Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Synesthesia" and the Gifted -- Exogenous influencing the Endogenous.

Seven years ago, in a conversation with former students who were revisiting “the good old days at Donegal” , one shared an unusual confession.  She had learned absolutely nothing from her 8th Grade Physical Sciences class.  It wasn’t that the class or the teacher was uninteresting.  It wasn’t that she already knew all the material.  Nor was it that she was intentionally lying low to keep from having her intelligence tapped or recognized.  No.  The reason that she felt this mental block which inhibited her learning for an entire year was entirely the VOLUME control on the television in the classroom.  It wasn’t too loud, it wasn’t too soft.  No.  The problem was that the Physical Sciences teacher set the volume control using the remote precisely to the numeral 27 on the neon bar.  TWENTY SEVEN.  An entire year wasted, all because of a seemingly random number on a volume control bar on a television in a science classroom.  Soon, others at the table began to agree.  In fact, in an ongoing conversation on facebook over the summer, nearly eighteen of twenty students interviewed identified a connection between volume settings and comprehension.

I posted this narrative in a long note on Facebook, and heard from many about their particular distractions in the classroom and the world.  Here I am, seven years later, and I spent the day talking about synesthesia, distractions, and learning, with a whole new class of students.
In 2010, I started to wonder why this large population of gifted students possessed this unique form of what I could only identify as some sort of synethesia. (Synesthesia, from the folks that ask questions like "can you taste a rainbow?" is the mixing of two or more senses, involuntarily).  It wasn’t as simple as an aversion to a particular typeface or an association of color with a number or letter.  It seemed to be a seemingly random exogenous influence triggering an intrinsically personal response that generated such emotion as to entirely stifle the learning experience for the day.   These students were all over the age of 18, and they distinctly remember the volume control setting from a class taken more than six to ten years ago.  I inquired further about this frustration. Most of the students have found their own ways to adapt, but it’s taken years to do so.  “ I've tried setting the volume with my eyes closed before. But not knowing at all what number it's on is almost worse than knowing it's not on an increment of 5. I love TVs that don't have numbers on the volume,”  commented one student.  
“The volume HAS to be a multiple of 5. if it's not, i won't be able to concentrate on what's happening, because it'll just bother me too much that the volume isn't right.  When I bought my own tv when I went to college, I chose one with a solid bar and without numbers, “ commented another.
The group generally accepted the minor differences in each other, as if they were all trying to settle on a mutually acceptable number.  Overwhelmingly, multiples of five and even numbers were the most embraced.  Several were willing to accept twelve, even if they were fans of fives.  The most confusing respondent went so far as to suggest that if one were to opt for a digitless volume control, the bar itself would need to be placed in an increment of one third, one half or three quarters to be pleasing and acceptable.
While my observations into this phenomenon are relatively new, and confined to a relatively small study group, those that shared in the discussion seemed to take comfort in the fact that there are others like them, and this apparent OCD tendency is not something shameful.    The most significant part of the entire ordeal for me is that each and every one of these students chose to conceal this condition, rather than attempt to resolve the issue or create an environment more conducive to learning, choosing instead to cover the material in the class independently via study guides and the textbook provided.  Certainly, these students chose to embrace one of the societal expectations for gifted students either perfectionism (which may have been a contributing internal factor) or avoidance of risk-taking.

All these years later, I have no definitive answers, yet I know that synesthesia is real, and much more prevalent in the population of gifted and talented people than the 4% of the population figure identified by the gurus studying and producing data.

If you have nothing to discuss over dinner this weekend, ask your family about colors and numbers, or sounds and seasons, or 3D circular calendars that glow yellow in September.  It sounds whacky and amazing, and I'm just a teeny bit jealous that I don't have this condition in a more prevalent state than when I verbally confirm an 11 am meeting for NOVEMBER -- aka the 11th month.

So, synesthetes, UNITE!  Share your stories, and help those of us who are mere mortals to understand the beauty that is your mis-wired world.

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