Monday, August 15, 2011
Zoey Stoll and Micah McKechnie have never met each other, but they have a lot in common.
Both are scary smart, both hail from Oakland (Zoey is a junior at Oakland Tech; Micah is a junior at UC Santa Barbara) and both have a neurologically-based condition called synesthesia.
I know that sounds like a horrible disease, but it's actually something wonderful.
Synesthesia is a term scientists use to describe what happens when stimulating one sense causes an involuntary response in another sense.
In Zoey's case, it's her visual sense. When she reads, each letter and number has a specific color, gender and personality.
"It can be a real advantage," she says. "If I see a math problem, I see it in a range of colors, which is pretty cool. And it's hard for me to misspell a word because if I do, the colors don't line up right."
She feels sorry for the rest of us, who read only in black and white.
"I'm really glad I have synesthesia. Reading would be so boring without it."
Often, the letters in each word will take their cue from the first letter. If the first letter is feminine, the other letters in the word probably will be, too.
"For instance, 'M' and 'S' are feminine letters," she said. "'So I hate to tell you, but 'Martin Snapp' is a very feminine name."
When she was a little girl, she used to write science fiction stories influenced by her synesthesia.
"One of my stories was about a green planet, and all the names of places on the planet were words that started with a green letter," she says.
Micah share's Zoey's sensitivity to letters and numbers, but she's even more sensitive to vibrations, especially sounds.
"It allows me to escape in my head," she says. "Whenever I'm on a long car ride or stuck in school doing absolutely nothing for lunch, I can just close my eyes and see amazing shapes and colors from every sound I hear. I wish I were more of an artist so I could draw them."
Needless to say, music is an utter joy for her. When she closes her eyes she sees light shows that are infinitely better than anything I used to see at the Avalon or the Fillmore back in the 196Os. And she doesn't need drugs to do it, either.
That's another thing she and Zoey have in common: They adamantly refuse to touch drugs or alcohol, and for a simple reason.
"I don't like anything that messes with my head," says Micah. "I'm already there. I don't need that."
And there's one more advantage. Micah has loved horses since she was a little girl, and her riding instructors have always marveled at her perfect riding form.
"If you flex a muscle, that's just another type of vibration," she explains. "So I can see all my muscles when I'm riding. If my form is off even a little bit, I can see that in my mind."
Not much is known about this syndrome, although it seems to affect a lot of creative people.
Famous synesthetes include composers Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, painters David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, novelist Vladimir Nabokov and physicist Richard Feynman.
I'm curious: Just how widespread is this syndrome? If you have synesthesia, too, please write me and describe your experiences. I'm absolutely fascinated - and, frankly, a little jealous.