By Allison Eatough
Eli Fisher has what he calls a “superpower.” It’s really a rare brain condition know as synesthesia.
When the 13-year-old Easton resident awakens every morning and feels his blanket, he tastes bananas.
When he reads the numbers 2, 7 and 8 on a math test, he sees them in orange, blue and purple, respectively – even though they are printed in black.
And when he sees something dark green, he feels angry. But when he sees lime green, he feels calm.
Synesthesia combines two or more of the body’s five senses.
“It’s a big mix of sensory experiences all jumbled together into one big taste or smell when I look at something,” he says.
Experts estimate about 4 percent of the population has synesthesia, including performers Billy Joel and Pharrell Williams. Some “synesthetes” hear colors. Others smell noises or, like Eli, see numbers as colors and associate tastes with different objects or words.
“Synesthesia is something extra,” says Dr. Richard Cytowic, professor of neurology at George Washington University and author of “Wednesday is Indigo Blue,” a book about synesthesia. “It’s not a deficit. It’s not an illness or condition. It’s a trait. It’s the way people are.”
According to Eli and his family, it is also a gift.
How synesthesia works
“Everybody knows the term anesthesia, which means no sensation,” Cytowic says. “Synesthesia means coupled or joined sensation.”
Synesthesia research dates back to the early 1800s. While scientists still don’t have a definitive picture of what a synesthete’s brain looks like, they have discovered synesthesia is biological, involuntary and hereditary. About one in 23 people have the gene, Cytowic says.
More than 160 types of synesthesia exist, and people who have one type have a 50 percent chance of having a second, third or even fourth, he says.
The most common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, where people associate or see letters or numbers as specific colors. About one of every 90 synesthetes has this form, Cytowic says.
“These are not hallucinations,” he says. “These are real perceptions.”
One of the rarer forms is lexical- or word-gustatory synesthesia, where hearing or seeing a word elicits an involuntary taste. Eli experiences this form, as well as grapheme-color synesthesia, every day.
Synesthesia experts use a series of tests to diagnose the trait, ranging from simple pencil and paper exams to questions about specific sensation qualities.
For some, synesthesia can intensify or disappear during puberty, given the body and brain changes that come along with it, Cytowic says. But in most cases, once the associations are established, they remain for life.
Discovering his superpower
Around age 9, Eli says he began noticing he experienced life differently from his peers and family members. Specifically, he realized not everyone saw numbers as colors.
Still, he wasn’t diagnosed until October 2013.
“(Eli) was struggling with his advanced math class at school,” says Cameron Fisher, Eli’s mom. “He didn’t want to do his homework and refused to show his work. It was causing him an unusual amount of anxiety that didn’t fit his personality or previous school behaviors.”
Cameron Fisher, her husband, John, and Eli turned to Samantha Scott, a psychologist with The Child and Family Center in Easton, for help. Scott began working with Eli on techniques to help manage his anxiety around math tests. On his third visit, she asked him how his mind worked.
“He said, ‘I’m distracted by my own thoughts… . My senses are really sensitive. It feels like some of my senses are really mixed up,'” she explains.
So she asked him, “When you hear words, what happens?”
“I taste things,” Eli replied.
As soon as she heard his answer, synesthesia came to Scott’s mind. She had learned about the condition in graduate school, but she had never met anyone who had it until that day.
After a series of follow-up questions to confirm the diagnosis, Scott called in Eli’s mother to share the news.
“I was stunned when she said they figured out what was going on,” Fisher says. “Eli had a smile from ear to ear. I could tell they had made a huge discovery.”
At first, Fisher had a hard time understanding the diagnosis. But with Scott’s help, Eli could finally explain his experiences to his mother.
“I remember specifically, Eli said that when he sees bricks, he tastes bacon,” Fisher recalls. “I said, ‘You mean when you see bricks it reminds you of bacon?’ He responded, ‘No, I mean I taste it, in my mouth.’ I am sure my jaw dropped, and I just looked at (Scott).”
Eye opening diagnosis
Fisher, who had stayed home with Eli and his sister, Phoebe, for 12 years, says she was shocked she did not realize his diagnosis sooner.
Because the condition is so rare, most people have never even heard of it, Scott says. The Fishers hadn’t. And in their early years, most synesthetes don’t realize they are different.
“I thought everybody had it at the time,” Eli says.
Suddenly, elements of Eli’s childhood began to make sense.
“We now know why he never wanted to decorate the Christmas tree,” Fisher says. “All of our ornaments are red, and red is a color that provokes intense anxiety for Eli.”
It also explains why he refused to wear a red flannel shirt during a family Christmas photo several years ago and why he chose a lime green ski jacket and pants for a recent family ski trip, she says.
“I felt like I was seeing Eli for the first time,” Fisher says. “It helped me to understand so much more.”
The diagnosis also helps Eli feel more comfortable sharing his thoughts with family members and friends.
“I felt like they could understand more,” Eli says. “So I can tell them more.”
A colorful life
Today, Eli lives like most boys his age. An honor roll student, he loves to read, learn about science, throw Frisbees and play the occasional video game. Eli recently learned to surf and excels in gymnastics.
“I like to do big, scary things,” he says, including swinging into a handstand on the gymnastics bars and then spinning around.
As a result of his diagnosis, a few things have changed. Eli is more confident and social than before, and the family now decorates its Christmas tree with lime green and aqua decorations instead of red, Fisher says.
To prevent sensory overload and combat distractions during math class, Scott and Eli also practice “tuning out colors” like red and focusing on more pleasing colors like purple, which makes Eli feel happy, and blue, which evokes focus.
So far, the techniques seem to be working. Eli now experiences less anxiety around math. He’s also able to focus more on gymnastics.
“In the gym, he can turn off his busy brain while he’s doing gymnastics and focus on muscle memory and what he’s been told to do,” Fisher says.
Eli has even won several state gymnastics titles. The gym’s blue walls, painted that way before Eli started, don’t hurt.
Eli says he feels lucky to have synesthesia — a sentiment echoed by many with the condition.
“They love having it, and to lose it would be an odious, awful state,” Cytowic says. “It would be like going blind to us.”
And as for his family, they are happy they can finally understand how Eli’s sees – and feels, hears, tastes and smells – the world.
“Conforming is part of growing up in some ways,” Fisher says. “But honoring the brain you have is equally important… . We’re really proud of him.”
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