Saints and Synners


From the top: Saint Brendan the Navigator, my grandmother and first generation American Mary Landers Crowley, me with #UKSA2016 friends Dyedra Just and Candita Wager, presenting my poster at #UKSA2016, and me, center, at the Irish Potato Famine memorial alongside the Liffey River, Dublin.


I’m a child of the diaspora; all four of my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the early 1900’s, trading poverty and religious persecution in their homeland for the promise of prosperity in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m ever aware of the sacrifices my ancestors made to launch their version of the American dream, and I’m grateful their arduous journeys fostered opportunity for my family in the United States. For this, I will always feel the pull of an Irish-American identity.

My maternal grandmother Mary Landers Crowley and her family hail from County Kerry, where Brendan the Navigator is revered. Like many of the other Irish saints, Brendan’s narrative isn’t a story of passive and contemplative religious piety, but one of fierce adventure in the name of belief. In the early 6th century AD, Brendan plied the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in a currach, a small, keel-less boat. Currachs were made from animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, which was then tarred for water resistance. In this simple vessel, Brendan and his fellow pilgrims are said to have sailed from the Kerry coast to North America, probably making landfall at Newfoundland; their journey and return to Ireland took 7 years. While the Brendan legend is likely a myth that follows the narrative of other immrams (Irish navigational sagas), his excursion was replicated in 1976 by explorer Tim Severin, which demonstrated that a small currach ably navigated could indeed cross the ocean.

I’m just returned from my own ocean crossing (via modern technology) to Dublin where I attended the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association’s annual symposium. Over two days, I listened to neuroscientists, psychologists, and designers reveal their explorations into the world of synaesthesia and cross-modal perceptions. Highlights from the conference include the keynote lecture on Thursday April 21st, with Dr. Amir Amedi, an expert in the field of SSD’s, or “sensory substitution devices”. Dr. Amedi taught the entire audience to read a simple word using sound to depict the shape of letters. The next morning, Jennifer Mankin, of the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, presented her research on the topic of associative learning, synaesthesia, and trends in letter-colour pairs. And on Saturday, our host Kevin Mitchell gave an impromptu lecture titled Synaesthesia: More or Different?. Remarkable poster presentations included those from Amanda Tilot (Decoding the Genetics of Synaesthesia) Gwilym Lockwood (Synaesthesia and Sound Symbolism) and Giles Hamilton-Fletcher (Synaestheatre: Using synaesthesia to optimise the design of SSD’s).

There were too many other fascinating presentations and posters to list in this short blog post. But what they all had in common is a rigorous sense of scientific exploration. And while I recognize the motives of a 6th century monastic Christian and contemporary scientists couldn’t be more disparate, I can’t help but think of the researchers and academics I met in Dublin as the equivalent of modern day saints. The link between science and sainthood isn’t much of a stretch when one considers the prodigious intellect of polymath Hildegard of Bingen, or the universal thinking of physicist, botanist, and philosopher Albert Magnus. And, the navigational expertise of Brendan of Clonfert, crossing uncharted waters in a small wooden boat, is a sophisticated feat for a Dark Ages sailor. I have plenty of problems with what I like to call “the management team” of the Catholic Church, and the horrendous misdeeds enacted under their direction. But, I’m going to offer poetic license as defense for the equation of scientists and saints and leave it at that.

I’m verbicidal by nature, so I like to call people with synaesthesia “synners”. We were well represented at #USKA2016. Svetlana Rudenko, a pianist and sound to texture/color/space synaesthete who is also a PhD. candidate at the Royal Irish Academy of Music charmed us at a recital Friday night. I too had the opportunity to present in the poster sessions, on the topic of mirror-touch synaesthesia in the practice of manual therapy. I also had the pleasure of meeting Candita Wager, who was profiled by my friend and fellow synesthete Maureen Seaberg in an article for Psychology Today. Candy is one of the brightest young women I’ve ever met, a synesthete, scholar, and vocalist. She gave a brave presentation Saturday morning on the missing link between mood disorders and synaesthesia, then celebrated the close of the conference with her brother Jacob Wager and a delightful group of conference attendees, including Richard Roche and students from Maynooth University. We talked for hours at The Ginger Man Pub over pints of Guinness, an evening I’ll never forget. This synner is forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a deeply engaging community.

Community is the perfect word to describe #UKSA2106. I was impressed by the level of collaboration and camraderie between the various scientists, designers, and synaesthetes. The global collective of synaesthesia and cross-modal perception researchers is small, and it seemed to me that there was plenty of encouragement and cooperation among the conference attendees, with a good dose of competition and critique thrown into the mix. I feel fortunate that I gathered new connections and friends by attending the event, and I’m thankful to have been included.

Go raibh maith agaibh!