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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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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