Ordinary Synesthesia

For the last fourteen years or so, I have privately described some of my sensory experiences as a phenomenon called synesthesia. I don’t talk about it much because I am not sure whether synesthesia is an accurate description. Over the years, though, I find that term still feels appropriate in many ways. Maybe it fits something you experience, too.

To talk meaningfully about what synesthesia is, I’m drawing from the first paper I read on the subject, one called “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology” by a man named Richard E. Cytowic. Later research has appeared since 1995, so I’ve looked some of that up as well—much of that by Cytowic as well.

What is synesthesia? It’s an inextricable linking of distinct senses, such as sight and sound. Cytowic says this more with more academic language: “[T]he stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses.” It’s not symbolic or metaphorical. It’s a literal, sensory experience that happens reliably.

Importantly, though, it’s not a mental disorder. It cannot be diagnosed using the ICD or DSM. There’s no hallucinatory aspect to synesthesia, and it does not impair those affected by it.

What do I mean by “linking of distinct senses”? There are numerous forms of synesthesia, but as an example, consider the form that associates sounds with visual experiences (like color). When a person who experiences synesthesia (a synesthete) hears a sound which triggers an association, that sound itself is perceived both as the sound and as the visual event (such as the color green). This isn’t to say that the synesthete has a hallucination in which the color green appears literally and visually before their eyes—a phenomenon that would only be described as a hallucination. What I mean instead is that the sound is itself the color green in their brain. By hearing it, they have experienced the color green, with all its appertaining associations.

There is a certain ineffable quality to that mixture of sensory experiences. Consider it for a moment. How would I know, as an unaware synesthete, that the color green is the correct association? I haven’t seen the color green in any literally visual sense.

I might make sense of this by working backwards from the associations green has in my mind—each tied both to the sound and to the color. Or else, I might find the color linked rather directly to the sound, working backwards from what associations the sound has in my mind. Stranger still, I might find associations between sounds and colors I haven’t even seen in reality.

Synesthesia seems to glom things together until the experiences occur not only simultaneously but literally as a unified sensory experience. To experience the trigger is to experience its association.

I believe this causes synesthesia to go under-observed and misunderstood. Many of us experience synesthesia without understanding it for what it is or how common it is, how subtle and integrated into our sensory experience. I don’t believe it’s universal, but I believe it’s possibly a widespread feature that exists on a spectrum.

I believe synesthesia-like phenomena underlie certain kinds of universal sound symbolism, such as the bouba/kiki effect, which has been found across different ages and cultures across time. Ramachandran and Hubbard did some influential experiments in this area.

So as for me? I experience compelling visual sensations brought on by specific auditory experiences—in particular, music at certain frequencies. I didn’t have much breadth of exposure to music growing up (only hearing country music on radios around me until I was a teenager), so I didn’t really understand much about myself and music until I was nearly an adult.

I began to put it together when I was in a college class for music (with a powerful sound system), and I found myself instinctively blinking and averting my eyes while listening to some baroque music, and for the first time I realized how forcefully visual the music became for me. I started reading more about synesthesia and thought maybe this was a reality for me. Since then, I’ve learned some of the details of how music affects me.

My experiences have some color components, but I struggle to describe what those colors are, beyond cool or warm. They often have textural or spatial components, disjointed in space nearby.

Percussive sounds cause white or otherwise desaturated interruptions in the visual experience. They are like visual noise—snow, static, walls. I tend to seek out music which avoids or minimizes percussion.

Vocal accompaniment causes almost no visual sensation whatsoever. I tend to ignore vocals in music or seek out purely instrumental music. Highly distorted, distinctly stylistic, or highly polyphonic vocals are an exception.

Higher pitched sounds tend to have stronger associations, but I get fuller, more textured experiences from richer musical arrangements. These can be classical, electronic, guitar bands, or whatever.

Sounds of different pitches or timbres tend to make themselves more or less visually salient. Usually higher pitches layer over or through lower ones and have more compact visual representations, warmer colors. The progressions of melodies and overall chord progressions tend to lead to eddies and swirls.

