There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.
Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.
I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.
I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.
I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.
Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.
What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.
The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.
My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)