Synesthesia - the irresistable power of an unforgettable image to make us feel

August 24, 2016

Photo (c) The Aleppo Media Center. 


I waited a while before I wrote this article. I had to. It "felt" too much.


First, in case you had not heard

If you spend any time at all watching the news or on social media sites, you have seen this photo. But the boy in the photo is more than just "Syrian boy in ambulance" (which is the search criteria that still brings it rapidly into view). This boy is a real person and he has a name. He is Omran Daqneesh, and he is five years old. You also may or may not know that his family home in Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed on August 18 by the Syrian air forces ... or maybe a Russian jet, no one seems to know for certain. He has since received treatment and has been reunited with his family. 


I waited a long time to write this article because I "felt" far too much about it to think objectively. As you will see, that is exactly the point. But write about it I must, because this may be the most powerful image we have seen in years and the communication scientist in me recognizes this fact and understands why it's so. 


In a Word ... 

The technical definition of "synesthesia" is the ability of one sensory stimulus to create an involuntary sensation or response in the same or another sense. There are many forms that this can take -- some of them complex psycological and physiological phenomena. You can even read about people hearing colors and tasting sounds. But these are rather rare. 


We experience the milder forms of synesthesia in our everyday lives. Probably the most common example is how talking about food can make you hungry, or how the sight of a Christmas tree can make you smell cinnamon and gingerbread. It is also why the sight of a couple in love walking hand-in-hand can make us "feel" warm and romantic ourselves. 


Even though scientists have long known that the sense of smell is the most powerful inducer of both associative memory and synesthesia, we humans have a very limited scope of smell -- comparitively speaking. But we can "see" a huge variety of colors and hues, textures and forms, brightness and shadows. It is the scope and breadth of our ability to see that makes it so powerful to us. This fact is expressed in some our earliest histories and literatures. Adam in the Garden of Eden "looked" at the fruit of the tree of knowledge and "saw" that it was good for food. 


Even when we are describing abstract math or our favorite meal, we start by trying to "visualize it." We ask others if they "can see it." When I am working with a customer and they are having trouble describing what they want, I will often ask them to "tell me what that looks like to you." The simple prompt to visualize is sometimes all they need to break through their liguistic block and start talking about their project. 


It's simple. We are hard-wired for images. That "feeling" of what we see can be good, and is a part of what makes us human.


Which brings us back to Omran ... 

This is one of those rare images that transcends all notions of logical thought, politics, and philosophy. Sure, some people will take advantage of this image to make some point somewhere about the horrors of war, the inherent evil of one side of the other, or that some political figure is to blame. I am not even saying that it is wrong to do so.


But -- especially in the first few days after the publication of this image -- I saw VERY little of any of that. That's because for the vast majority of the human population who saw it, this image was all about feeling. And more, it was about unconciously feeling what we saw in Omran himself. 


In these blessed times very few of us are at risk of going through specifically what Omran has. But we have all felt physical injury and pain to some degree. We have all felt lost and afraid. Some of us have experieced periods of shock and disbelief mixed inexplicably with child-like incomprehension and self-consciousness. In Omran's haunted stare gazing back at us through the dust and blood, we actually "feel" all of those things and more, each in our own way. 


As soon as the photos and videos of this event made the news sites, they were instantly posted, tweeted, and snapped around the world in social media. There is no telling how many millions or even billions of times this image has gone round the globe to be viewed again and again. Remarkably, the themes and emotions expressed were nearly universal.


I have friends and customers all over the world who shared this photo with each other along with comments like "I want to just hug him," and simple expressions of empathy like "Oh my." Aside from a small handful of political comments and pleas for humanitarian relief, nearly every post that I saw reflected expressions of synesthesia and a desire to protect or comfort.


I felt it too. We all did. I still "feel" it evey time I look at this image, and I have looked at it dozens of times.  


It's not all bad 

Images like these can be universally inspirational too. I remember back in 1989 the world was captured by the image of the lone "tank man" who stood defiant and small against the approaching Chinese Army sent to break up dissenting protesters in Tiananmen Square. 


It can also be experienced it in light and casual ways, such as in the popularity of all those "memes" flowing in and out of your social media feed every day. Sure, all those pithy and cloying affirmations start to become annoying and cliche' at times. But people send them because people "like" them and "get" them becasue they make people "feel" good, if even for just a fleeting moment.


But these transitory images come and go quickly. For each person that shares a meme there are two more who think it silly. And no, just because that quote has Albert Einstein's photo attached to it does not necessarily mean that Einstein actually said those things, even if the inclusion of his iconic image makes it "feel" more authentic and "real" (hint: he probably didn't). 


Perhaps for the first time in history

To be sure, there have been other recent and extremely powerful images -- both negative and positive -- that have made us all "feel" in a nearly universal way and shook the world.* Up until now, most of those were disseminated via magazines and (gasp!) actual newspapers printed on actual paper. It took weeks and months for them to be seen and felt.


But these special, universal "feeling" images are rare. Omran sitting alone -- in shock and injured in that ambulance -- is likely one of them. And with the fully leveraged power of the internet, that means potentially billions of people were all feeling vitually the same thing, at virtually the same moment -- no politics, no agendas, no arguments. 


That may have never happened before.** 



* Yes, I am (painfully) aware of the image of another child-victim of the Syrian crisis -- the "boy on the beach." His name was Aylan Kurdi, age three. I take nothing away from him. But in my arguably unscientific analysis (too much emotion going on) his personal tragic plight was made a bit less impactful by the nature of his tregedy in that we could not look into his eye or see his pain. And very early in the process the messaging was turned to political objective. You can read about him in this NPR article. Further -- for those truly interested -- another historic "universal" photo from the Vietnam War era is of "Napalm Girl." I wrote a paper on this and other powerful images several years ago and that deeply distubing picture still haunts me to this very day. Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc and you can read her story of war, pain, and forgiveness in this article from People Magazine


**As important, egaging, and indespensible as we find social media these days, we have to remember that it is a very new phenomenon. For all of its faults -- and when the powers-that-be aren't tinkering with the algorithms -- social media is the most democratic set of tools for the dissemination of images. Facebook did not launch until 2004. And the iPhone truly put the power to see and share images quickly and easily in the palm of our hands for the first time in 2007. So really, we are just talking about the potential of universal "feeling" images available in the last nine years or so. And yes, I am aware that some people may disagree with my analysis. 


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