By age 20, AB had suffered four concussions, gotten viral meningitis, and been struck by lightning. “She’s unofficially the unluckiest girl alive,” says Kevin Mitchell, a neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin, who published a recent case study on AB, a pseudonymous subject. Her series of unfortunate events also ended up producing a scientific puzzle.
Because before all this, ever since she was a child, AB had been able to see colors with musical notes and perceive unique auras around people, the study reports. This mixing of senses is a little-understood phenomenon known as synesthesia. Synesthesia can come in many different forms, including colors that evoke sounds, words that evoke tastes, or even sounds that evoke touch. For AB, each insult to her brain—the concussions, the meningitis, the lightning—altered her synesthesia in different ways, both subtle and dramatic. Her synesthesia eventually returns exactly the same as before it went away.
No one had documented before such a case, where the perceived colors changed so much over time before returning to baseline. The brain is, weirdly enough, both malleable and unchanging.
As a child, when AB saw colors with musical notes, higher pitched notes were pastel; lower ones more solid. She could play by ear the tin whistle, flute, glockenspiel, marimba, and piano, perceiving out-of-tune notes as the wrong color. And when she saw auras around people, their colors were determined by the people’s personalities. She associated blue with loyalty, green with caring, red with power, and so on. But in her early teens, the study explains, AB had a couple of mild concussions that led to migraines. The prescription migraine medication she took erased all the color from her synesthesia for a time. Eventually, it came back.