my thoughts appeared in the sky
hello, Northern Lights

My Thoughts Appeared in the Sky: A Synesthete Meets the Aurora (2019)

Context is important... but you can jump to the animations created for this project here.

It is dark and quiet, except for the hum of the engine. I am standing on the deck of a boat, my latitude is something a bit above 78º North and the air temperature in the single digits (Fahrenheit) and not rising. The other passengers murmur to each other, searching the sky. We are still at least an hour from docking in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northern permanent settlement. I briefly think of that thick, cozy duvet back in my room, and wiggle my toes to keep them with me. I swear the sky doesn’t look completely smooth, and it isn’t clouds on this clear night.

A few pale green rays appear, somehow both quickly and slowly. They shimmer slightly and fade to make room for others. Just as suddenly as they flickered into view, they’re gone. The murmurs of the passengers swell and there are desperate attempts at taking pictures. The darkness returns, along with the quiet.

What did I just see? It seemed familiar, yet I’ve never seen the Northern Lights before.

And then, memories of my mind’s eye appear across the arctic sky.

A faint green band forms above us; it stretches, thickens, then curves on one end. The band brightens as it begins to dance a bit more, and then bunches up in a zig zag pattern. There’s a mix of gasps and hushed exclamations around me, but I stay silent because my heart is pounding. I know these things. There is silent music in the sky, and it feels like it’s a recording of my mind’s eye.

The lights fade and the sky goes dark except for a faint, slowly morphing patch far to the right. A few of the other passengers decide to go back into the warm cabin, but I can’t move my feet because my mind is racing as fast as my heartbeat. After a short wait, that patch grows and transforms into graceful wispy green curtains, gently moving as if pulled by an other-worldly breeze.

Murmurs and points from fellow passengers make me tear my gaze away and look up into a beautiful corona, blooming into a complete, irregular ring of slightly milky green rays reaching down toward us with tinges of reddish purple at the top. Sometimes the rays look like they’re on their way down to join us before withdrawing, shifting, fading, and regaining their glow. I can’t tell how far away any of it is, but the corona is nearly directly overhead, and I can’t look away.

Because I’ve seen it before… in my mind’s eye.

Synesthesia and Neurodiversity

As a synesthete, I experience automatic, consistent cross-sensory experiences. One way these manifest is that all sounds, and especially music, are accompanied by an abstract display of color, shape, and motion to me. It’s always been this way, but I didn’t know that I was in the minority of the population until I was in my mid-20s. This is a common anecdote among synesthetes. The scientific community studying this estimates between 1% and 4% of the population are synesthetes.1, 2 There are dozens of types of synesthesia currently identified, a list that has been growing during the past 30 years’ resurgence in study.

Many societies are just starting to recognize neurodiversity. This term, coined in the late 1990s by autistic Australian sociologist Judy Singer, refers to the natural variation among human brains.3 This includes recognizing the reality of differing tendencies in learning, sociability, attention, sensory processing, and other mental functions. It is not meant to be a buzz-word or a pathology, as things under this umbrella are not truly diseases nor illnesses. Instead, the term highlights that the so-called “normal” human brain is an illusion and a social construct. Just as humanity is a sea of skin tones, hair textures, eye colors, and body shapes, each brain is unique to each individual. Two people who express the same type of neurodiversity may have it impact their lives in different ways, due to reasons of both nature and nurture.

We now understand autism as a spectrum, where one person may struggle modestly with interpreting social cues and another may have considerable difficulty understanding and processing their own emotions. This is a good model for other types of neurodiversity as well. Some synesthetes can be highly prone to sensory overload, depending on the type and strength of their synesthesia. There are certain commonalities between autism and synesthesia, and synesthesia appears to be more common in those on the autistic spectrum than the general population.4 Imagine each word you hear experienced as a strong taste, feeling everything that occurs in a violent television show, or having your quiet, inner world pierced a blinding white, razor-like cut when a child screams. While that last one is personal to me, the first two examples are from my synesthete friends—we can empathize deeply with each other. Our synesthete brains are working overtime to process these multi-sensory experiences.