Chromaticism from modernist compositions cause some of the most interesting visuals. “Clair de lune” starts with such rich, variegated lavenders, which yield then to legato scintillations of all colors, covered with lots of warm notes, like stars embedded in a cool sky. The Tristan chord from Tristan und Isolde felt like a greenish-yellowish blight melting into a veil billowing in the wind as the prelude carried into further dissonances—while the final “Liebestod” glowed like a hot, clean pink for me. “Aquarium” from Le carnaval des animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns (you probably know it as “that music that plays in cartoons when someone is underwater”) has all these piano glissandos riding over top which cause indescribable motes of light to flit away.

I don’t believe I’d call synesthesia (if that’s what this is) a blessing or a curse. They simply shape the way I enjoy music. I find them vivid, memorable, and affecting—they add a substance. I’m glad it’s there, but I don’t really have any explanation for it, and I enjoy plenty of things without it. I’ve found it gives me a better sensory recollection for things that happen while I’m listening to music, but that might be the only benefit.

I don’t really talk about synesthesia. (I searched my Twitter account for mentions, and I see I’ve only ever mentioned the word once before today.) It’s an extremely personal, subjective experience, and part of it is ineffable. It’s like describing a dream—no one really cares but you.

Since there’s no way to convey the affect portion of the experience, it’s hard to communicate your intentions. It sounds like an attempt to make yourself seem special or gifted in some way. Synesthesia has been associated with artists and art since the 1800s, especially musical composers. It became faddish enough for a time that it was even popular to fake aspects of it.

I want to emphasize again that I believe there is a universal quality to sensory crossover. My personal belief is that synesthesia-like experiences exist on a spectrum in many people—some more than others. The more we talk about it for what it is and how it actually is experienced, the more readily others will recognize the experience in themselves and normalize it.

For this reason, I don’t want to state definitively I have synesthesia. I’m not saying that. I will say that I have experiences that feel could be appropriately described by the term, so I wouldn’t rule it out. I imagine that many people feel like I do or have some similar quality to their sensorium. I just want to open us up to the possibility of synesthesia being ordinary.

The Thing About My Name

I’m just Emily to my friends. I go by “Emily St” in writing whenever someone needs a longer name and there’s no strict, legal reason to give my whole last name. It catches some people up because “St” resembles the abbreviation for a bunch of things which have nothing to do with me.

In this case, “St” is only short for my last name—not “Saint,” not “Street,” not some other thing. I rarely write down my full last name because I’ve found it’s unnecessary in almost every situation.

Think of “St” like a file extension for my first name, if that helps. In cases where I can, I slap on a big asterisk (*) to show I’ve left out a part. Sometimes there’s just a dot instead. Usually, there’s nothing.

It’s surprising how often the full last name isn’t actually required. For years, I’ve managed to have mail delivered without my full last name—useful so I can know mail from people who actually know me from those who have me from some list. I’ve even had credit card transactions go through okay without the whole last name.


The idea that I might not be going by my “real” or “legal” name might cause someone consternation. But a “real name” is a slippery idea. It comes from a combination of assumptions about a person having a single, fixed name which is registered with a single, fixed governmental entity. This assumption is both relatively recent in history and only true in the simplest cases.

Not only may a legal name for a person vary over time, but even in a single moment, disagreement may exist among various legal entities about a legal name. For example, in the U.S., the moment a judge issues a court order granting a name change, you (and not some automatic process) must then take that name change order to all the various entities, public and private (Social Security Administration, DMV, bank, job, and so on) and get them all updated. Until you’re done, those entities disagree about your name. You can hold in your hand a driver’s license in one name, a Social Security card in another, and be totally in the right simply because of bureaucracy. They’re not even the same governments—one’s federal and one’s state. They have little meaningful responsibility to be in accord with one another (and any bills attempting to create a unified federal ID system have been resisted so far in the U.S.).

Then setting aside legal technicalities, a “real” name is just an idea that can coincide with a legal name or not, may be a single name or multiple. Used enough, a name may become someone’s legal name through sheer use—a name change by usage can be recognized legally as well.

There are people who convert their names through religion, use different names to assimilate culturally, or adopt assumed names for performance or pseudonymous reasons. Do you know Mozart’s “real name”? There’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. Would you be surprised to hear Beethoven introduce himself as Luigi or Louis, depending on if you were in Italy or France at the time?

