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  • Quinn Dexter

Synesthesia & Subtitles

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

Synesthesia - most people find it a difficult word to spell and it's a bit of a tongue twister to say as well. It's also a concept that most people who've not experienced it themselves can have difficulty getting their head round.

We usually learn about people with physical sensory differences when we're quite young. There's the auntie who lost her sense of smell, the blind man with the guide dog that always got on the bus, and we knew that those people moving their hands around in the corner of the TV screen were speaking with their bodies for people who couldn't hear.

On the other hand we also learned about people who see and hear things that weren't really there. We were often taught that they were deluded, having fantasies, living in a world of their own or "one sandwich short of a picnic". Whilst the language we use to describe mental illness has become more sensitive over the years, the idea that someone seeing or hearing things other people cannot detect is a sure sign of of illness is a persistent one.

Of course when those intangible things we see, hear or feel are hallucinations, that may well be the case but perceiving things that others don't can be perfectly natural for many neurodivergent people.

Quite apart from the hyper and hyposentitivities many autistic people experience, a significant number of people on the spectrum, as well as many who are not, experience synesthesia.

The most common explanation given for synesthesia is a cross-wiring of the brain's sensory nerves leading to blurring of our perceptions. You may find yourself sensing colours along with sounds or experiencing smells or tastes when you touch certain textures for example, but it is rarely as broad as it is commonly perceived. Similar to hypersensitivities the range of sensory stimuli that crosses over may be quite generalised or very specific. Someone who senses colour along with sound may do so with many or all sounds, or just a very specific type of sound. It could be human voices, music or maybe engine noises, to mention a few. The subjective experiences vary between individuals too. Two people who may taste textures may find their brain's interpretations are wildly different. One may touch rubber and taste chalk whilst the next tastes chocolate.

One might try to imagine such experiences and think they may be distressing or limiting to one's life, and that certainly can be true, but it also opens te gate to an avenue of beauty and sensory synergy that is unique to the individual and has endless possibilities. Whilst most synesthetes attempt to limit their exposure to unpleasant stimuli, most would not want their perceptions to be any different. Imagine the potential for an artist who translates sound into colour, or the composer who hears shades and hues as different instruments and tones. The art and the music they produce would be influenced and altered by their richer, more layered perception of the world - a picture of a symphony, or an aria of a rainbow.

Synesthesia has endless variety, but how does this contribute to my love of foreign TV & Films?

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I realised other people don't see words when they hear them like I do. I see a written commentary of every conversation I hear, almost, but not quite overlaid on my view of the world. It's almost as if the page of a pulpy paperback book were hovering at the edge of my vision, scrolling through conversations as I hear them. There's a connection between my hearing, my vision and my language centres that's a little bit different to the everyday. I'm grateful for it now I know it's not the norm. it helps me understand people and it helps me to write and make videos. Words needing emphasis are in bold or in capitals as I write depending on their importance. I don't speak the words out loud when  read but I do sometimes when I write. When I wish to describe something the words I need don't just pop into my head, they appear before my eyes. Sometimes when I'm replying to someone in conversation it  could almost be compared to reading from an autocue generated in some deep unconscious layer of my mind.

This is why I love foreign movies and TV. I only speak English- yeah I know that's pretty crap, especially compared to many of my European friends. Sorry guys, but I'm so glad so many of YOU speak English so well :) 

I love Nordic drama. When I watch something like "Bron/Broen" (The Bridge) I can't understand most of what's said (maybe the odd word, but that's it) and I have to read the provided subtitles. Because my lack of verbal understanding prevents my brain from creating a visual representation of the words it's one of the rare times when I only see the words on the screen rather than generating my own subtitles, popping into my view as I hear the words. Admittedly as time goes by and little bits of the language start to sink in I might start to see the odd word here and there, but it's nothing like the experience of listening to and seeing my mother tongue.

I'm not for one minute saying I wish I didn't have my running captions or that they get in the way - they don't. They enhance my experience of communication, and my understanding of the world around me. They are a blessing I didn't even realise was a rarity at first, but I consider myself lucky. That said, it's nice to sometimes see the world as others do. When I watch a foreign show with subtitles my experience is little different from anyone else.

Sometimes it's a nice feeling, to come home from work after a long, tiring day and curl up in front of the TV with a mug of hot tea and just be ordinary. Foreign TV & movies have allowed me to do that and that's why I'll always enjoy them.

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