Sunday, March 27, 2011

Synesthesia: Part 2 (My Experience)

Remember that weird disorder I posted about earlier? Part of the reason that it interests me so much is because it's a regular part of my life, especially after a few psychedelic experiences in particular.

I have experienced a few different kinds. My grapheme-> color perceptions (meaning that I perceive letters and numbers in color) are always around. I have a theory that it's the reason I'm such a good speller-- I remember words (and phone numbers) by the sequence of colors in which they appear behind my eyelids. Weirdly, numbers have a stronger color association than do letters for me, even though I'm a word person and not a math person at all. That's what my numbers look like, on the left.

A lot of my numbers and letters are different shades of that yellowy-orange. I don't know why, because the color actually sort of pisses me off. I also experience the year as a mobius strip around my body, with January behind me and to the left. I've realized that when I talk about a particular time of the year, I gesticulate in the direction that I perceive it to be. I wonder if anybody notices.

When I smoke kief, things start to get weirder, and I occasionally get other forms. Once, the textures that I touched produced color in my head. I thought that it was so cool that I made a painting (with Q-Tips and nail polish) of the colors that I touched.

In addition, because of my psychedelic experiences, I occasionally taste music. I think that this is a permanent change, but it has to be the right kind of music. During my first acid trip, I was enjoying the song Spitting Venom by Modest Mouse and suddenly I could feel it like pop rocks on my tongue.

It was the coolest sensation, but I figured it was an isolated incident and forgot it for about two months. In between, I did no additional psychedelics, aside from marijuana once a week or so. I was sitting on my bed listening to Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, and the flute that was woven through the song kept causing an actual physical sensation of pain in the center of my tongue, like being poked with a needle. I got so annoyed with that sensation that I had to turn the music off, even though I really enjoyed the sound of it. Since then, I occasionally have a sense of pressure on my tongue, and a related taste of copper pennies, when listening to music.

I love my synesthesia, despite the occasional unpleasantness. I feel lucky to have such a unique way of experiencing the world. Unfortunately, even though drugs have given me new sense combinations, my natural synesthetic perceptions are getting weaker as time goes on, and I don't know how to preserve it. It probably has something to do with all the playing that I do with my neurochemistry, but I like those games too much to stop. :)
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Friday, March 25, 2011

How To Avoid Bad Trips

(This is the second half of my reposting of an article that I wrote for The first half is here.)

Everyone has heard about bad trips, but the chance that you will have a horrific bad trip that will end up in your hospitalization, insanity, or death is ridiculously tiny. The chance that you will have tough, uncomfortable feelings while on acid is probable, but also pretty easy to deal with if you know what you're doing.
  • Have an experienced tripper there with you. Voice any concerns you have to him or her and let them steer your thoughts in a positive direction. They probably have  been where you are and know how to avoid digging yourself into a hole. Bonus points if this experienced tripper is a lover or platonic friend that you feel comfortable cuddling with because really, cuddles solve all problems ever. If you don't have a hippie on hand and you start to feel like things are getting out of control, call a friend to chat. You don't even have to tell them you're on acid: just say you are home alone and got kind of freaked out and wanted someone to talk to. They will distract you and cheer you up for sure.
  • Think positively. Don't even start to ponder the death of your dog, your ex-girlfriend, or how much time you waste on the internet. If you find yourself going down this path, find something else to think about, and fast. Get away from whatever is making you uncomfortable. Transport yourself to quiet, idyllic beaches in your head. Use any other relaxation methods you can think of. On acid, you will probably get distracted easily, so if you start sweating and jumping at tiny noises, pop in a favorite Disney movie and space out to your heart's content. The first time I tripped, I had a bad experience in which I felt very paranoid, confused, hopeless, and saw some very strange things. My boyfriend recognized this, and put on some South Park and soon I was laughing uproariously and feeling ecstatic.
  • Take precautions. Surround yourself with cuddly stuffed animals, happy music, and your favorite people. Don't watch scary movies, or sad ones. I have a friend who writes positive little notes to himself like, "Have fun!" and "Isn't life beautiful?" and sometimes ties a string around his finger to remind himself that it will be over by tomorrow. Make comfort foods and surround yourself with comfort smells. Anything you can think of to inspire happy feelings in yourself cannot go to waste.
  • It is the drug. You are not going insane. Most likely, anything abnormal you see or feel is not real and will soon pass. The drug will wear out soon. You are safe. Repeat mantras like this to yourself if things start getting to be too much for you to handle.
  • Don't take more than you can handle (approximately 3 hits) on your first trip. Altered states of consciousness take getting used to, and having your mind blown all at once would probably be uncomfortable. Unlike college chugging contests, no one will think you are a pansy if you play it safe.
  • If something bad really does happen, in real life, do not hesitate to seek help. If you can't get the potato chip bag open, ask your roommate to do it and he or she will probably understand. If something embarrassing happens, it's not the end of the world. On a more serious note, if you or someone else gets injured, do not worry about getting arrested or chastised. Other things are more important. Take the proper actions. If it's necessary to call the ambulance, call them. They will ask about medication, and you need to tell them the truth. It is illegal to have acid in your possession, not to have it inside your body already, and someone providing emergency help needs to know this things, for obvious reasons. Make sure to stay calm and be helpful.
I don't mean to make you paranoid, because if LSD was really unpleasant it wouldn't be so popular. I know that this is something that a lot of people worry about, though, so I wanted to find a way to quell some concerns.

