Synaesthesia Discovery

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Synesthetic Perceptions Can Be Pictorial and Complex


One of the diagnostic criteria of Synesthesia, defined by Neurologist Richard Cytowic, is that synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e. simple rather than pictorial). Both characteristics, in a way, differ from those of my own perceptions as well as my children’s. The reality is that synesthetic imagery can be pictorial and complex.

I have known that my elder son Skye perceived me as a white swan on a green golf course for quite a long time, but what I did not know until this Christmas was that he physically saw this image around my face. What he actually sees, every time when he looks at me, is a white swan at the top and a few golf courses underneath where beautiful spring flowers blossom in one of the golf courses. Not only that, there are a few rectangle picture frames decorating around the image with the green colour floating above.

I was astonished by what I had heard. I almost could not breathe for a few seconds.

“Come on Mum! Why do you look so shocked? It’s just like hologram. It’s beautiful. I love seeing it.” Skye was re-assuring me again.

“Since when did you start seeing images around people?” I was still feeling hard to recover from the shock.

“Since very young. I remember when I was four, I used to see images around probably two out of five people. But after a while, I could see in everyone, even people I do not know.”

Skye gave me a few more examples:

  • He sees multiple images around his dad’s face. One with red and black stripes on his top right hand side, and a faded face on his left, but in distance, and a third image of coffee beans going through a coffee machine on his lower right hand side.
  • His grandmother has an image of a food blender mixing many different fruits such as nectarines and apricots. My mum loves fruits.
  • His grandfather’s is very complex. The images include one Kung Fu master, one pair of glasses, a very playful orange horse, and one dragon mask. Skye always thinks my dad is a knowledgable scholar. My dad is a Libra and was born in the Year of Dragon.

Still trying to get my mind around what I had just learnt from Skye, Thomas came to ask us to join him and his dad to play cricket. Skye ran out with Thomas with their usual boyish laughter. I put my walking shoes on, and set off a long walk around our farm.

I heard people say that writing a blog or a memoir is a healing process. Indeed through this process, I discover myself, and discover people whom I love. It also opens up unexpected things along the journey which requires courage to confront.

I asked myself why I was so overwhelmed, and what was the difference between what Skye saw around people and all those movie like scenes I saw when I read a book, and why our perceptions require validation.

The Christmas and New Year break slipped through, and I returned work in Melbourne while children were continuing their holidays at the farm with their dad and ponies. I tried again and again to put negative thoughts behind me, but the imagery of a white swan, green golf courses and spring flowers went through my mind over and over again.

The emptiness in me was like the house itself. However, I knew I was finding a new dimension of my life.

Children came home looking so tanned. I laughed at them and commented soon they would both look like country boys.

After dinner, I sat with Thomas and enjoyed my younger son’s questions. He knew I had been sick. He was asking me how I felt, and what I had been eating, and if I had been going to bed early.

“Thomas, can you tell Mum a secret if it is a secret?” I tried to open the dialogue.
“What do you need to know?” He gave me a very innocent and confused look.
“You are looking at me now. Do you see images around my face?”
“Yes, of course, but why?”
“Because Skye sees too. What do you see?” My heart was pounding loudly.
“I see fish swimming. Three black fish and one white fish.”
“Can you point them out to me?”

Thomas’ little finger pointed under my chin, then circled around to the left hand side of my face.
“They are here and there. They are beautiful.”

Being an intuitive and logical boy, Thomas said without me asking that he started seeing simple images, mainly things like fruits, around people’s faces when he was two. However, imagery became more and more complex after he turned four. He has been seeing fish around me for many years.

Skye came to join our conversation. He was very interested to find out similarities between what Thomas saw and what he saw. He could relate to almost everything Thomas said. They started giggling about some amusing imagery of their favourite teachers.

“I could see an image of Mr. C shaving himself. The same image duplicated all around his face.” Mr. C was Thomas’ classroom teacher from last year.

“Mr. D, Mr. D…” Skye was chuckling non-stop, and could hardly talk. “Mr. D was shearing a brown sheep.”

This time, I could not stop laughing. Both teachers have great sense of humour.

“So what are the benefits of you guys having this type of synesthesia?”

“Benefits? We can read people’s minds!” They almost answered simultaneously.

“Mum, but it is not just people, there are images around many things. For example, I can see a book above your iPad, I always see many ants crawling down this window frame.” Thomas offered more insights.

“Ants!? Aren’t they yucky?” I was surprised.

“No. I love ants. They can have many children, and their children can have many children as if they would never die.” Clearly, Thomas’ fear of death and desire to live forever have manifested into this association.

I was hugging my boys and telling them how special they were when they went to bed, and was wondering how I managed to have two boys with such incredible perceptions.

As I was walking out of Thomas bedroom after turning the light off, Thomas whispered quietly to me, “Mum, do you know those fish glow in the dark? They look very amazing.”

All of a sudden, I realised that the white fish must be me and the three black fish must be Thomas, Skye and his dad through Thomas’ perception.

“Yes, I am sure they look amazing. Good night sweetheart.” I smiled.

I remembered what were said in Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Each family in his book faced a lot of challenges raising their exceptional children. However, “parents not only learn to deal with their exceptional children, but also find profound meaning in doing so.

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