Friday, November 09, 2007

Is it possible to self-diagnose a brain condition?

I am so excited as to be almost incoherent. I finally got around to watching Vilayanur Ramachandran's presentation to TED. It's been sitting on my computer desktop waiting for me to get around to it for weeks on end.

His talk is fascinating, engaging and accessible enough for a numpty like me to be able to keep pace. I was riveted from the outset.

Then he started talking about synaesthesia and a light went on in my head. Now I know that we are essentially self-involved beings - some of us more so than others. I know that there is a real danger of psychosomatically diagnosing ourselves with every condition we learn about. Student doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are often warned against this as they embark on the diagnostics sections of their study programmes.

And yet...

I know that taste is as much about the olfactory sense as about taste buds, we learned that much at school. So when I say I don't like goat's cheese because it tastes like the smell of goat, don't look at me like that - there's a good anatomical explanation for it.

But the first time I tasted beansprouts, I announced that they tasted like green. This provoked much hilarity. I was informed that I was daft. My case was not helped when I retorted, "Well, what colour do you think it tastes like, then?" I was in my late teens/early twenties at the time, and it was my first inkling that other people didn't associate tastes and smells with colours.

In his talk Ramachandran doesn't refer to tastes and smells being cross-linked with sight. He mentions numbers and musical notes, and the tendency of some people to see these in terms of colours. So perhaps the areas of the brain involved in processing tastes/smells and colours are too far from each other for cross-wiring and perhaps I am just daft.

However, he did indicate that synaesthetes have enormous proclivity for metaphorical/allegorical thought. All my life I have thought in analogies and talked in allegories. And that's not just my take on it - it has been remarked upon by countless people at various points along the way - most recently by one of my lecturers on Monday. It has always been the strongest tool in my teaching toolkit and the factor from which my writing has benefited most. Read back through my past few posts and see for yourself if I'm wrong!

So maybe I'm just falling victim to a self inflicted instance of the Forer effect here, but without fuss or fanfare, it felt as if a piece of the puzzle of my anomalous brain function slipped quietly into place, so (needless to say) I hope not.

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