Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hypnosis, Synesthesia

The writer Vladimir Nabokov is perhaps history's most famous synesthete, people who experience unusual blending or crossing of sensory pathways. Nabokov experienced the best known form of synesthesia, so called color-graphemic synesthesia, in which letters or numbers are experienced as colored or as sensations of colors. Of note, Nabokov maintained that his wife and son were also synesthetes. He was also a well-known lepidopterist (student of butterflies), one of his drawings is to the left. And he was obsessed with composing chess problems. I've always related those curiosities of his life, perhaps without merit.

In any case, you too may be able to see like Nabokov, no promise that you'll write like him. A new study in Psychological Science suggests that synesthesia may utilize common but latent neural pathways. People were hypnotized to perceive numbers as colors and began to demonstrate synesthetic qualities such as seeing black numbers blend against colored backgrounds. Frankly, I don't know much about hypnosis, let alone the rigor of scientific studies premised on it. But it's a very interesting subject and synesthesia is a real phenomomen.

Daniel Tammet, like Nabokov, is a color-graphemic synesthete but he is also an autistic savant. In Britain he's known as "Brain Man". Because he is able to articulate his condition, some consider him a Rosetta Stone for understanding autistic savantism. He wrote a very interesting memoir called Born on a Blue Day. His unique experience of numbers has allowed him to perform remarkable feats like reciting the number pi to 20,000+ digits for over 5 consecutive hours (that's a European record, I assume rarely challenged). "The Boy With the Incredible Brain" is a documentary on Tammet, part 1 here:



(image credit: Nabokov drawing, theatlantic.com)