The Heather Gold Show: Perception Rundown

LtoR: Magic Safire, Heather Gold, Cassidy Curtis. Gone home before we snapped the picture: Enzo Lombardo-Quintero. photo: Raquel Coelho

The show sold-out which meant that we had to turn people away. We are looking into moving to a bigger room to accomodate our growing community.

Snack: Chocolate chip cake, brought by Samuel K, our regular baking maven.

More photos.

Cassidy Curtis has number/colour and letter/colour synesthesia. That means that each of his numbers and colours each appear to him with a colour that has not changed as long as he can remember. Cassidy didn’t realize that this was a unique way to see the world until he was about 8. He found no explanation in books and finally asked his father what colour the letter “a” was. When pressed to explain the colour each letter would have if it had to have one, his father chose the colours of the spectrum. Cassidy just knew that this was wrong and then realized that everyone did not see the colours he did.

Every synesthete at the show or that I’ve met has had a moment like this. But even wihtout a unique neurological coupling of the senses everyone has moments like this in life, in which we realize that everyone does not see things the way we do and therefore is different from us.

We had a lot of conversation about race and culture with different audience members telling us about the moment they realized they were from a culture and not just “the way things are.” I myself learned that I was white when I was told at 19 that I couldn’t fill out the minority application for American colleges because I was white. It had never occurred to me before then. Vince grew up in an Irish-Catholic enlave in Missouri and was in seminary and never really experienced anything different until he went to work and later moved away at 39.

Magic Safire did a trick with a card and some dots on it. She showed us how it was done and then in doing so, tricked us even further, making a ton more dots appear. The magic trick made it clear that we somtimes enjoy being surprised by our inability to perceive things. We all use shortcuts to understnad things and often use race or gender to mean something because we perceive it more quickly. This is true with colour/letter synesthesia too. Cassidy mentioned that he has taken the wrong bus or mixed up names of people like Dave and Mark because those names have the same colour. It’s the colour he remembers and goes to quicker than the name or bus line.

When we have a lack (like Enzo’s blindness and now double-vision) or a coupling (like Cassidy’s synesthesia) or are expecting to be tricked (like Safire’s illusion) we become aware of our perception process itself. This seems to make us curious, aware that we see differently than others and therefore more tolerant becasue we’re not holding others to behave the same as we would.

All of this may not sound hilarious but it pretty much was.

Give a listen.

Highlights + Links

  • Is synesthesia inborn or learned? Neuropscyhologist Brian Alvarez said he can authoratatively state that we don’t know.
  • Do all synesthetes see the same colours with each letter or number? No.
  • There are many kinds of synesthesia. Somepeople ‘s letter osr numbers or words have gender or taste. Some see music (think Fantasia). Lots more synesthesia info here.
  • Synesthetes at the show wished they had each others’ abilities. For example, Colleen Silva has different maps of chronological things (dates, days of the week, years etc) mapped around her body three dimentionally, but wishes she saw colours.
  • Hanging out at the bar after the show, my friend Tony realized for the first time (he’s in his 20s) that he has synesthesia. Like Colleen, he also maps dates in space, mostly millenia.
  • A flash applet Cassidy built which lets you see how his synesthesia interacts with memory and attention.
  • Synesthesia can aid memory, which is how Daniel Tammet,who is also a savant (and nicknamed “Brain Man”) memorized Pi to over 22,000 digits.There is not as much “recall” but a present experience of the colours and shapes that translate to numbers.In Tammet’s case, a 3 dimensional landscape.
  • You can learn more about the synesthesia research studies that
    are happening at Berkeley through the Research Subject Volunteer Program here and here.