It is one thing to understand why people experience synesthesia or how many people have it but, in order to really understand it, it is necessary to see the experiences of people who have it. There are a number of generalized trends that have been found in people with synesthesia. Please note that these are generalized and do not apply to all people with synesthesia.

Trends

There has been quite a bit of research done on the superior memory abilities noted in people with synesthesia. The most famous case is that described by A.R. Luria in The Mind of a Mnemonist based on his studies of a Russian man referred to as S. in the book. S. had synesthesia to a greater degree than is common, having associations between four senses- sight, sound, taste, and touch, and thus represents an extreme case.

The Good, The Bad, and The Intriguing

I will describe S.'s attributes in order to show the greatest extent synesthesia is known to influence someone's life. Most people have fewer and scaled down characteristics. The problems that S. and other synesthetes have to deal with are often different then those of people without synesthesia. Have you ever had trouble talking to a person because his or her voice hurt or sent flashes of color that disrupted you? Or was the voice was so intriguing that you enjoyed the sensations produced by the voice, and could not concentrate on the meaning? This seems to be a fairly common experience of people with synesthesia. It can be seen as wonderful because everyday experiences can be much more intense and emotional but it is also possible for it to get in the way. For example S. said of a person he was conversing with, "I got so interested in his voice, I couldn't follow what he was saying..." Also, it seems to inhibit concentration in some cases. S. reported, "If, say, a person says something I see the word; but should another person's voice break in, blurs appear. These creep into the syllables of the words and I can't make out what is being said."

The same ideas apply when reading. Each word calls up an image, so when something is read too fast the images get all mixed up and confused. Needless to say this is quite distracting and makes it difficult to see through the chaos to the meaning. However, when something is read too slow there is some difficulty in keeping the mental images accurate. According to S.,

"...I read this phrase: "N. was leaning up against a tree..." I saw a slim young man dressed in a dark blue suit (N., you know, is so elegent). He was standing near a big linden tree with grass and woods all around... But then the sentence went on: "and was peering into a shop window." Now how do you like that! It means the scene isn't set in the woods, or in a garden, but he's standing on the street. And I have to start the whole sentence over from the beginning..."
Despite the fact that synesthetic experiences can get in the way in some instances, they can be useful too. The main example is in memory. Synesthetes score significantly higher on memory tests than other people do, on average. This may be due to the various associations the word has in the different senses. In general, the success rate of memorization increases when you use more than one sense to learn, like writing, reading, and speaking. Also, association with something else often helps. People with synesthesia do this naturally without trying. For example, S. describes his ability to remember words:
"...I recognize a word not only by the images it evokes but by a whole complex of feelings that image arouses. It's hard to express...it's not a matter of vision or hearing but some over-all sense I get. Usually I experience a word's taste and weight, and I don't have to make an effort to remember it- the word seems to remember itself"
Again, the case of S. is uncommon, but the idea is the same for many people with synesthesia: the associations of the word with other things are natural. Often people will remember the color or sound associated with a word before they remember the word itself.

S. also saw things differently from most people, and thus figured them out differently. He was hired as an efficiency expert. He was good at this because he could actually see the details. He was extremely observant and able to solve practical problems based on the pictures in his head. He found contradictions in stories that other people never noticed. For example, an author describes someone as not wearing a cap and then later on in the book says that the character adjusted his hat. Most people do not see the discrepancy but, since the whole time S. is reading he is seeing the character go through all of the actions in his head, he notices when something happens that doesn't fit. In his head he will have a character walking along the street and then he will read in the story that he adjusts his hat. But S. looks at the picture of the man walking along and notices the man doesn't have a hat on his head. He used the same idea in solving math problems. He simply had images in his head as clear as they could be on paper, but more accurate because they were not hindered by drawing ability. He never was tempted to substitute formal, numerical calculations that often cause problems because they were unnecessary.

However, this is not without complications. For example, he had a lot of trouble understanding poetry because he took everything literally, obstructing the true meanings. Each word produced images that distracted him from the meaning of the sentence as a whole. He said, "I can only understand what I can visualize."

One very intriguing ability was the way he could regulate his own pain. He describes how pain is a red thread that grows bigger and bigger, eventually blocking everything else out. So, he "cut the thread, making it smaller and smaller, until it was just a point" and he no longer felt the pain. I have not heard of many other people with synesthesia who use this technique but it would be an interesting research topic. It is possible that people have this capability but are not aware of it.

Remembering a Poem

The following is an account of how S. remembered a poem in a language that he did not know and was able to recall it 17 years later.
The poem was:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita
Ah quanto a dir qual era e cosa dura...

S.'s method:

That is the first line, which should be enough for you to understand one of the techniques used by S. and many other synesthetes.


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