The process of name change continues today. SAG-AFTRA rules discourage name collisions, so performers often choose new names under which they perform. Names also may have marketing or homage purposes. Diane Keaton loved Buster Keaton. You know Tom Cruise and not Thomas Mapother. Harry Houdini’s greatest escape might have been from the name Erik Weisz.

Seen through the prism of those contexts, what’s a “real” name?


As for why I use “St” and not some other abbreviation, I have a couple of reasons. First, “S” on its own would be even more confusing, I think. It’s less unique, so you couldn’t search for me online. It’s also a little confusing and might look (in handwriting especially) like I’m just pluralizing my first name.

I also liked the way it looked when I signed it. I could cross the final flourish with a downstroke.

Scripted signature of "Emily St"

It began at my first tech job several years ago, where everyone was assigned usernames with three-letter acronyms. For some reason, I was given “est” instead of my actual initials. I took to expanding that out—I can’t remember where exactly first—so my first name would be included: “emilyst“.

It was pretty unique—easy to find as a username in places. It had no strong flavor of personality beyond being my name, so I probably wouldn’t tire of it. It was short. I managed to find a Web domain version of it online.

It sometimes confuses people that I shorten it this way—it’s not an initial, but it has no vowels, so it’s not a word. That’s why I thought of slapping a big asterisk on the end—Emily St*—so it looks like something is omitted. (Putting a dot just makes people say “Saint” or “Street.”)

That’s all there is to it—it’s just my first name and part of my last name. Nothing more. If you meet me, you can call me by my first name. If you need to, you can sound out the letters “ess tee,” or just ask me my last name in person. I don’t mind people knowing my last name or using it—I’m not Rumpelstiltskin. I just don’t commit it to writing without a good reason.

The Putty

A long time ago, when I was still a young buck in middle school, I was sitting around with my best friend at his trailer playing around, and I noticed a giant tub of what I took to be Silly Putty. Had to have been half a gallon of the stuff, pink, in a white plastic tub.

I thought: hell, yes, tub of putty. Gonna play with some putty. Gonna just scoop up a bunch of this putty, and—it’s a rock. I can’t shove my hand in. I only left finger dimples.

My friend told me it’s putty for physical therapy. “You squeeze it with your hand.” He dipped his hand in slowly, and it gave way to his light touch.

He explained, in middle-school words, that the viscosity makes it resist any flow faster than a fixed rate. You can’t make it flow any faster, no matter how much effort you put in. You can’t speed it up. To shape it, to squeeze it, it doesn’t matter how much force you put in. It always flows at the same speed.

I tried it. He was right. It felt soft and yielding as long as I applied very little force. If I added more force, it responded with obstinate indifference.

He was able to scoop it up smoothly because he allowed his hand time to sink in without shoving. I had thought of it as a liquid like any other that would simply make room for me as I pushed my hand in, but it didn’t. It pushed back. No effort on my part made a difference. Only time mattered.


Early on in my life, many things came easily to me. By that, I mean I learned new information easily and retained it. Some things came more quickly to me that did not come as quickly to others, and I was encouraged for it. I became accustomed to gliding through tasks superficially. I used my innate aptitude to move past unpleasant work as quickly as possible and attend to my interests. But this was an undisciplined way to live. The more I indulged only what came easily, the more I neglected other aptitudes I should have nurtured.

Later came problems for which I had less inherent aptitude—whether that meant synthesizing existing knowledge to adapt to novel situations, coping with uncertainty or ambiguity, training for physical tasks, or understanding and empathizing with new people. I had no ready-made shortcut here. When the time passed beyond which I could no longer ignore these problems, my instinct was again to find some other way to speed up my approach.

I had formed a habit of rushing of which I wasn’t even aware. I also didn’t like being caught off-guard and unprepared.

I figured maybe I could power through these new situations with a burst of concentrated effort. It made sense to me. If I could just summon up one good wind, I could quickly clear whatever problem and—ironically—avoid self-discipline again.

However, I often encountered frustration instead, and I tended to begin by blaming my frustration on extrinsic factors. At work, for example, I blamed the documentation, training material, or managers. I blamed the people around me for confusing me or misleading me. I dismissed or downplayed the subject’s importance. After a while, these excuses stopped working, and my frustration then turned inward. I ended up blaming myself.

