Synesthesia as a way of knowing:

Experience, Bias, and Cultural Acceptance

Presented at: 2015 American Synesthesia Association Conference
Location: University of Miami

Today I’m going to be talking about subjective experience and evidence of synesthesia in how it relates to other experiences or identities that have been or continue to be marginalized in our society. The recent heightened attention on racial discrimination in the United States has drawn into sharp focus the role of experience in shaping our worldview. One of the major difficulties faced by communities of color is credibility in conveying this difference in experience to people who have not, and will not ever fully understand the experience of being a person of color in a white dominant society.

This problem of credibility is not unfamiliar to the synesthetic community, who for many years remained unacknowledged or dismissed as the result of exaggeration. So, I would like us to consider this question — What does being a synesthete mean not just for how we see the world, but for who we are in the world? This topic needs hours and days, and we’ve only got twenty minutes, so instead of focusing on bits and pieces of research I’m going to focus on a few stories and experiences to walk through these ideas together.

I’m a grapheme-color synesthete. I know that this is one of the few places I can say that where most of the people in the room actually know what that means through first-hand experience or study. When people are unfamiliar with the concept there are a series of questions that I am almost inevitably asked …when did I realize I had synesthesia — or that I saw things differently. At 16? Didn’t I realize before that that wasn’t how other people saw things? Can I tell the difference between synesthetic colors and colors in the world? Do I get confused?

I have by now answered these questions enough times to have a series of responses that help people to draw connections between my experiences and their own. For example, I explain — when I see the color of text overlaid with a synesthetic photism or color — it’s like looking at a window that has reflections on it. You can tell what’s through the window and what’s being reflected even though they occupy the same space. This helps people to conceptualize of a thing that they can’t see, hear or touch. I have made graphics like the ones here to visually communicate my experience. But I also have research behind me saying that this thing that I am telling them is real, is indeed real. There was a time, as we know, when that was not the case.

The most recent resurgence of interest in synesthesia in the research community spurred by the work of researchers like Richard Cytowic and Larry Marks as well as the work to raise-awareness done by groups like the American Synesthesia Association, has helped to establish the public credibility of synesthesia. My experience has been that most people are still little foggy on what it means exactly, but have maybe heard the term before.

I learned what synesthesia was when I was in an art class at age 16. My teacher described a painter who had synesthesia and as he explained what that meant I said “Oh is that what that is?!” “There’s a name for that?!” Living where and when I do, surrounded by many people who are creative and open to new experiences, I have only ever received squeals of delight or envy when people learn that I have synesthesia. But I know that that is not the case for some people in this room. Many times, when confronted with something different people’s first response is fear. Research has shown time and again that most of us prefer what’s familiar.

All of us at one time or another have felt misunderstood. It’s something we’ve all had to negotiate and understand that sometimes communication fails. We can’t connect and it may or may not have anything to do with you as an individual, but be tied to context, timing, other factors like past experience or what you or the other person ate for breakfast. Sometimes we just do not see eye to eye. But depending on the situation, differences in understanding and assumptions can have minor consequences or life altering effects.

Racialized assumptions, or stereotypes based on race, are quite literally dangerous. Research on implicit bias and policing has found that black men are more likely to be perceived as holding a weapon when unarmed — despite being less likely to be armed than white men. And although African Americans account for only 13% of the population, they make up nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. 42% of black children are likely to be educated in high poverty schools, versus 6% of white children.

And a recent study of longitudinal data found troublingly that white teachers have lower expectations for black students when compared with expectations from non-white teachers. This creates self-fulfilling prophecies by triggering stereotype threat or causing students’ expectations to lower to meet their teacher’s. There is research here to back up claims of discrimination in nearly every sector — housing, education, policing, finances — depending on the color of your skin, the rules in our country change. Yet people of color still regularly face claims of exaggeration… of “playing the race card”

Why? …When it comes to race it’s not just about facts — it’s about racial stereotypes combined with fear. Racism is not just made up of racial bias — it is the combination of racial bias and power. Racial stereotypes were created to justify the institution of slavery and align poor and working class whites’ interests with the wealthy white elites. It was a way to control and prevent working class people from organizing against the wealthy across racial lines. While most of the racism in the United States today is not explicit — the power structures to maintain white dominance over communities of color are as strong as ever. These disparities are evidence of those structures that shape the experience of people of color daily. But here’s the tricky thing about experience, especially when confronted with a perspective that may differ from you own…

“Experience can both confirm what is already known (we see what we have learned to see) and upset what has been taken for granted (when different meanings are in conflict, we readjust our vision to take account of the conflict or to resolve it — that is what is meant by “learning from experience.”

— Joan W. Scott, The Evidence of Experience, Critical Inquiry, 1991, p.793 (PDF)

That is to say — seeing evidence of inequality for some people may simply reinforce negative stereotypes about black and brown people of laziness or lack of motivation. However this interpretation places the onus on the individual person of color, ignoring the larger system that denies access to opportunity for people of color. It’s almost like going to a sports game but only being able to see where the ball is and nothing else. Trying to understand why the ball was moving and what that meant would be impossible without seeing the players and knowing what the rules are.

We all sit at the intersection of many factors in our development — biological, environmental that I think sharing a bit of my childhood will help us to explore together. As many parents do — my parents enrolled me in a school where they had heard good things about the principal. But my childhood was unusual for a white middle-class child in that my school was not predominantly white and was primarily low-income. Maybe you can find me in the picture here… They also sent me to after school in Newton, a wealthy suburb of Boston that is predominantly white, Jewish, and upper-middle class. In neither setting did I feel like I was I in a majority.

