Shereshevskii—whose memory later made him famous as a stage performer—had synesthesia, a condition in which one or more of the senses are inextricably linked. The variations are endless: music has color, words have flavor or numbers appear embedded in a three-dimensional map. People with synesthesia “experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways,” writes author Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex, an expert on the condition, which is thought to affect as many as one in 25 people (many of whom do not realize their perception is unusual).
The Frog Who Croaked Blue reads like a fascinating novella-length essay. Ward is clearly enthralled by the topic, and he has no trouble finding interesting issues to address. He explores synesthesia’s potential causes (most people are born with it, but it can also be triggered by psychoactive drugs such as LSD), how and why the brain mixes the senses, and whether the condition might confer intellectual and even evolutionary benefits, such as a better memory. Between scientific discussions, he interweaves fascinating personal narratives from synesthetes around the world.
The most interesting part of the book, however, has little to do with synesthesia per se. Ward maintains that although smelling colors and hearing shapes may be exceptional, our senses are more closely intertwined than we probably realize. Certain neurons in the brain appear to be multisensory in that they can transmit auditory, visual and tactile information; when two types of stimuli are presented at the same time (when a circle appears on a computer screen at the same time that a beep sounds, for instance), these neurons respond more than twice as strongly to the combination than they do to either event alone.
Although synesthesia might seem alien to those who do not have it—Ward himself admits that he cannot fathom its more bizarre experiences—the bottom line, he says, is that we are all endowed with richly intermingling senses. “Whatever synesthesia tells us, it tells us that our own way of sensing the world is precious,” he writes.
My Three Shrinks
Listen at www.mythreeshrinks.com
You’re dining out when you notice that the rowdy crowd at the next table is having a most unusual conversation—debating the merits of a new antidepressant and chattering about the controversial diagnosis of e-mail-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder. You realize you are overhearing psychiatrists talk about some juicy stuff, and that’s exactly the appeal of the podcast My Three Shrinks. Every couple of weeks the shrinks—Roy, a general- hospital psychiatrist, Dinah, who sees outpatients, and the doctor known only as “ClinkShrink,” who spends her days with troubled inmates—arm themselves with mics, a few bottles of wine and plenty of polemic, and you get to listen in.
A typical recent episode focused on benzodiazepines, a class of depressants used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Roy kicked things off by comparing a prescription of three milligrams of Xanax (alprazolam) a day to a prescription of three beers a day. He explained that both alcohol and Xanax increase the effects of GABA, a chemical messenger in the brain that tells neurons to slow down or stop firing. Dinah and ClinkShrink agreed but argued that three milligrams is equivalent to many more beers than that.
Although the shrinks occasionally fall into shrill bickering or irrelevant tangents, their spirited conversations never fail to untangle the ethics and issues of psychiatric practice—so go ahead and eavesdrop sometime.
In Hollywood scientific accuracy is rarely a priority, but, as with everything, there are exceptions. If psychiatrists could give out Oscars for a day, these films would make the short list for providing authentic glimpses into the mind.