My life—one with a relative lack of financial privilege until recently—had a way of forcing me through the hardship of those episodes, just to survive and make my way, and I’m better off for it today. I can look back at times when I finally saw what had to happen, acted on it, and grew from it. I only regret that I had to pass through so much needless, self-inflicted frustration, pain, and blame along the way.

I’ve begun thinking more and more about that physical therapy putty as I get older. I think we’re the putty.

To learn—to grow—we must change, in a real and physical sense, by reshaping our brains and (sometimes) our bodies. This is a process that takes time. Laborious effort makes no dramatic difference in the rate at which this happens, the way a novice cannot just throw a massive amount of weight onto the rack at the gym to get stronger right away. On the other hand, neither can it be slowed by failing to bring all our effort to bear—so long as we devote the time and commit to some progress—nor initial lack of innate ability. We inevitably change as a function of time, provided we keep going, bit by bit, every day.

I have thought about this as I learned guitar. I thought about it when I learned French. I thought about it when I taught myself to juggle. I thought about it as I tried to train my eye to see through a telescope. And I thought about it as I recognized the pattern of discomfort I move through as I begin a new job. As long as I kept at it, I improved—usually just about at the same pace from one experience to the next.

I learned that new kinds of growth came from applying myself and then just waiting, and from accommodating within myself the discomfort of that waiting.

I have often avoided uncertainty in my life out of fear, I think. I’ve never been encouraged to be uncertain or doubtful. Not having the answers makes me vulnerable because it undermines the very thing that set me apart early in life and made me feel more capable. With that vulnerability then comes discomfort because I am unkind to myself when I notice I’m unable to meet my own expectations. Worst of all, it feels inescapable in the moment: there’s just no way to get easy answers, an easy fix, a magic word. It’s tempting to believe—after half a lifetime of being addicted to all the answers coming so quickly—that you’re failing, and it’s your fault.

However, I believe uncertainty, discomfort, and self-forgiveness are precisely the traits I need in order to grow beyond superficial knowledge acquisition, so that I may find kindness and connect to new things and people I could not have done when I was younger. Cultivating these traits allow me to surrender myself in the present to the passage of time and all it brings—and eventually to new circumstances and possibilities I would not have had otherwise. There are matters of experience which I cannot touch intellectually, no matter how hard I try.

The hell of it is, I still don’t know how I will do these things yet. I think that’s okay for now, as long as I keep trying.


(I am grateful to Amy Farrell and to Sophie for their constructive feedback on my earlier drafts of this post.)

Disclosing and Consequences

Before writing “Disclosing,” I would’ve given anything to peek into the future and see this post I’m about to write. I was fearful of the consequences of putting information out in the world that I could never take back. I don’t know what I expected. I just know I’ve never been so worked up about a piece of apparent non-information ever.

Afterwards, I was happy to have ripped the bandage off and have done with it. It did ease my anxiety in a lot of ways. I’ve formed a lot of habits around controlling information about my private life (even up to being cagey about my full name), and it’s freeing to lower that boundary.

It reminds me of the attitude I carried with me early in my transition, about the importance of visibility. It was important to talk to people, even do activism (including lecturing before doctors and nurses). I didn’t necessarily like the position I was in, but I knew that I had had so much false garbage in my head about transsexuality growing up that I went through years of needless self-inflicted pain. It felt good to shed that, once again.

The long and short of the actual response was that nothing happened at all. There were no consequences whatsoever, whether good or bad. The tweet got some few supportive replies. (Many people missed it entirely and possibly are learning about it from this post.)

One other nice consequence of all this is that it might be possible now to revive some of my past writing from about five years ago that I had to hide away. I learned a ton; no reason not to share that now.

Disclosing

I’ve dog-whistled this relatively loudly already, but just so everyone’s on the same page—I have a transsexual history. Reach out to me privately if you have questions, but I’ll cover a few points here.

  • To clarify, I’m a woman, and I consider myself transsexual. Specifically, I say I have a transsexual history. I also consider myself homosexual, attracted primarily to women. I consider intersexuality as part of my history, but I don’t claim intersex as an identity (a really complicated topic).

  • I have a complex relationship with this history, my body, and my gender, which includes a history of activism, lots of therapy, and in general, lots of feelings. Consider the delicacy this implies if engaging me on the topic.

