Every so often, I find tea on sale and decide I should really try some again. I tend to not like tea that tastes like tea; mainly, I drink things like Thai iced tea and chai lattes, which are so full of cloves and milk and sugar that if you forgot the actual tea leaves nobody would ever notice. The grocery store had Twinings on sale, so I picked up some ultra-spice chai, which is perfectly fine, and some rooibos, which is not.

Rooibos is actually some sort of reddish bush that grows in South Africa, which I presume they started brewing because in the olden days schlepping Darjeeling down there was even more of a bitch than shipping it to England. I can't drink the Twinings stuff.

I'm heavily cross-wired, including a lot of assorted synaesthesiae. I don't have the cool grapheme → color ones, and I'm light on the sound → (color, movement) stuff, but I do have a lot of the numeric → spatial varieties. I also have some completely random ones, which bend heavily towards the complex multi-modal stimulus → kinesic and linguistic → (spatial, affective, movement) kinds. It probably sounds quite bizarre and overwhelming if you don't work like that, but if your brain has always filed things weird, then the main annoyance is trying to explain it to people who have no idea what you're talking about.

The Twinings rooibos, for whatever reason, I can only describe as tasting round. And even that's a terrible description. I don't actually taste 'round' anymore than anyone else does, at least when not under the influence of powerful hallucinogenic drugs -- what's actually going on is that when I am trying to describe the perception of taste that the rooibos evokes, whatever neurons are involved in taxonomically classifying that experience overlap in some way with the neurons that taxonomically classify the experience of some quality of roundness, in the same way that most people find the taste of something like crème anglais evokes an experience classified similarly to the taste of vanilla ice cream. (Or, in my case, the same way the smell of Moggie's violet candies remind me inescapably of bath crystals. Can't eat those, either.) And it's not even roundness like a drawing of a circle embodies roundness; it's kinesthetic, as if it bears a passing similarity to the sensation of holding a large bubble gum bubble in the back of your mouth, pressing against your tongue and palate, just before you bite down and pop it.

There's nothing particularly wrong with that crossover, except that olives and olive oil also taste round and some kinds of wood varnish smell round in the same indescribable way. Rooibos doesn't taste anything like olives, especially with the amount of sugar I dump into it, and it doesn't smell anything like wood varnish, but the synaesthetic overlap makes it impossible to not associate the experience with both of those things, which is just about the exact opposite of what you want when you're trying to drink cheap tea.

This phenomenon of 'overlap' sounds terribly sloppy and confusing, but I actually find it's a great help in a lot of respects. It happens in an even less-describable way when I'm dealing with languages. I can read things in a lot of languages I don't technically speak, if they're in a script that I do already read, and if I don't think about it too hard. Even in cases where the words don't look enough like words I know for me to have any explicit conscious etymological associations, a lot of the time, I'll get enough overlapping neurons for me to be able to get the general idea of what the text is saying. If Zeitgeist is the general atmosphere of an era, what I get from large blocks of things I don't technically read is a sort of a Schriftgeist, a sense of what the passage is about. I don't classify myself as 'speaking' or 'understanding' these languages, because I cannot translate anything properly, and if I think about it too hard whatever comprehension I have falls apart, but I can get some information from them nonetheless.

My guess that it's a matter of pattern overlap is bolstered by the fact that it works better the more text I have -- I wouldn't bet on my ability to read individual road signs in Italian or Portuguese, but Wikipedia articles usually aren't a problem. It also has to be related in some way to something I know in order for me to have a base pattern for it to intersect. Slavic languages only make sense insofar as they overlap with, say, random t.A.T.u. lyrics, but that's rapidly going up as I work my way through the Russian lesson book.

The meta-ability to keep track of what's going on with this is also rather useful. I do most of my people reading by realizing that someone reminds me inexplicably of something, and then backtracking to figure out what and where the overlap is. It's also good for parlor tricks. A common format for the kind of psych experiments that pay you petty cash for participation is sitting you in front of a computer and flashing some sort of stimuli, then requiring you to press a key depending on what it is. F'rex, half the screen will flash stripes and the other half will flash polka dots, and they want you to hit the up arrow if the stripes are on top, or the down arrow if the stripes are on the bottom. I just go through the tutorials, make a note that 'okay, this set of neurons go fizz at stripes', then spend the rest of the experiment staring vaguely at the center of the screen and paying more attention to my own brain response than what's actually flashing.

I've no idea how I'm keeping notes on which neurons are fizzing, or even if that's what I'm really doing -- it's the imagery that comes immediately to mind when I try to describe the sequence. It's entirely possible to do things like that, but I don't know how other people describe it; something similar must be going on in biofeedback applications, but I've only seen the research enumerate the results, without sharing any descriptions from the participants of what they actually think they're doing. It's much faster than waiting for my explicit processing brain to catch up and tell me 'okay! there are the stripes!', at any rate. I've racked up quite a collection of weird looks from Harvard psychologists over the past couple of years.


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