Unexpected color in and far above our heads

To the majority of people, the great overhead expanse reflects the weather felt below, the time of day, and one’s direction and location. But it isn’t supposed to turn green and host light shows during the darkest months, which has seemed to delight and terrify in equal measure. We synesthetes can relate.

Beliefs and names for the polar lights existed among cultures across the world long before Europeans created the terms we use today. Many relate to spirits of the dead, foretelling events, or tying into existing mythologies. Some cultures still hold their beliefs as part of folklore. The term aurora borealis was coined by Galileo in the early 17th century, and British explorer Captain James Cook added aurora australis during a trip to Australia in the late 18th century. These terms have roots in Latin, with Aurora meaning dawn (and the Greek goddess of the dawn), and borealis and australis meaning northern and southern, respectively. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

It was well into the 20th century when we arrived at our fairly solid scientific understanding of the polar lights. As our sun storms and surges, it releases ultra-excited particles into space in the form of plasma. Plasma is the fourth state of matter; it is a highly charged gas that behaves differently than a neutrally-charged one. As solar winds sweep these particles past the earth, most are bounced off of the earth’s protective magnetic field, but some infiltrate the atmosphere around the poles, where the field is weakest. As the particles transfer their energy into oxygen and nitrogen, light is emitted as the new energy is quickly spent in order to return to their neutral, stable states, resulting in the polar lights. The most common green or yellow-green colors are the result of the interaction with oxygen, while blue and purple hues occur at different altitudes and indicate that nitrogen is involved. Reddish light is also the product of oxygen, but at a much higher altitude than the reactions causing green light.

Does the aurora make sound?

Throughout history, there have been oral accounts and written descriptions of the polar lights emitting sound. As a cross-sensory person, I was intrigued to look into this aspect. The reports are all surprisingly similar, mentioning faint swishing, crackling, or rustling—sonic descriptions one would expect from an event involving electrical charges. Even with today’s researchers having access to incredibly sensitive recording equipment, the data collected during several 20th century studies only indicated sub-audible noise. Given that the auroras are at minimum 60 miles/96.5 kilometers above the earth’s surface, it’s not likely that sound is coming from them and reaching our human ears. It would take about five minutes for them to do so, but the written reports indicate it is in sync with the movement of auroral forms. These sounds can sometimes be picked up by special radios and amplified so that people can hear them. Theorists have attributed these sounds to the change in electrical conditions during a solar event like the polar lights, which may affect materials in soil and rock that react to charges, a buildup of static electricity in the atmosphere, or even a related phenomenon that occurs in our ears rather than as waves from an external source.11

It is only recently that auroral sound have garnered scientific attention. Unto Laine of Aalto University in Finland has been working on an inversion layer hypothesis. The inversion layer occurs anywhere from 60-400 meters above the ground, and is measurable with the right equipment, especially on a calm, clear night (which is when auroras are best seen). This layer is like an isolating lid between rising warmer air particles that carry negative charges and the positive charges above it, and it occurs from the rising conductivity caused by geomagnetic storms. Laine’s research shows that the height on the inversion layer and the source of audible sound are the same, meaning this layer of the atmosphere is the likely source of the sound, and that it is close enough to the ground to be perceived as simultaneous with the visual aurora display. This sound, however, is more like a clap than the rustling often reported and sometimes picked up with special radios.12 On his website, Laine makes the incorrect and offensive claim that synesthesia is an illness,13 and perhaps is in need of some education on neurodiversity while we are digesting his fascinating work on auroral sound.

The Philosophical Conclusion: Do you see what I hear? (No, but that’s okay.)