  • It’s cliché, but if you didn’t know my history before, this changes nothing you know about me.

  • I prefer to retain whatever control possible over this information. I understand this post constitutes a public announcement, and that necessarily means I’ve sacrificed most control, but when possible, avoid assumptions about my history, my body, or my gender. Point people to me for clarification or questions.

I’m doing this now for a few reasons.

  • First of all, I trust the people around me in my life and in my work enough that I feel this disclosure won’t risk me bodily, psychologically, or financially.

  • Also, it’s pained me for a very long time to keep the amount of distance I need to dissimulate my history. It’s prevented me from explaining much about why family isn’t in my life, why I’m in Portland in the first place, or what my life has been about in the past.

  • It frees me to pursue medical interventions without having to come up with a weird cover story.

  • It gives me a voice, once again, on issues of transsexuality and gender which I used to self-censor out of fear of speaking out.

  • Finally, it reaffirms why I did this in the first place. The goal was always to look and feel more like who I’ve always been, not just to sell an identity or history to others.

The Discomfort of Being New

It’s sort of incredible after all this time that I get so uncomfortable with not knowing all the answers. Setting aside my personal and spiritual development (“What is the stars, what is the stars?”), I also stumble over this issue professionally.

I finished my fifteenth week at the Simple last Friday, and during my short tenure, we experienced one of the most trying times in our short history. It has been a difficult time to ramp up, and I’m still pretty new to having a programming job at all. The first of August marks three years since I started at the first one. I learned a lot at my last place, but I’m probably still a little too green to hit the ground running the way I’d like.

Now in my second programming job, I’ve identified a pattern that may have more to do with me than with the jobs I find myself in. I get frustrated very quickly when I’m unsure what to do. I haven’t always dealt with it very well. I expect to sail forward without bumps. Instead, I quickly blame setbacks on lack of process, documentation, opaque code, bad tests, unfamiliar culture, and a number of other externalities. The truth has a lot to do with just being new. I can’t speed past it, avoid it, or outsmart it. There’s no other way to become a veteran than by the pain of experience.

It’s like I’m so used to being able to hand in my test first in science class, and now in calculus I’m squirming while watching the others looking breezy. I figure it’s the teacher’s fault, curse the awful textbook, and complain how uncomfortable my chair is.

If I get to a point where I can internalize the discomfort, I start beating myself up with it instead. I finally reached that point a couple of weeks ago. I began questioning myself. I don’t have any good coping tactics for this stress. I’ve found I end up swinging to the other extreme; it’s not everything around me being awful and wrong, it’s just me. I feel like a new firefighter losing control of the hose, watching the fire burn out of control and screaming apologies.

It’s neither of those extremes. It’s just being new, and it’s uncomfortable. I’m in the same boat everyone’s spent time in. Whatever I do, as long as I hold faith with the process, it’ll pass.

Waiting

I keep repeating to myself, this moment has never happened before.

When I remember that, I find it disrupts my life narrative completely and brings me forcefully into the present moment. It’s one of the few coping mechanisms for impatience that I have. Most of the time, my narrative thread I carry with me extends into the future, attempting to impose my past experiences onto it. I live bound within expectations, whose tension I wait to resolve. I array my life along this thread and look both behind and ahead, longingly.

I feel like there’s a lot of waiting going on in my life right now, taking me out of the present moment constantly. So I have to say to myself, this moment is new, nothing like it has ever happened, and I find myself right here and now. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Sometimes it helps calm me, and other times it makes me even more anxious.

Work Retrospectives

Screenshot of my first weekly work retrospective
First retrospective of many

I decided I didn’t want to get caught next year trying to write my review without any idea of what I had done the year before, so I’ve decided to start tracking what I get done from week to week. I’m going to try to write a weekly retro every week of 2014.

I have time blocked off at the same time every Friday morning to spend about half an hour referencing salient tasks, time spent, people I’ve worked with, and projects I had involvement with so that I can scan through in 2015 and catch a bird’s eye view of the landscape of my year.

Incidentally, for the moment, I’ve decided to try using Day One for tracking all this, if only because it has great support for searching and viewing past entries over dates, and it syncs between all my devices. I could probably throw Markdown on a server or use a private WordPress, but scanning is so much faster this way.

