Mind-Melding Teen With Synesthesia Is One With Technology

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 8 2013 6:27 PM

Mind-Melding Teen With Synesthesia Is One With Technology

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What does the escalator feel?

Photo by LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/GettyImages

A 15-year-old girl from Houston can mind-meld with escalators, according to an interview published Wednesday in Psychology Today. The teenager has synesthesia, a condition in which stimulating one sense elicits the perception or experience of another. Every synesthete’s wiring is different: For some, a lick of music has a shape or color. Or a word develops a mouth feel, as if they’re literally holding something on their tongue. This girl, who calls herself Kaylee after the machine whisperer on Firefly, has mirror-touch synesthesia, which would normally mean she gets tactile sensations on her own body when she sees others being touched. Yet Kaylee’s condition comes with a twist. She feels the feelings of inanimate objects. In the interview, she gives readers a taste (it tastes green!) of her futuristic empathy:  

The way I feel the movement of a machine depends mostly on where the machine is positioned in relation to my body. If it’s somewhere near me but not touching me, or if I’m touching it but not influenced by it, then it’s as if the machine is an extra limb, or an extension of me. I feel and am aware of my own body and the fact that I am not the machine; no part of the machine is analogous to a part of my body. It’s as if the machine and I are connected, and I can feel what it feels through that lens without actually “becoming” it.

This is different, however, when I am in or on the machine, and directly influenced by its motion, like when I’m riding in a car or on a boat. Then, I am the machine, in a traditional mirror-touch experience. I feel accelerating as a shift of balance (the more rapid the acceleration, the more severe the shift) in my lower body/feet, as if I am standing and leaning forward, about to fall. When the car begins to brake, I feel as if my arms are extended in front of me, and my hands and wrist and flexing up.

Here’s how it feels to ride an escalator:

I feel the movement of the steps on the conveyor as if they're the notches up my spine, and the armrest as the skin at the top of my upper arm and shoulder.

Clocks? Kind of sexy:

[They] are so delicate and minute in their design and visible movement I barely feel them tickle the hair on my arms.

But human-shaped robots present a conundrum:

Ironically, robots that have been designed to look like/mimic human bodies are stranger to connect to, because their similarity to my already-existing limbs is confusing.

As one synesthesia researcher points out, we’ve long imbued objects with the characteristics of living things. Studies show that we feel sad watching toys get abused and happy when they’re cuddled. Our power to invest the world around us with intentionality and affectiveness makes us writers, among other things. Kaylee says her synesthesia gives her “a unique perspective, which can be beneficial in any discussion.” (Maybe you’re now imagining a roundtable involving her, R2D2, the protagonist from Cars, and The Brave Little Toasterå.) That sounds right, but I’d argue that her ability to relate to the inhuman reveals her humanity too.

 (h/t The Cut)

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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