A friend of mine has synaesthesia. This is a condition in which the senses are experienced differently – where you can smell colours, taste names, see numbers, or many other unusual ways of experiencing the information our brains detect. We, the majority, will of course be quite certain that synaesthesics are wrong, that the colour purple most definitely does not smell like oranges – it simply looks like, well, like the colour purple. And we all know what purple looks like, don’t we?
And there is the thing. I know what purple looks like to me – I know what experience my brain has when it receives the energy signatures of the electron transitions that create colour of that particular frequency. I have absolutely no idea if what everyone else sees is what I see – synaesthesics give us a huge clue about the subjectivity of our experiences.
Here is another experience I did not know about until I heard a recent radio program about it. There are some people who are born with parts of their body not wired up to their brain, meaning that although they can see their hand, for instance, if feels like it does not belong to them because their brain does not register its existence in the usual way. This phenomenon has crept into legends of evil, possessed body parts but it is simply a wiring problem, currently an incurable one. In some cases, the feeling is so unbearable, amputation is a solution that helps the sufferer.
Anti-trans campaigners have used this condition to belittle trans people, comparing the two phenomena and saying that sufferers “believe they are really disabled” and are clearly deluded. Having never heard of the real cause, I once dismissed sufferers as cranks who had absolutely nothing in common with trans people.
That’s right, despite knowing very little about the phenomena, having never had an open-minded heart to heart with someone who experiences it, I felt entitled to have an opinion on the subject. Presumably my “normative” (in this case) experience fed my sense of entitlement.
But now I understand a little more about the complexity of the human brain and how we experience the world and our own bodies, I realise I am in no position to tell another human being that how they experience the world or themselves is wrong. I can only say it is unusual, that it is not my experience and I do not understand it. Hopefully, I am learning not to be so arrogant as to think if it does not make sense to me, it must be nonsense – I might just defer to my vast lack of understanding of life, the universe and everything.
We have developed so much common language and shared meaning we believe we are all having the same experience of the world, but that is simply not true. Sensory information that is pleasant to some is unbearable to others, depending on how the brain receives that information. How we make meaning of our experiences does not just vary across culture but from person to person. These variations only become problematic when someone insists that their particular subjective experience should apply to others.
And this is why I am trying to learn to say, “I find your take on the world unusual, but I accept your experience is valid for you, and I will not impose on your experience so long as you do not impose on my own self-experience”.