In Case of Review, Break Glass Ceiling

For the second time in my professional life (first time here), I had to turn in a self-review to my manager. Our self-reviews are part of an overall review process, asking for scores and supporting comments in a number of areas of our job (quality, leadership, problem solving, planning, and so on).

I’m awful at anything falling under the purview of “professional life.” I struggled with it again, like last year, and it stayed undone till the last moment (and then some—I had hoped to finish it last week). What’s worse, I felt like last year I used up all my best review lines talking myself up, so I had nothing but utter dreck to spew this year. I couldn’t even remember anything that had happened in the past year. All that came to mind were the frustrations I grappled with and complaints I brought up.

Time got short and I had almost nothing, so I passed in the review with little content and a lot of fields left blank. My manager bounced it back almost right away, basically saying I could do better. Well!

I had struggled with it off and on for weeks, and I had no idea what he wanted or what the expectations were. Finally began to vent to a coworker. She mentioned she had struggled with hers too. I asked her what she did.

She’d done the same thing, asking others what they had done, and had even gotten to peek at a few other reviews from (male) coworkers. I have always had trouble talking myself up, but it seems like they hadn’t struggled with this at all. They came across in their reviews as highly accomplished and even boastful, to the point where she felt less sure of herself, to say nothing of my reaction. I had barely written anything, and what little I did write was either unsubstantial or actually critical. The self-review also called for numerical scores in various areas, and mine were really conservative.

I asked her, “Do they actually lie?” about their reviews, and she said, “No, but they dress them up in tuxedos.”

I’m really thankful to my coworker, though. She helped a lot to get me started finding some real content and suggestions.

First, she suggested searching for past code reviews I’d requested. While it hadn’t been very useful for me to be told to “search my e-mail” for the last year, the code review e-mails helped to link to related issues I had worked on, short summaries of what I had accomplished, and a general landscape of the projects I’d worked on. This was a pretty great direction to start with. It helped me remember various projects I’d been on.

I got some ideas for other kinds of e-mails to search for, like postmortem threads where we had dealt with urgent service problems.

She offered to let me see hers, but I passed. In the end, though, I let her look over mine, and she helped clarify what some of the categories (like “job knowledge”) actually meant, so I was able to fill in parts I had misinterpreted. She also pretty much made me raise every one of my scores after some back and forth, reminding me of a lot of things I had forgotten. I ended up going with her suggestions since she had more context than I did from looking at other reviews.

By the end, I was much more amenable to her suggestions because I had so much more supporting detail. It definitely didn’t hurt, either, that I was inspired by an article in Model View Culture (written by my friend Kronda!) to be a little kinder to myself.

Incidentally, another friend on IRC had suggested keeping a high-level journal throughout the year, and that would probably be really useful for me, considering this. I probably won’t, though, and next year I’ll panic about the whole thing all over again.

Weight of Words

I read a pretty amusing article today on The Onion: “Boss Has Deft Touch For Making Employees Feel Like Shit”. The Onion has a reputation for its mordant touch with humor, and this article is no exception.

Pretty much the first thing I thought was that I hoped I never ended up as a manager. Not that I think of myself as a particularly cruel person, but sometimes, when you’re talking, you just say things offhand that you don’t even think about until later, and you realize how you came across. Everybody does this — even if they don’t think they do. You forget to give just the right word of praise or acknowledgement at the right time, and you seem dismissive or even critical.

It happens.

Now imagine you’re in a position of respect, responsibility, or even authority. Imagine, even, you’re a woman (for example), on whom society piles on just a tad bit more scrutiny. Now, you say “hmm,” and you’re a cold-hearted devil bitch ruling your underlings with an iron fist.

So while reading the article, I found myself checking myself.

It fed pretty hardcore into my already existing fear of being in any position of leadership, and I’m already feeling weird about my boss regarding me as a team lead. Now I fear that even when I try to encourage the newer engineers on my team, it might come across as damning with faint praise. Not to mention that what, to me, seems like an inconsequential venting or offhand remark will land with a weight I might not even realize.

I guess as a general rule of thumb, I can err on the side of being too nice, now. But then that’s probably a good idea, in either case.