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The many shades of synaesthesia

Synaesthesia can be anything from seeing words in colours to full-on visual disturbances – and scientists are still learning why.

Standing in a tent in a small market town in Wales, Berit Brogaard, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of philosophy at the University of Miami in Florida, tried to convince an audience that a man could explain his rudeness towards a friend’s girlfriend: it’s a neurological condition. “This man – one of our subjects – has smell synaesthesia,” Brogaard explained. “His friend got a new girlfriend and she smelled like puke to him. He needed to avoid being in the same room.”

It sounds like an excuse but synaesthesia is a recognised and multifaceted condition. Its name refers to the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leading to the involuntary stimulation of another. Some people with the condition will associate letters with colours and argue that the word “Saturday” is bright yellow. Others will associate numbers with shapes, or sounds with textures. These aren’t imaginative quirks: research suggests that synaesthesia aids or even defines the cognitive processes of many unusually intelligent individuals.

Sometimes the condition is less a blessing than a curse. In May this year, during her presentation at the Hay-on-Wye philosophy and music festival How the Light Gets In, which I attended because I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia, Brogaard detailed some of the problems she has come across examining the lives of her subjects. “Take the example of a man who has sound-colour synaesthesia,” she said. “When he walks into a very loud room, or past a construction site, his visual field fills with colour, making him legally blind.” This man’s synaesthetic tendencies put him at risk virtually every day. Such sensitivity is fairly incompatible with modern life.

Nevertheless, synaesthetes are often dealt a fairly good hand. Brogaard’s research suggests that most people with the condition benefit from “improved memory, visual search skills, maths skills and creativity”. These don’t all necessarily occur in a single package, however. For instance, as a result of my grapheme-colour synaesthesia, I have only to see a word written down once to remember how to spell it for the rest of my life, yet my numeracy skills are woeful in comparison, as I am free from any associations between numbers and shapes.

The specific neurological causes behind the condition remain elusive. A traumatic brain injury – a car accident, a fall, or a sudden blow to the right part of the head – can sometimes cause synaesthesia to develop in previously unaffected adults. This was the case with Jason Padgett, a man who underwent brain scanning by Brogaard shortly after being beaten violently in 2002. As he recovered, Padgett claimed to see the entire world synaesthetically, in geometric shapes, allowing him to calculate any sum faster than a calculator.

Brogaard has shown that the sudden death of neurons associated with a massive head injury can cause a spike in signalling chemicals elsewhere in the brain, which may account for the acquired ability.

Yet many are born with similar abilities without any obvious explanation. There is also reason to believe that savantism lies dormant in us all, waiting to be released by a well-timed head injury or brain abnormality.

It can come at a price, as demonstrated by “the real Rain Man” Kim Peek, whose lack of connections between the left and right hemispheres of his brain allowed him to read two pages of a book at the same time (one with each eye) but also led to debilitating social difficulties. Why some people have low-level tendencies while others become legally blind next to a construction site is something that neuroscientists are yet to discover. 

Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear