I had a nightmare in the wee hours of this morning, one that included flagrant and painful encounters with my mirror-touch synaesthesia. I woke up pondering the neurocognitive process by which one might experience blended senses during sleep, and if those perceptions were real or illusory.
In my dream, I was flying home from some sort of international conference on an Airbus A330. I remember the plane so vividly, it’s roaring engines and the feeling of weightlessness as the massive jet did the impossible; flew a few feet above the freeway to avoid the turbulence at higher altitudes, swooping below the overpasses, then navigating between skyscrapers in a major city I can’t identify. Something was wrong with the plane, so the pilots decided to land in Chicago. We would be housed overnight in that city, with transit onward to San Francisco the next day.
The carrier, United Airlines*, had launched a contract with an inpatient psychiatric hospital to use their available rooms to house customers who needed overnight accommodations while waiting to continue their journey to their destination. I was given a space in an open ward; my roommates were several stylishly attired business women who had been at the conference with me, and a totally strung-out but colorfully tattooed teenager. She had the bed next to mine, and while were chatting before going to sleep, she began aggressively cutting her left leg, making short, angry slashes to her thigh and knee with an improvised knife.
Witnessing her injuries at such close proximity, I experienced what might be some of the most intense mirror-sensory phenomena of my life, shocks of stinging electric pain coursing down my legs, and wrapping around my arms and chest. I then went into a meltdown, where my breath caught in my chest and I couldn’t get my words out. The business women came to my aid, and listened to my description of what was happening to me, as they physically surrounded me. I told them it’s so hard for people to comprehend pain synaesthesias, and that they are a real and true neurocognitive difference. We then decided collectively that the psych ward wasn’t a great place for us and bailed out to a very nice restaurant near the airport, where I obsessively watched the clock, worried that we would miss our flight to SFO.
I see many iterations of the anxiety motif that is common in my dreams these days as we shelter in place and the pandemic continues to infect. And I know so much of what I saw in my nightmare is impossible, for example, the jumbo jet gliding just above the interstate, and flying under the bridges and overpasses. But my mirror-sensory synaesthesia in my dream felt so real, with a searing pain that I’ve known my entire life. Was I having an actual synaesthetic response to what I was seeing in my nightmare? Or was my synaesthesia a phantasm, no different than the sensation of flying in the airplane and hearing the white noise of the jet, which also felt real? I’ve definitely had other synaesthetic experiences in my sleep, but how common are they? I’m going to look for answers to these question over the coming days, reaching out to the neuroscientists I know. I’ll post their answers soon…
*Some people feel frustrated with the ways the airline industry offers diminishing compassion for their customers, but do know that United Airlines has never offered to house me in a mental institution and that what I am describing was a dream.