Needless to say I quickly realized that people in different places although not far apart, with different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, religion, language — saw things very differently. This experience socialized me to expect difference, which I have come to find is not most people’s default. Not only was I socialized to assume that people see things differently, but I when I came to understand that I have synesthesia — and realized that I literally don’t see things the same way other people do, I really didn’t expect people to see things the same way as me.

To be clear — it is not my goal in connecting the conversation about synesthesia with an analysis of race, to suggest that people with synesthesia understand the burden of racism that black and brown Americans endure on a daily basis, but rather to acknowledge synesthesia as one of the multiple aspects of our identities that inform one another or intersect and are at times privileged differently.

I identify as white, which is the most privileged racial group within the US, but I also identify as a woman — which is not the most privileged gender in our society, but occupies a space that is more privileged than trans-identified people. I also identify as queer, which is less privileged than heterosexual identity.

This type of mapping of identity and axes of oppression comes out of black feminism and is called intersectionality. It acknowledges that all of the ways in which we identify or are categorized by society interact. I see my experience of synesthesia as playing a large role in that identity formation process although one that I was not immediately aware of. …I have always had a positive experience of that part of myself — but simultaneously been aware that it makes me different from most people in a way that they will never fully understand. And in another time I might have been murdered. …for being a witch — because I saw things differently. Not to mention my red hair. …I mean multiple demonic features that threatened power structures of the day.

In other words, while I am grateful that my experience of synesthesia bears no such price today, I am aware of it as piece of who I am that could have been turned against me if it served the purposes of the dominant group. In this way I feel strongly that my experience of synesthesia has provided me with a basis for understanding the struggle that comes with being part of a group that has been marginalized by the dominant culture in one way or another.

This feeling of being marginalized is something that Richard Cytowic recounts in his chapter on “Synesthesia in the Twentieth Century” in the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia — he recalls countless letters from people saying that for years everyone thought they were “making it up” — or even that the attention brought to synesthesia “saved their life.”

But what struck me about Cytowic’s account of his work on synesthesia is why in retrospect he thinks he gravitated to synesthetes as a group. In the past he said he thought it was primarily his upbringing that made him appreciate the unusual, but:

“Time, however has revealed another layer of explanation, namely being gay. It is hard to imagine today, but at the age of 10 years I understood very well that the state considered me a criminal, the church immoral, and my father’s medical profession sick … Society denied my existence by insisting that my thoughts and feelings “shouldn’t be.” It was akin to saying that I shouldn’t be. Growing up with such a message how could I not have been fascinated by something like synesthesia which the establishment also said shouldn’t exist? I knew exactly how synesthetes felt when no one would believe them and everyone called them freaks.”

— Chapter 19, The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, p.402

I think both his and my story speak to how having an experience that is considered to be “unusual” – or outside of the norm, can provide a basis for affinity or openness to other people’s experiences — especially if they have been similarly marginalized in some respect. There have been a very different trajectories in the public discussion around synesthesia and race over the last thirty, forty years though. The increased focus of research on synesthesia has resulted in increased visibility and credibility with the public.

Racial discrimination on the other hand while well documented has lessened in public visibility since the Jim Crow era. During Jim Crow discrimination was clearly marked. There were signs. Both explicit racism or racial bias has become more implicit and ingrained. It’s gone below the radar in a sense — in the era of Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and “colorblindness” (a strange counterpoint perhaps to all the talk about seeing colors with synesthesia).

But by listening to the words of a man that is often held up as a symbol of our “post-racial” society, it is clear that that has not been his experience. This clip is of Obama from 1995 reading from his book “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” in which he describes his experience of confronting the reality of racial dynamics as a teenager. He gives a description of an incident with some friends that starts a line of questioning for him and then the video cuts to him reading from that passage.

Notice what he said… Paranoid — as in imagining things that are not there; Violent — evoking fear of the angry black man. A professor who I greatly respect Bruno Della Chiesa – who founded the Brain and Learning Project at the OECD, always said to us, and I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was …in academia we have this bad habit of dismissing things as anecdotal evidence, but experience is extremely important. Good researchers use those observations and experiences to point towards research questions. They are a basis for research.

There is something about having additional information, like synesthesia, that contributes to how we understand the world—whether or not that additional information is meaningful outside of our individual experiences, it makes us who we are and is therefore significant. Similarly, the experience of being a person of color in this country involves additional information, knowledge, experiences (in the context of being on the margins of society in any number of ways) that shapes identity — how they learn and see, and how other people see them.

In both cases there are times when those experiences have been met with laughter, incredulity or flat out denial by a majority that does not experience the world the same way — marginalizing the credibility and validity of those experiences. What I’m saying here could be dismissed as anecdotal, but I think we as a community who understand deeply what it means to experience the world through a different lens have a great deal to add to this discussion. So what can we do?

One of the most effective ways of engaging people and changing people’s minds — especially around topics that may be difficult to talk about, is to simply share your personal experiences and listen to theirs, and understand that our struggles are connected. So to everyone who is in this room voicing their experiences, thank you, and to all of the researchers and writers who are listening, thank you. There’s a long road ahead. We need to change the narrative of fear around race and the unknown, break down the myth of individual responsibility and recognize the power of institutionalized discrimination and value the knowledge that we all bring to the table. For me, far more than the day-to-day experience of having synesthesia, it is how it has opened me to difference and shaped my worldview that I value above all else.

Photo credit: John Baker