One mom tells she can actually, physically feel when others are in pain. Megan Pohlmann of Hermann, Missouri, says she’s “always been particularly keen when it came to others’ emotions,” but now she has a name for her rare condition: mirror-touch synesthesia.
“If someone was hurting, I couldn’t let it go. It hurt me too, even if I didn’t know what the other person was upset about,” Pohlmann said.
Scientific American describes synesthesia as “an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality.” It reports that “synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes.”
Pohlmann, a pediatric nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, recalled the first time she ever felt these mysterious sensations as a 4-year-old child:
“My mother beamed with pride as she talked with the Parents as Teachers volunteer. They were chit-chatting about how at age four, I already knew my letters and numbers; I could also write my name. And, I was excited to start kindergarten in the fall.
When the pleasantries were over the lady pulled a few activities out of her Mary Poppins-style bag, which was larger than me. She lined up some wooden blocks one by one. After asking me to place them in different patterns, one on top of each other, side by side, etc., she lined up a few blocks where I could see the letters painted on them. She pulled one aside and asked me which letter it displayed.
I froze. The block was painted with a bright, primary red. The apple on the side was worn a bit, but I understood that she was trying to get me to say ‘A.’ But this was not ‘A.’ I sat in silence, afraid to look at my mom. Who the heck was this lady? She wasn’t kind like I had thought. She wanted me to believe she was kind, but really, she was setting a trap, looking at me eagerly for my answer. Maybe I wasn’t ready for kindergarten after all. And I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go anymore. Not if they had blocks like these!
My mother became uneasy. She was expecting a quick answer to fly out of my mouth, but now that I was hesitating she was becoming confused. My sudden loss of confidence was reflected back to me through my mother’s reaction; I could feel her confusion mixing with my own.
‘Tell her the letter, Megan, you know it. Remember? This one is like a triangle, remember?’ She panicked a little and gave me ‘the look.’
The letter was indeed like a triangle. But triangles are yellow. Beautiful, bright yellow like sunshine or lemons. And so was ‘A,’ which looked so much like a triangle, it made sense that they would be the same color. But this red block was nothing like sunshine or lemons. It was a crimson-colored imposter.
‘That is NOT A’ I mustered forcefully under my breath with a hint of sass.
My mom’s confusion was spreading to the teacher. She tried to show me another block, but it was more or less the same thing. I was done with this game. Why was this teacher trying to convince me that letters are colored in any way besides what I already knew they were? ‘A’ had always been yellow. I didn’t decide it, it just was. Trying to tell me this marking was ‘A’ was like saying the sky is green or that grass is blue. It just wasn’t up for discussion. The lady brushed it off, decided it was a weird 4-year-old thing and packed up her belongings.
No one mentioned the colors of letters again until I was around 15. I received a phone call from my mom, explaining that my Grandpa, who was known to maniacally research topics of interest, had called her. He had asked some questions that were strange, even for him. She asked me to humor them both by answering a question he was asking every family member.
‘What is 3?,’ she asked. Mom expected me to answer the same as my siblings had. She thought I would say ‘a number, duh’ and we would all have a chuckle about Grandpa’s crazy side and go about our lives.
‘Blue’ I replied. I thought of the number and it appeared in my mind’s eye. The numeral rocked with peaceful purpose on its curved end like an old woman in a rocking chair. She is wearing a deep blue dress. The color of three washed over me like the soft material covering the number’s legs. Definitely blue.
I raced home to my family’s computer and, after sitting through the dial up tones, I pulled up the original Google screen. I never paid much attention to the letters on the screen before tonight. They each had a color, but my own associated color danced on top of them like markers on the old-school projection films used in my classroom. Each letter took on a color of its own like they always had despite the actual color of the font. Why was I the only one who could see these additional colors? Synesthesia.
I typed each letter slowly, like something magical was going to happen when they appeared. But all I saw were the familiar black letters accompanied by the colored film floating on top of them. Nothing out of the ordinary for me.
It took a bit of patience to search the web in its infancy. My heart skipped here and there as the results began to slowly appear. I learned, thanks to the pioneering researchers of synesthesia, just how different my brain was from other people. I also realized how lucky I was to discover this at a time where I could research and find answers. Generations before me, like my Grandpa, must have been lost without this kind of validation. Until the night of the phone call, Grandpa must have struggled with his synesthesia, not ever thinking to ask his family members if they experienced anything similar. He never knew, until that night when he was perusing the web and discovered that it runs in families.
I sat astonished while I scanned the results. My beautiful yellow ‘A’ meant I experienced grapheme-color synesthesia. My weirdness had a name! The rainbow of letters meant the language processing area of my brain was connected to the color processing area. My brain was assigning human characteristics to numbers. Next, I read about a type of synesthesia that is now known as chromesthesia. I thought of listening to my grandpa playing Chet Adkins as loud as his stereo could go. He could see the music as well as hear it, and he let the sounds and patterns surround him like a warm bath.
Chromethesia was one box I couldn’t check. I like music to surround me too, but I don’t see it. I feel it physically instead, each pluck of the guitar strings pulling on the delicate skin on my arms, a form of sound-tactile synesthesia. I continued to scan the list describing various forms of synesthesia, finding one after the other. See your internal calendar outside of your body? Check. I thought of my week, the current day in front of me about a foot away from my face, the rest of the week waiting patiently to the right. My family’s birthdays and other important dates sat on their individual days layered on the months, organized in a similar manner as my week. Personalities have color, texture or pattern? Yep, that one too. The more I read, the longer my list of synesthesias. That day I learned that I am a poly-synesthete.
Fast forward 15 years, and I now wholly own that characterization. It means my brain has connections, like the ones above, where other brains don’t. It allows me to experience a variety of sensations some people take drugs to experience. As it turns out, I’m like a walking acid trip! But I’m also a wi