#1 Rule: Feel confident about your LSD use and your choice of companions, setting, and activities, and you will not have any problems.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Synesthesia: Part 1 (Just the Facts, Ma'am)

(Since synesthesia is such a complex topic, I'm going to divide it up into 2 posts. This first one is mainly a reposting of a project I did senior year of high school and will deal with the science of the subject, and the second one will be about my own experiences.)

Synesthesia is an interesting neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense causes an inappropriate stimulation in another one. Information from one sense (like sound) is taken into the brain, but this information also stimulates another sense (like taste), causing synesthetes to “taste sound” or “smell sight” or “see sound.”

It’s not a matter of metaphorical association; it’s involuntary and automatic and very vivid. These experiences are consistent for synesthetes, meaning that if the sound of a french horn tastes like chicken one day, they will report the french horn tasting like chicken weeks, months, and years later. This is the main test of synesthesia—impressions and associations remain basically the same over time. Many synesthetes don’t know that their sensory impressions are unusual, and often find them pleasant or neutral.

There are many ways that the senses can be crossed, and therefore there are many types of synesthesia. Synesthetes normally only have one or a few types. The most common form is called grapheme/color synesthesia: people with this type hear or see words or letters in color. For example, one might associate the letter T with the color orange, or G with green. It is also common for sound to produce color: flutes are yellow, or Beethoven’s Fifth is undulating green and brown stripes. “Ordinal linguistic personification” is when time segments, like days of the week or months, are viewed as having personalities. A “Spatial sequence” or “number-form” synesthete views time as a three-dimensional shape. A newly-documented form of synesthesia, “visual motion/sound” is when a movement that is seen results in a sound being heard. Almost any combination of senses can occur, however, and there are many more types than just these.

Synesthetes can also be broken down further into two more categories: “associators” and “projectors.” Projectors experience their sensory impressions outside their bodies, as if it was projected on a screen in front of them. Someone with projecting grapheme/color synesthesia will see the letter D on the page as green instead of black, or someone with projecting sound/color synesthesia will see a large blue square at arm’s length when they hear a trumpet. Associators, the more common type, experience their sensory oddities in their heads. Associating grapheme/color synesthetes will read a black and white page and know that it is black and white, but will always picture the letter S in their head as yellow, and Z as purple.

Though it is believed to be a genetic condition, synesthesia is also sometimes reported as a temporary experience by those under the influence of psychedelic drugs, stroke victims, people having a temporal lobe epilepsy seizure, or as a result of blindness or deafness.

Though the cause of synesthesia has not yet been identified, there are a few theories about why it occurs.
  1. One theory suggests that the brains of synesthetes are literally cross-wired, and that when the area of the brain that normally receives information from the eye, for example, is stimulated, the hearing-area of the brain is activated as well. This theory has been verified by brain scans.
  2. Others think that in synesthetes, when the senses receive information the limbic system, which is the center of emotion in the brain, is affected. The impressions of the synesthete are caused by seemingly unrelated fragments of memory that pop up in the mind.
  3. In the years following our birth, the number of brain-connections, called synapses, that we have decreases dramatically. A third group suggests that this “brain-pruning” of unnecessary systems does not occur or occurs less in synesthetes, meaning that they have extra connections, leading their brain to make strange associations.
  4. The existence of temporary synesthesia lead researchers to a fourth conclusion: that in synesthetes the “feedback” of the brain, which is usually stopped, is left to run amok, meaning that the impulses are free to inhabit various parts of the brain.
Synesthesia has been linked to a chromosome associated with autism and epilepsy, and the three conditions sometimes occur together. Synesthetes are more likely to be creative people, including artists of every variety, and often lack ability in math and a sense of direction. Many also report that their synesthetic impressions improve their memory. For example, if one notices that a friend’s phone number is all yellow and orange numbers, they are more likely to remember it because the colors are so vivid.

Synesthesia is of interest to researchers both for its own sake and because understanding these anomalies will give scientists clues as to how the normal brain works, and how the average person’s sense experience happens. There are many facets of the brain that are still not understood, and Synesthesia research is helping us to understand what the brain is all about.

