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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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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