Richard Cytowic's Big Book o' Brain Things is beginning to annoy me. All the technical neurology is fascinating and useful, but he keeps poking at things and getting interesting results, then wandering away and forgetting about them again, probably because they're not strictly synaesthesia and therefore not romantic enough.

z. B.: A suspiciously high proportion of synaesthetics report that they have a crap sense of direction and/or some variety of crippling inability to decipher maps. So do I, sort of. I'm neither ignorant nor dyslexic here; I can read the map, and I know perfectly well what it says. My memory isn't pixel-perfect photographic -- pretty much nobody's is -- but it is eidetic, and I can retain thumbnails of stuff I look up on Google Maps just fine. The problem is that I have a hell of a time orienting myself in 3D space using a 2D representation. I have the snapshot image and I know I need to turn east on Main Street, but fuck me if I know whether that's left or right from where I am.

[You would think moving from Arizona, where everything is a tidy post-war grid, to Massachusetts, where the road atlas looks like you dropped a plate of spaghetti, would have been sheer misery on this front, but no. Ironically, it is much easier to deal with in Boston. Being lost in Boston is no big deal. Everyone expects you to be lost here, because have you seen this place? Go pull up the satellite view on the map service of your choice. We're not Tokyo or Istanbul, but dammit, we try. The basics of Boston went up about three hundred years before urban planning was invented, and after that everyone just gave up. No one ever knows where they are. Five years in New England, and the phrase, "You can't get there from here," now makes perfect sense.]

Seeing the drawing on paper and being embedded in a three-dimensional space are completely different things to me. Trying to get them to go together is as difficult for me as it is for you to understand why I think rooibos tea tastes like a small amber resin ball resting between my tongue and palate, keeping my mouth propped open. They are two different senses. There's an algorithm and I can technically do the translation, but it's slow and clunky and I'm not very confident in my answers.

[This is also one of the reasons I am rubbish at first-person shooters. I think most people feel that standing in a room is a somewhat different experience from seeing it on a screen, but for me, the two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional environment is almost completely useless. I mean, I can see it, and I interpret it as a view of a 3D space and all that, but I never have any idea where I am in it. The only way for me to navigate through any of these damn things is with my eyes glued to a minimap, and God help me if it's one of the ones that uses just a dot instead an arrow or a viewcone that tells me which way I'm facing. Then I just have to careen around until I figure out what direction the engine thinks 'stick forward' is from this angle. I don't know how to explain it, other than by flailing a lot and muttering about volumetric space. The only way for me to be worse at FPSes would be to play with the screen turned off.]

I suspect that this is related to synaesthesia, at least in my case. On top of the chromesthesia, I also have a pretty prominent case of audiomotor synaesthesia, which I didn't even realize was a thing until Cytowic mentioned it. Certain sounds go with certain bodily motions. It's most active with music, for the obvious reason that music is pretty much designed to evoke it, It's why I dance, and why I'm so fascinated with things like hoops and figure skates -- a lot of the motions I think I "should" be matching to that sequence of sounds involve movements that wouldn't otherwise be possible, on a normal floor or without props. Ice is almost frictionless, after all. Polyethylene hoop tubing isn't very heavy by itself, but if you get it going fast enough you can build up a hell of a lot of inertia. Most hoopers keep wanting lighter, speedier hoops, but I keep wanting bigger, heftier ones, because if you swing them hard enough, you can use them to change your apparent center of rotation. They pull.

Even if I have no props to work with, it's still there. I'm informed that I wave my hands around when I sing. I'm generally not aware of it. I can override it with blocking or choreography, but it takes effort.

Of all the random cross-wirings I have so far labeled, the audiomotor short is one of the few that has ever annoyed me in any way. My brain is convinced that higher tones are closer to my face. I have been telling people about it for years, mostly in the form of a complaint, because it means a lot of musical instruments are somewhere between 'perpendicular to what my brain insists is going on' and 'completely, uselessly backwards'. Harps and woodwinds are pretty much the only things arranged correctly. Maybe theremins, but I've never run into one in person, so I don't know for sure. I know how a piano works, but that doesn't stop my brain from going 'what is this left to right shit'. Guitars are from the evil mirrorverse.

I do know how to read music. Technically. If you sit me down at a keyboard or give me a recorder, I can count fingers and bash my way through it, and I will play the right notes in the right order. It won't sound anything like a song, because written music is near-useless to me in the same way as road maps are. I struggle to orient myself and judge distance and I never have any idea where I am in music-space. It's the exact same kind of turned-around disoriented frustration, where I am clearly an intelligent, capable adult human being who should be able to do this simple thing, which other people have been succeeding at for hundreds if not thousands of years, and for some reason it just won't work right.

I also deal with it more or less the same way in both cases. The map case has to go through an extra step first, where I sit down and convert the planar map into a network map (i.e., a list of landmarks and directions, like "turn right on Main," "pass the church," "left on Birch") while I have the time to sit and stare at it and double-check my conversions, which so far as I know has no equivalent in the translation from written to performed music. (This is not foolproof. Massachusetts doesn't really believe in road signs. I still get lost a lot and have to backtrack to a last known location, and try the segment again.) But really the only thing that works is to have a pre-existing memory of having already followed the path through meatspace/musicspace once or twice before.

It doesn't have to be a real memory; confabulations work fine. I can go through Google Street View and "visualize" -- that is the wrong word entirely, because it's more spatial-motion than looking at my surroundings, but never mind that -- walking the route, or listen to a song and "visualize" what it feels like to sing those notes. Once I've done it in space, I can reproduce it easily. But the paper markings? No connection to any of this at all.

For someone who's spent so much time digging into the brains of synaesthetes, Cytowic is really really bad at drawing these kinds of connections. He mentions both audiomotor synaesthesia and the crap sense of direction in various places, but either he didn't think to recruit any audiomotor subjects or it didn't occur to him to check for a correlation, or to ask any of them if it seemed related. He seems to have asked a couple of his subjects where their synaesthetic experiences took place, which is where he got the idea about "outside", and he knows about number lines and calendars that swoop around in space, but he seems not to have asked anybody about any other spatial juxtapositions.

All of these other interesting things appear to have been brushed aside to make room for more sweeping comparisons to things in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. This continues to make me profoundly uncomfortable, and leaves me with the impression that he has completely missed the point of James' book. But that is a rant for another time.


  1. The Boston street layout made a lot more sense to me once I realized it's a hub-and-spoke system. The "squares" are hubs. The major streets are the spokes. Even if I don't know where I am now, I can proceed until I reach a main road, and then go home by the usual routes.
    The ability to find my way home makes the difference between 'helplessly lost, in trouble' and 'temporarily lost, but can reliably recover within 20 or 30 minutes at worst'.

    1. I just stop some random yahoo on the street and ask where the nearest T stop is. Once I find a train, I'm fine. Main roads help, but not as much as you might think -- unless I've physically been on that route before, I have no idea which way I'm heading on the main road, which might get me un-lost, or might make things worse.

      When I first got here, people kept trying to give me directions relative to the Charles. "Go towards the river," they said. Well, I can't see the river right now. Fuck me if I know where the damn thing is. For the love of God, please just point.

      Network maps, on the other hand, I'm pretty good at. Long before I had any idea how to get myself anywhere in Boston, I had already realized that when some guy decked out in every piece of Red Sox merch known to man turns to you at Park Street and says, 'Excuse me--', the answer to his question is going to be, 'Any train but E, get off at Kenmore, there are big signs with arrows pointing the way.'


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