery wings.
But that kind of an association is like a built-in pneumonic device, which offers some synesthetes superior, even photographic, memories. Experiments have shown that synesthetes may also be able to recognize patterns of disparate numbers in a matrix more readily, kind of like in the colorblindness tests you took when you were a kid.
While regular people see what’s on the left, a synesthete might see it like the adjacent image. They usually can’t pick the pattern out automatically, though, as they first have to recognize the number before their brain registers the color.
They Walk Among Us
Just as the citizens of the Marvel Universe fear that mutants could be lurking undetected in society, you can’t pick a synesthete out just by looking at them, although it seems like it would be more fun than menacing to know one. Synesthetes are often more creative than the average person and some artists, like Carol Steen, even use the experience to help create their masterpieces.
“Orange Calipers,” a Carol Steen painting inspired by the colors she saw while undergoing a root canal.
Other notable synesthetes include legendary physicist Richard Feynman, Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Van Halen and (would you believe it?) Lady Gaga.
I can see the resemblance.
In fact, we might all have a little synesthesia in us. Consider the famous bouba/kiki effect. Look at these two shapes:
Gut reaction, if you had to name them, which would be “bouba” and which would be “kiki”? If you stuck “kiki” to the more angular shape, you’re just like 95% of the usual respondents, and that goes for all cultures and even toddlers who can’t read yet. Language is clearly not arbitrary, and all of us seem to associate sounds with the shapes our mouths make while vocalizing them. That’s not true synesthesia, but it may be from where the amazingly oddball experience begins to be derived.
Don’t forget that if you’ve got a burning question about the science in a recent comic book, movie, TV episode, whatever, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and it might become a future column!