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synaesthesia September 20, 2008

Posted by eatnorthamerica in pseudo-informative bullshit, things that are not quite things we know, verbiage clusterfuck.
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You’re a subtitle in my head.

You might have heard of the oddity known as synaesthesia, the merging of two or more senses. Some synaesthetes see colours when they hear sounds. I see you talking in monochrome text. The colour/sound association is such an archetype of the condition that I hadn’t realised what I experience is classifiably synaesthetic (not least because it seems prosaic to me, compared to gustatory synaesthetes who taste lemon when they hear ‘k’).

Well, I’ve finally found someone else who sees everything they hear in text.

http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/acronick/entry/how_do_you/

…which is top Google search for ‘when I hear people speaking I see subtitles’.

The trigger for this query stemmed from a joke my colleagues were running in the kitchen at work; they were getting passersby to ‘help them work out a code problem’ by saying it out loud and having them write down (there was a bit more to this) p, 3, n, 1 and 5. Most people get it after completing the word; some canny individuals get it after writing the p3.

“‘Penis’?” I said the moment I heard the sequence, and didn’t understand their surprise. I didn’t get why the joke would possibly work on anyone until I remembered that most people get direct aural input from speech. It wasn’t until late high school that I realised that having subtitles in your head isn’t a universal experience.

I know there are plenty of other people who are quite capable of converting the letters; but for me the association between sound and text is inexorable. I will see letters/numbers in print somewhere in my head. Usually in Arial, Helvetica or Times New Roman, white floating on a black field.

Perhaps another way of explaining it is that most people read by converting text to sound; for them reading is double the effort of listening. For me it’s the exact opposite.

There are some odd aspects to all this, like how it’s really hard for me to make out song lyrics (I’m fine with the actual pitches, just not with the speech aspect — most of the time the words don’t even exist to me), or how I used to have the worst trouble in school spelling the simplest words out loud. ‘C-A-T’ is a struggle. Breaking a word into letter sounds is an alien concept. Soldier is [soldier]. Cat is [cat]. It is what it is. Every word is visual gestalt, an indivisible conglomerate.

I have heard Japanese is processed similarly by fluent readers. Not because the characters are pictures — very few have any remaining pictorial root — but because of their necessary visual chunkiness.

I read by processing huge chunks of text rather than going word by word. I don’t remember ever not knowing how to read, so maybe this oddness is a function of that.

I had the most horrible time maintaining concentration in classes because extended amounts of speech are unbearably arduous for me to process while maintaining focus (too slow. Being impatient doesn’t help).  I have to focus pretty hard on conversations to figure out what people are saying, especially if they have accents or are speaking softly.

I can’t play games with very slow text output, either. It’s unbearably frustrating to have to wait for word/sentence/paragraph chunks to drip onto my screen. It’s like having a conversation with someone who spells every single word to you instead of saying it. Somebody tell me how t-h-i-s i-s a-t a-l-l t-o-l-e-r-a-b-l-e.

Often I pronounce words the way they’re spelled (eg, salmon), which has led to my having gotten a lot of stick over the years. I’m still filled with a child-like pride when I remember how to pronounce a word that is phonetically counterintuitive. If I hear foreign words, I have to know their spelling system or it’s almost impossible for me to remember the words I’m learning. I ask people to spell out confusing names for me so that I can chunk the letters into meaningful units and then remember their appearances.

There’s only one word I’ve ever had serious trouble with, and it’s bizarre. It looks ‘wrong’ no matter how I look at it. I have no idea why. I know how to spell it, but I don’t know how to spell it. It doesn’t exist as a natural [word unit]; it gives me a queasy feeling. Sometimes, if I concentrate hard enough, words start to look like text patterns rather than ‘words’; that’s how bizarre looks to me.

I don’t have eidetic memory, but I do have good general visual memory.

This isn’t exactly the same condition that the blogger linked above does; she can’t hear voices, pitches or accents in her head, but those aren’t an issue for me. I have a decent grasp of scansion in text and have no problems with music. Just speech. I often have trouble recognising voices on the phone (possibly due to aurally-triggered cognisance anxiety). No, my hearing is neither damaged nor abnormal, and if anything is better than average when it comes to aural tests like micropitch differentiation, etc etc.

Is it useful? It’s not great that I have trouble with lexical-auditory functions, but I process text very easily; it’s just the way I’m wired. Hell, I don’t know any better.

See what I’m saying?

I glossed over the mainstays of synaesthesia because I didn’t want to tarry too far beyond my personal experience with it. Here are some links for additional pursuit:

http://otherthings.com/uw/syn/ <- a fascinating representation of the most commonly-known type of synaesthesia (or synesthesia if you must). Check out the flash demonstration at http://otherthings.com/uw/syn/flash/syn25.html. I definitely don’t experience that. Seems as though his synaesthesia doesn’t involve letters as text but as flashes of colour sensation.

http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2005/03/test_your_synaesthes.html
http://icanhascheezburger.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/funny-pictures-one-in-every-five-kittens-can-see-captions.jpg <– a waggish take on the issue
and a recent anecdote: I went to the dentist and had a new hygienist assigned to me, who had an unusual name (to me). I transliterated it to ‘Aneece’, but not knowing how to spell it (the timing was off and I missed my window to ask) made me so uncertain that I couldn’t say it until after I received my invoice and saw his name spelled ‘Aneez’ (though it did sound more like Aneece with ‘standard’ English pronunciation). Until I know how something’s spelled, it’s not quite tangible.
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[…] https://eatnorthamerica.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/synaesthesia/ If you liked this post then you may like this one […]

2. cid - September 21, 2008

freak.

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