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When Abnormal is Normal

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As the girl who cried and thrashed through her first tattoo—of a bleeding heart flower—I always have been a very sensitive person. Besides being quite emotive, I possess a very responsive nervous system, and all my life have depended heavily upon my visual and tactile senses to understand the world around me. While at the WSF’s latest event, celebrating the release of Oliver Sacks’ latest book “Hallucinations,” I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Sacks during the Q&A about the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia—a sort of overlapping of the senses, in which one might for example hear the color blue.

For example, when I do math, hear music, or memorize speeches, I usually have and even depend upon my visual imagination. To add 600 and 500, I picture 500 “filling in” and then “overlapping” the space occupied by 100. After reading the autobiography of Daniel Tammet, a well-known “full-spectrum” synesthete, I wondered if I might in some way be like this man. Tammet has involuntary, lifelong, consistent sensory overlappings—each color has a number, has a texture, has a sound etc. But I did see many resemblances between mine and Tammet’s “visual mathematics.” Does there exist some kind of spectrum, with my overactive imagination on one end and a man who always sees the number 6 as small, dark and sad on the other? In order to possibly fill in some blanks on this theoretic spectrum, I asked Sacks to help me understand the neurological difference between a synesthetic person and a synesthetic hallucination. Sacks explained earlier that evening that hallucinations are processed in the same part of our brains that processes what we call “reality”—what one sees, hears, tastes, feels is indistinguishable from a “real” sensory experience. After hearing Sacks’ answer, I wonder if a synesthetic hallucination falls somewhere between myself and Tammet—though experienced as real, hallucinations are informed by one’s imagination. After all, a very religious person is more likely to speak with angels, a recent widow is likely to encounter her late spouse and an Irish man is liable to meet a leprechaun. Though I have had precious few hallucinations, I always have been a bit of a hypochondriac, and vividly remember one terrible synesthetic experience wherein a certain shade of yellow felt to me like slightly greasy yeast flakes, which I was convinced would make me sick upon inhalation.

Though I do not have a condition in which my senses lie to me or overlap in their processing, I do feel that anyone who reads Sacks’ books comes away with a special respect and increased eagerness to understand the ways in which their brain has constructed their experiences of the universe. Through sharing my own modest experiences, I have come to understand how I made it through school despite my ADHD, feel genetically connected to my maternal lineage of female artists, and most importantly, can be both amazed and comforted by how very normal an “abnormal” mind can be.

– Arla Berman

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