Such simultaneous sense experiences are an everyday reality for people born with synesthesia. But for a Toronto man, the intriguing neurological condition developed months after he suffered a stroke — and it has changed the way he sees the world.
George, who asked that his real name not be used, is believed to be only the second person worldwide to have acquired synesthesia as a result of brain damage, say neurologists at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital involved in his case.
The other was an American, whose stroke also damaged the part of the brain known as the thalamus. But George is the first reported case of acquired synesthesia manifesting itself in multiple senses, and he’s also unique in that he can stop the sensations at will.
For George, the first inkling that something had dramatically changed after his 2007 stroke occurred while he was watching a performance of the Peking Opera at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympics. The high, siren-like voices of the women triggered an unimagined response.
“I didn’t just hear the music, but I could feel it going through me,” the 40-something patient recalled Tuesday. “Then I could see the music and then I felt that — and this is so weird — I felt that I was being pulled into the TV set, travelling through the air magically and winding up in Beijing.
“It was absolutely wonderful … I was floating above the crowd and I could feel the heat and humidity off the crowd, and the smells. It was like being at the Olympics. I went from an air-conditioned condo to being up on the 50th row of the Olympic stadium.”