Synesthesia has to be one of the strangest quirks of the human mind. Found in just 2-4 percent of the population in up to 60 different forms, this neurological condition causes a sensation to be experienced by two or more of the senses simultaneously, in what’s described as a “union of the senses.” You might be able to smell colors or even see music, for example.
One woman’s experience with the condition took an even more bizarre turn when a lightning strike, along with a string of other unique experiences, appeared to temporarily stop or alter her synesthetic experiences.
Her remarkable story is now giving scientists a brand new insight into the nature of this fascinating phenomenon, as detailed in a recent case study featured in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
The 21-year-old woman, only referred to under the pseudonym AB, reported that since childhood she sees “projected visual colors” when she hears particular musical notes, chords, or instruments and strongly associates people with different colors. She was also ambidextrous and able to play a handful of instruments.
However, her experiences of synesthesia began to change following a series of unfortunate events in her early adulthood, including several concussions, migraines, contracting viral meningitis, and, unbelievably, a lightning strike.
“She’s unofficially the unluckiest girl alive,” Kevin Mitchell, lead researcher and neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin, told The Atlantic.
In the months after she fell ill with viral meningitis at age 19, she said the colors she experienced remained vivid but felt “wrong” and “displaced”. A few months later, she suffered two concussions. The first one caused her musically-evoked colors to appear in the lower periphery of her vision, when they previously occurred in the center. The second led to the colors become more vibrant and intense.
As if it couldn’t get any stranger, she was hit by a lightning strike two months later. She received the shock while inside a metal cabin with her hand on the windowsill, when it was hit by lightning.
Along with memory loss and increased anxiety, this event caused her the majority of her synesthesia experiences to vanish. Around this time, she was only prescribed Xanax to help her cope with panic attacks. She did experience some perceptions of gold and silver colors, as well as colors that she said were “not even real colors.” Within a few months, her usual symptoms returned.
So what can we learn from this curious case?
There are two schools of thought to explain what synesthesia is. One says it’s caused by extra connections in the brain between the different sensory cortices. The other suggests that we all have these connections, however, they remain inactive for most of us.
Although the researchers say their study can’t concretely conclude anything, they believe this is evidence that the condition is at least partially hard-wired into the neuroanatomical structure of people with synesthesia.
“The phenomenological experience of synaesthesia can, thus, like most conscious experiences, be modulated by pharmacologically diverse medications or injury," they wrote. "However, the underlying neural substrates mediating specific synaesthetic pairings appear remarkably 'hard-wired' and can persist over very long periods even under conditions that alter or completely suppress the conscious synaesthetic experience itself.”