What it’s like to live with a quirky health condition
Some Australians live with conditions you may have never even heard of. From ‘seeing’ sounds to face blindness, these unusual disorders are the norm for some.
Do you “see” sounds or numbers as colours? Perhaps the sound of a car appears as a grey line or the No.3 might be bright green.
Or perhaps you find it hard to imagine a vivid sunset.
Such are the impact of living with a few unusual health conditions.
When you see sounds as colours
Seeing sounds as colours is a form of synaesthesia.
Many people don’t realise they have it because they’ve always seen sounds or numbers as colours.
The good news is it’s not life-threatening and it doesn’t need to be treated — it’s simply a neurological phenomenon, according to Josh Berger, from the University of Sydney Brain and Behaviour Lab.
“People are born with synaesthesia,” Josh says.
“It can be an inherited trait — like having red hair or blue eyes.
Josh explains there’s not one specific gene involved but all genes connected to brain development.
“There is a trigger like a sound, touch or taste and that causes an additional experience and this added experience can be from another sense,” he says.
“So you don’t just smell perfume in the air or hear a sound — you might have your own unique visual reaction, too.”
About 4 per cent of people have synaesthesia.
“Some people see less vivid colours, some see colours in their mind’s eye or as a fog, and others see colours directly in front of them,” Josh says.
“If it’s accompanied by hypersensitivity, it can be difficult, but for the most part, people have no issues because it’s their everyday experience.”
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Living with face blindness
Another lesser-known condition is prosopagnosia or “face blindness”, where people can’t recognise familiar faces.
It can happen after brain damage, such as stroke, or develops during childhood when face recognition skills are developing.
Genes may play a role.
“We know that face recognition abilities vary widely between individuals — some are ‘super recognisers’ who rarely forget a face, and … between two and four children in every hundred have real trouble with face recognition,” researcher Judith Lowes, from the University of Stirling, says.
“It is unrelated to vision, intelligence and memory — but those affected by it can have severe, lifelong problems recognising familiar faces.
“In some cases, people cannot recognise their immediate family or even their own reflection.”
When your mind can’t visualise
If you can’t picture the sun setting over the ocean or a fresh green apple, you may have aphantasia.
It’s described as being blind in your mind’s eye and may affect 2-5 per cent of people.
“Most people discover they have aphantasia when they hear someone describing an image and they see black on black or nothingness — they can’t imagine a sunset or an apple,” Professor Joel Pearson, from the University of New South Wales, says.
Prof Pearson, who is director of the Future Minds Lab, says it appears people with aphantasia have less detailed memories and because of the strong connection between thoughts and emotions, they are less prone to anxiety.
But why it happens is still a mystery.
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Nina Norden, 39, an artist from Sydney, has lived with synaesthesia for as long as she can remember.
I didn’t realise I had synaesthesia until I was 27.
I came across the word in a dictionary and realised that was me.
Then I realised why, when I was younger, my friends couldn’t relate to things I described because they saw the world differently to me.
As a young child I remember Dad teaching me the days of the week and when he said Tuesday and Friday — I’d “see” those words.
They still look the same.
Tuesday is blue with waves and little dots and Friday is purple and grainy with zigzags.
When I hear cars on the street, I see those sounds as rough grey lines.
When I hear notes on a piano, the little notes are red and as the notes get deeper, they become dark brown and black.
Sometimes if I’m tired and in a noisy place all the sounds and colours can be overwhelming but I don’t find it hard to live with synaesthesia — it’s all I’ve known.
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Written by Sarah Marinos.