Synaesthesia Discovery

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Lost in Direction?


One of my favourite Chinese folk tales is called “Old Sai loses a horse, is it luck or misfortune?”. The story almost touches the innermost of life and it goes like this:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other.

Things aren’t really as good or as bad as they seem. The story has a deep meaning.

When we were traveling in Europe, I noticed that Thomas often looked at his palms. I thought he was obsessed by his long life lines and was making sure they didn’t get any shorter. He had been very proud of his extraordinarily long life lines on his palms. When he saw our life lines, he almost felt sorry for us.

By the time we got to Paris, he was still checking his palms often. I finally couldn’t stand any longer. “Thomas! Stop checking your life lines!” To my surprise, Skye quickly came to Thomas’ defense. “But that’s how he can tell if it is right or left!”

I almost froze. My mind was flooded with different thoughts. “No, no, that can’t be true. My Thomas, the little boy who knows so many places, who directs us so often, cannot possibly have this problem.”

I tried hard to compose myself. I asked Thomas if it was indeed true that he had difficulty telling left from right. “Yes Mum, but that’s ok. I have worked out a few ways of managing it.” He told me that he noticed the difference between his two palms. The ending of his right life line points to the right and the ending of his left life line points to the left. It was the most effective and the quickest tool to help him tell the direction.

Left and right confusion is one of the tradeoffs for some synaesthetes. Richard Faynman was a well-known case. I felt so sad. However, there was no use to keep thinking why I didn’t realise this earlier. After confirming with Skye that he didn’t have the same issue, we immediately implemented a few strategies to improve Thomas’ chances of overcoming this problem.

When we go for a drive or walk, we often point out different objects to test him. When we see someone walking towards us, we ask Thomas which side is which. Nowadays, Thomas no longer needs to rely on his palms. He has made a dramatic improvement. Let’s hope he will eventually overcome this issue.

Just like the “Old Sai Loses a Horse” story, when you gain something, you may lose something. But when you lose something, you may gain something. I try to apply this philosophy in the way I see my children’s synaesthesia, my personal life, my career and how I view life as a whole. I think life is a forever balance.

(Note: the translation of “Old Sai Loses a Horse” was sourced from the Yellow Bridge Literacy website.)


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