Synesthesia has been part of the scientific and artistic consciousness for hundreds of years, even though science has only been making strides in understanding it in the last century. Throughout the ages, many artists have created mixed-media art that reproduces synesthetic impressions, and many artists are synesthetes that are inspired by their impressions.

The Greeks called the timbre of music its “color” and tried to quantify and classify it for study. Isaac Newton and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe independently proposed that musical tones and color tones shared frequencies, showing that they thought that the two senses were linked and interrelated. Newton wrote that the spectrum of colors and the musical octave coincide.

In the early twentieth century, Alexander Scriabin made a “color organ,” a piano with colored keys, to accompany his symphonic work “Prometheus: Poem of Fire.” Though he was very specific in his directions of what key should be what color, he was not a synesthete himself. His invention followed a pattern he constructed by combining the color wheel and the circle of fifths. However, the instrument never caught on, and the piece was rarely performed using it even during the composer’s lifetime. This is the most famous example of a color organ, but by no means the first or the last. Many varieties have been built. Before the nineteenth century, color organs were made that would cause colored pieces of paper fly into the air when a certain key was pressed. With the invention of the gas light, color organs began to make use of the new technology, and became more complex.

Carol J. Steen is a contemporary artist who uses her Synesthesia to create her artwork. This painting is a representation of what she saw once during a visit to an acupuncturist as her eyes were closed. Her strongest form of synesthesia is touch to color, shape, or movement, but she sees the alphabet in color as well. She first realized something about her was different when she commented on how pretty the letter “A” was with its shade of pink, and a classmate told her she was weird. At age twenty, she brought up the yellow color of the number five at the dinner table, and while her father agreed, her brother and mother were confused. She discovered the name for her unique skill from an NPR program. Now, she sees orange when she feels pain, and has used this skill to help her dentist identify a tooth that needed a root canal. She co-founded the American Synesthesia Association, which focuses on education and research about the condition.

Photographer Marcia Smilack was first told about Synesthesia in college, by a friend who was a psychology major. She was shocked to finally understand why the first note she had played on the piano was green, and why sound always created sight for her. She takes a picture of any scene that inspires in her a feeling of touch or a taste, which are mainly reflections in water. She took the above photograph when the red of the roof felt like velvet to her, and the white felt soft like Santa’s beard.

This is a painting by Anne Salz, a Dutch artist and musician with synesthesia. The inspiration for this painting came from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins.

One of the best and best-known examples of synesthesia in art is the Disney movie Fantasia. It features eight well-known instrumental pieces accompanied by animation. Though it wasn’t very popular at the time of its release, it has grown into a classic and has been hailed for its avant-garde qualities.

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian painter, born in 1866, who painted the first modern abstract art and heard musical notes as he painted. For example, yellow sounded to him like middle C on a piano or a blast of trumpets. He said that different combinations of colors produced chords, and this helped him paint.

Though Piet Mondrian was not a synesthete himself, his abstract art often has synesthetic elements. For example, the inspiration for the above picture is sometimes said to be a map of a busy subway, and sometimes the music that he liked to dance to. Either way, this painting has a strong rhythmic component, which cannot often be said about visual art.

Next time: my own experiences as a synesthete.
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Tripping For the First Time

(This is essentially a reposting of something I wrote for The second half of the article, on bad trips, deserves a separate post.)

There is a conspicuous absence of practical advice about acid. And for the newbie (and we've all been there) popping your acid cherry can be a nerve-wracking experience. If you have never tripped before, and would like to, here are some guidelines regarding your first trip. Hopefully I answer your pressing questions-- if you have a concern I didn't address, mention it in a comment and I will do my best to address it in a future post.

