A fascinating thing about Iris’ description of her synesthesia and out-of-body like fantasy life is the hints it offers about the workings of her brain, as well as of others. The great pattern matching machine, which researchers think the brain must be, has to spend most of its first years learning and storing patterns that it acquires through the senses. Patterns that it receives from the eyes obviously make optical sense and are perceived as such when acquired. However, in Iris’ case with her synesthesia, audio signals from the ears, and do not make any optical sense, get into her vision system where they are still perceived as images. But what kind of images can they be. In Iris’ case they tend to be light shows, like fireworks or shooting stars. The brain expects images from the vision system, but when they originate as sound signals, the higher layers don’t have any sensible visual patterns to recognize so it has to create some out of thin air so to speak, which are then perceived. I imagine the situation similar to a computerized pattern recognition system where the IO driver has a bug so that signals from the microphone go to the optical pattern recognizer software, which of course can’t make sense of it. However, it is programmed to treat stuff coming in as potential patterns so it proceeds to process them as if they were optical signals. Similarly, the higher layers in Iris’ brain treats these nonsensical signals in such a way that she perceives them as light shows, as he describes in the following excerpt from her book. What a tantalizing glimpse into the deepest mystery of the brain, i.e. how it generates experiences, that this story hints at. Is it possible that this, what brain researchers call the hard problem, may yield some of its mystery from the clues here. Thinking about how it works that Iris perceives fantastical light shows in response to sounds, could that maybe lead to some ideas about what is happening in the brain to produce that sensation.
….When I had done something that farmor thought was very sinful and wrong she would call me up to her. Then I had to stand before her as she scolded and admonished me. This I liked. I stood totally still and stared out in space. Her words were flying around and formed shapes, it was different lights that sparkled. It was beautiful, and you could never predict how it would look. I stood there and was entranced. I flowed into the colors, shapes, patterns, let myself be carried back and forth, up and down. Everything changed shape continuously and I flowed in with it.
From the book: …”My daily screaming had started when I was about three, when Father had succeeded in holding my gaze and kept me in the ordinary world. For years I screamed every day for anything and for nothing, and became an even greater pain for my surroundings. But when I was a little over six, one day a peddler came into the kitchen and addressed me, perhaps only said “hi”. My pain started as usual and I started howling. But this time, something different happened. The peddler roared at me: “God-dam it kid, nobody is trying to kill you”. This took. I shut suddenly up, the fog cleared and I stood completely still and saw a whole new world. It was like my eyes had changed in some way. That peddler had the same presence as Emma and later Fil.”
I consider Iris Johansson the Temple Grandin of Sweden. Like Dr. Grandin Iris has built an amazing professional career starting from a very unpromising childhood. Dr. Grandin has unusual abilities in understanding the feelings of animals and developed them into a tool for designing effective and humane methods for handling cattle on feed lots and in slaughterhouses. Iris has an unusual ability to read people and pick up on what they are thinking and not saying. In her efforts to learn how to be “normal” she paid close attention to peoples’ behavior in different situations and learned how to pick up cues to the feelings that lay behind the behaviors. Thus, in spite of her inability to have feelings herself she is good at observing them in others. She recognizes the anger in the other person but it doesn’t trigger anger in her, she observes the joy in the other but it doesn’t make her joyful, she notes someone’s disapproval of something but it doesn’t cause her to disapprove of it. This almost clinical relationship to others has advantages in addition to the obvious disadvantage. Sure, in order to learn to “act normal” she had to devote much time and attention to learning and memorizing the reactions one is expected to have in different situations and in response to all the different feelings expressed, but at the same time all this effort has taught how her to read people and how they react to each other so much better than “normal” people. This is probably the reason she has been so successful in helping people with conflict resolution, communication problems, and various dysfunctions such as impulse control, addiction, and eating disorders.. In addition to mentoring care givers and parents of autistic children, she has channeled her unique ability to read peoples’ feelings into work with individuals and families, schools and reformatories, hospitals and jails. As a consultant and facilitator she has worked with governmental organizations and businesses on conflict resolution, communication issues, leadership development for women. By working with people in so many aspects of life over an international range of societies (in addition to Sweden she has worked in Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany, and Albania) she has arguably had a greater impact on peoples’ lives.