Strange synesthetics

How does your brain work? Not psychologically… but, like, the experience of it?

This wasn't a question I'd ever asked myself, back in the days before I learned that internal monologue isn't, actually, a metaphor. That just blew my mind. Then I started wondering what else about my brain was different, what things I'd always accepted as just the way consciousness works.

Case in point: I don't have any internal monologue whatsoever.

Sure, I can summon a voice to silently read for sound, to write or rehearse what I want to say, and it's my voice. The voice never just says things. I'm the puppet-master.

And… I don't really have a visual imagination. I do have a visual memory, although it's effortful and patchy like a moving spotlight.

I think with something called unsymbolized thoughts.

And, as it happens, a whole whackton of different types of synesthesias.

I feel my way through a lot of things that others would apparently verbalize or visualize.

I don't see letters or numbers as colors (I don't see them at all), or taste them as flavors, or hear them as sounds. I've got none of the "traditional" synesthesia, in fact, and for most of my life, I didn't realize I had any at all.

But I can draw an apple even though I can't really imagine one (although I can remember a specific one, sort of, if I've seen one recently). I can draw the layout of my house. I can draw the layout of the house I grew up in. How? I know it. How? Memory, of course; I remember the parts and in what order.

But also, feelings.

I feel shapes, I feel balance, I feel correctness, too, a lot of the time. I even feel social situations.

Here's an example: When people refuse to listen, it feels stifling and strangling. Not metaphorically — although also not literally.

This is the part that's hard to explain: I don't hallucinate the sensation of individual fingers on my throat or the weight of pillow on my face… but neither am I using a euphemism for frustrated or angry; the feeling isn't an emotion, it's sensation.

But, and here's the tricky bit: it's not the sensations of emotion.

How does it feel? Well, how do you feel inside an MRI? It's very much like that… Things too close and too loud. A sensation of squeezing. A readiness that can't be released. Held down, heavy, trapped, powerless. A weighted blanket, but malignant.

It's not feeling frustration, or feeling my heart rate increase and my stomach churn, which are the physical hallmarks of frustration… I feel the feelings that engender frustration.

But — again — not a literal hallucination of a weighted blanket, but sort of… the sensory symbol of it. The Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra of perception. Not specifically those people, not specifically that place, or the specific events that happened, but a representation of the entire milieu.

Here's another example: When I'm trying to do something and tools just absolutely will not cooperate, when things get in my way, it feels like I'm moving in molasses, like I'm stuck, like my hands are in thick boxing gloves and I'm unable to grasp the objects I want to manipulate. It doesn't matter that I'm just sitting in a chair and the tool is a piece of software and the heaviest thing I have to manipulate is my finger on the trackpad.

Or sometimes it feels like I'm straining my arm to reach for something just out of my grasp and my fingers can almost but not quite close on it, and then it skitters away when I touch it.

My muscles feel it, but not utterly, not genuine straining or grasping (I'd be too exhausted every day to function!) — just the ghost of a memory.

Like… how can something "feel familiar" even when you can't place it? It's like that. But all the time and in a million different flavors.

When I'm doing a layout and it's not working — whether it's a layout of a process, or a graphic design, or a living room — sometimes it will feel stagnant, sometimes it will feel claustrophobic, sometimes it will feel like it's teetering uncertainly, sometimes it'll feel cutting, dark, or muddy and sticky, or dull.

Sometimes I'll just feel that needs to be over there. It's like a tugging, an emptiness, or a sense of heaviness tilting.

And when a layout is working, it's an openness or freshness, a clicking into place, a peaceful gong, a balance, a settling and a sigh, a rightness.

This leads to some interesting skills you wouldn't expect for someone with no visual imagination: I'm freakishly good at centering things without a ruler or a measuring tape. And nobody can pack a car full like me. Even though I can barely summon a two-dimensional mental shape much less rotate it, I can feel if something will fit, and what the right order is.

(Ironically, trying to summon and rotate a mental shape feels like trying to lift a weight with my brain. Not great!)

Sometimes it's less of an overall milieu and more of a sensory flavor.

Fonts feel like things… sharp, prickly, cozy, cuddly, light, heavy, bouncy, moribund, fresh, greasy, stale, oppressive.

So do people.

Systems — and the natural rules governing how things work or don't work, which are a sort of static-balancing system — are perhaps my favorite thing to sense. They feel free-flowing and fresh and light, or frozen, balancing, converging, heavy and piling up, stagnant and putrefying, spinning out of control. I can feel where the next step should be, even if I'm in the progress of designing it and therefore it isn't even there yet.

And, when I sit and think about systems, when I "run through" the system in my mind, I feel different things at different steps in the process as the system "runs" and the states change. I can feel when things are stuck, or will be, and when they are unstuck and golden.

A good system feels incredible. Satisfying.

So what if I can't sit and imagine scenes or characters or beautiful places? I can experience systems in my mind.

On the negative side, I'm feeling these things all the time, whether or not I'm intentionally thinking about them. The designed world often feels off-kilter or outright hostile to me. I can't relax in a badly designed room. Most systems in society are unbalanced, sludgey, stuck. It gets exhausting.

And, of course, I have misophonia. It's an utterly unreasonable thing; people who don't have it tend to think it's fake but, I assure you, it's very real, and exceedingly unpleasant. Turns out it's probably a type of synesthesia. A sound, rather than triggering a color or a flavor, triggers an emotion. For me it hits a button that delivers instant rage. I can control what I do with the rage but I can't control the misophonia itself. I have to wear headphones if my husband is eating when I'm not. I've been driven out of a home due to sounds in the neighborhood that triggered it. I'm not sure if this is the same thing, but certain songs always make me cry — push button get tears — even though they don't make me emotionally sad, and it often happens on the very first listen, before I've had any time to associate it with anything.

In conclusion, if I have to have one…

I've been like this my whole life and I've always known that this is how I do things; I've always known I design by feel, by experimenting with things until it feels right, that I'm not like other designers who start with an "idea" (using their visual imagination, I'm guessing!) and then simply execute it. And I've always known — and been annoyed by the fact that — other people aren't bothered by inefficiencies or injustices the way I am, presumably because they aren't soaking in the sensations of it 24/7. And of course I couldn't miss that I was driven to fury by noises nobody else even heard.

Yet I never thought of these as synesthesias until a couple years ago.

Just like I never knew that not having inner visuals was unusual.

Or that the inner monologue is real!

I've never felt like I was missing these things; I didn't know they were real to miss. And now that I know, that's fine, I still like my way, thanks very much. It makes me who I am! (Except for the misophonia; that feels like an outside invasion and I'd give that up in a heartbeat.)

There must be a whole world of synesthesias to explain. I want to learn more.

But I digress. This ending feels loosey-goosey and abrupt; the system of this essay is weak and faltering here, like a tree with a wounded trunk. But I'm going to end on this note anyway, because I've said what I wanted to say.

If you've got an interesting synesthesia, I'd like to hear about it!