  • Don't even think about doing acid until you have played with your mind in other ways. Marijuana is a good place to start. If you can't hand the reins over to a chemical, you will not have fun. If you are afraid of your own mind, you will not have fun. Feel prepared and things will be fine.
  • Generally, acid comes in tabs, which are small square pieces of paper. As a newbie, you should take one or two, depending on your body size, how sensitive you are to other drugs, and how confident you feel. Generally, if you are paying more than $10-15 for one tab (also known as a hit), you are getting ripped off. Don't worry about adulterants, since it's cheaper for a crooked dealer to sell you blank paper than it is for him to fiddle with insidious chemicals. Also, you couldn't overdose if you tried. When you get ahold of your tabs, you stick it in your mouth and swish it around (it will taste like plain old paper) and store it under your tongue for 20-30 minutes. Then you swallow to make sure you get every drop of psychedelic goodness. It soaks into your mucous membranes, and should take effect within 45 minutes of first contact, and last for 12-18 hours so clear your schedule.
  • Acid is more powerful and awesome and fun and weird than anything else you have encountered. Respect that, and do not treat it like marijuana or alcohol.
  • DO NOT DRIVE. Even if you think you can drive fine when buzzed, acid is light years different and you do NOT want to take this chance.
  • Do not put yourself in any position where you have to deal with authority figures or strangers. This includes parents, bosses, other people's parents, cops, customers, door-to-door salesmen, and large dogs.
  • Ideally, you should have an experienced tripper act as your spotter. He or she can trip along with you, which makes it significantly more fun for both people. If that's not possible, have someone you trust chill out with you and make sure you don't do anything harmful, illegal, or that will ruin your social life for years to come. If for some reason this isn't possible either, arrange to have the house to yourself for a day or two and lock up any harmful objects, just in case. You probably won't freak out, but without someone there to check your behavior, things can get out of hand easier and it is best not to take chances.
  • Pick a good place. Any unfamiliar place that makes you feel uncomfortable is a bad place, like work, school, theatrical premieres, the White House. Try not to deal with strangers. Good places: your own home (if you feel totally at ease there and irritating people are far far away), a friend's house, concerts (sometimes; maybe not best for a first trip), or a nice quiet spot in the woods (best).
  • What are you going to want to do while on acid? Well, probably experience your new and heightened senses. Pick out some good music (recommendations: Radiohead, MGMT, the Beatles) or movies (for example, Fantasia 2000 or Yellow Submarine) or artwork (like fractals). Explore the woods, look at the colors, play games. Anything you want, really; these are, of course, just recommendations.
  • No one can tell you're on acid. Unless someone knows you very well, knows acid well, and is with you for an extended period of time while you are tripping, they will not know the difference. Things seem weird to you, but they are normal to everyone else. At worst, people will assume you are weird or stoned. Don't do anything sketchy, don't converse any more than it takes to be polite, and escape an uncomfortable situation as soon as possible. Do not comment on anything out of the ordinary that you see, because it might not exist. I have dealt with my own father, my friend's parents, the CVS late-night pharmacist, and petting-zoo patrons all while on acid and no one has ever called me out on it or pursued any legal action. If, on the other hand, I stripped off my clothes and did handstands in the middle of the highway, people might suspect. But if you're operating generally within social limits, people won't give you a second thought.
  • Don't expect anything in particular, because acid has better plans for you than you can think up. Don't fight it, see what happens, and you will most likely be amazed. Have fun!
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Sunday, March 20, 2011

First Post: A sort-of Introduction

Is that you?

I bet you identify with them at least a little. Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke is rightly hailed as classic comedy that really, for drug users, never gets old. (In case you haven't seen it, here's the original trailer on Youtube.) And I think part of the reason we are so enamored with Cheech and Chong and their ilk (like Pineapple Express and Knocked Up) is the mouth-watering depictions of the truckloads of drugs they always seem to have. But we also laugh, almost nervously, when they get pulled over by the cop and have to dispose of the drugs-- by swallowing them. We've been there. Possibly in the unfortunate situation of getting busted, but more optimistically that first-trip anxiety. When Cheech first figures out that what he swallowed is LSD, he panics and babbles, “It's going to make me freak out, man. I've seen those guys that had too much acid. Their heads look like a pumpkin, man.” Hopefully, we know what we're taking, but we can never be truly prepared. We drug-users laugh along-- we love these movies because, despite the lack of realism, we understand the characters and their desire for awesome drugs.

But unfortunately, Cheech and Chong are also a perfect example of the negative stereotypes attached to drug users. They are portrayed as bumbling hippie vagabonds who smoke weed like it's their job-- because they don't have one. Are stereotypes like these valid? Occasionally, yes. However, drugs like marijuana, LSD, and shrooms also attract successful and intelligent people, from writers and artists to Harvard scientists. Have you seen or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? The author, Ken Kesey, was inspired to write his classic novel by a peyote trip, and now it's read in English classes. And one of the prime proponents of the hallucinogenic movement of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, was a highly educated psychology professor. That's not even including the many musicians, like the Beatles, who decided to enhance themselves with substances. (I'll go into furthur detail about these important figures in future posts, because they're some of my heroes.) An underrepresented group continues to trip in the same spirit of these pioneers, but this is something the world seems to have forgotten.

I know I'm not the only person that feels this way about hallucinogens. We, as users, have been portrayed as wacked-out and brain damaged, but I disagree wholeheartedly. So finally, we have arrived at my statement of intent. I'm writing it for the smart people who appreciate the artistic and visionary potential of hallucinogens, who expand their brains instead of dulling them. Topics will include pertinent science, laws, literature, music, and other fun stuff for smart hippies.

Until the next time I post, have fun and happy tripping!
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