The parallels between neurodiversity and the auroras are striking. Myths were created to explain the polar lights before modern science could explain the phenomenon. Humans existing on the noticeable parts of the neurodiversity spectrum have been similarly fictionalized. Those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and autism (just to name a few) have been treated as unwilling to learn and perform in traditional ways, rather than unable to learn in one specific way, regardless of other gifts and talents. Many synesthetes have shared stories about their sensory phenomenon clashing with teaching methods that use a set color, shape, or sound pairings that may enhance memory for nonsynesthetes, and thus being labeled as lying about their perceptions in order to cover up cognitive weakness. I hope that the recent progress in learning more about our complex brains, coupled with a growing awareness of the truth behind the normalcy of neurodiversity, mirrors the shift away from the misunderstanding of the aurora. The fully-understood polar lights are now a global delight, sought after and appreciated by millions of people seeking to observe them as they are. Not to change them to fit what a typical sky looks like, but to see, know, and experience each unique display of the aurora. Imagine if humanity could apply that same admiration toward the entirety of itself–how lives would be changed!

Time Lapses

These are created from sequencing 50-100 images taken every 8-10 seconds and adding dissolve transitions between them. Most cameras (including my otherwise-all powerful Panasonic Lumix FZ-1000) do not have the incredibly sensitive hardware necessary to record video of the aurora. I created these as reference material, a technical challenge, and to share with you.

Before you read my final statement and watch the animations below, take a look at these to get a sense for the movement of the aurora. We may have figured out these are the result of some very excited gases, but that doesn't make them any less amazing to view.

Reflection & Animations: Synesthesia Meets Aurora

Synesthesia is a topic that is inherently interdisciplinary, and has a community that is committed to the accurate representation and acceptance of all its members. Research from anthropology, sociology, physics, acoustics, neurology, and psychology have all played a role in this project. The beliefs of the world’s aboriginal people are as important as cutting-edge genetic and brain research as these many diverse threads are woven together into the context for my creative work. This is the value of the arts: a meeting ground, conversation, and connection.

This project combines the knowledge and experience I have gained about the Northern Lights with my experience of music-to-color/shape/motion synesthesia. I captured photographs and created time lapses while soaking in the anticipation, excitement, unpredictability, and my feeling of recognition as I stood in their presence. Music was sourced that created synesthetic visuals for me relating to the aesthetic of the auroras, becoming soundtracks for my animations. These short videos bring together arctic landscape, auroral elements, and my synesthetic experience in one harmonious series.

Jump back up and do the reading if you haven't, says the professor.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to the global synesthetic community, which has created an open, curious, and energetic place for our highly interdisciplinary members to meet, stay in touch, and collaborate.

Thank you to the many presenters that have helped me understand my experience, the experience of the synesthetes around me, and literally, the most colorful conversations I’ve ever had. Special thanks go to Carol Steen, one of the founders and board members of the American Synesthesia Association, for her encouragement and example as a visual artist making and sharing authentic work about her synesthetic experiences.

Thanks to the coordinators of the conferences I have attended of the American Synesthesia Association, UK Synaesthesia Association, and the International Association of Synesthetes, Artists, and Scientists.

Thanks to Kunstnerhuset Lofoten, for providing an artist residency between the sea and the arctic north sky.

Fløya, the mountain that often framed my view of the northern lights, thank you for your beauty.

Thanks to Edgewood College, whose financial support toward this sabbatical project made it possible.

Thanks to those who offered feedback on this project, especially my readers and editors: Lynn Estomin, Georgia Wolfe, Jeanne Morrison, Ben Linzmeier, and Roksana Filipowska.

Sources

1 – Cytowic, Richard E., and David M. Eagleman. Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. MIT Press, 2010, pp. 7-8.

2 – Asher, Julian E. et al. “A Whole-Genome Scan and Fine-Mapping Linkage Study of Auditory-Visual Synesthesia Reveals Evidence of Linkage to Chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12 .” The American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 84, no. 2, 2009, pp. 279-85.

3 – Singer, Judy. “‘Why can’t you be normal for once in your life?’ From a ‘problem with no name’ to the emergence of a new category of difference.” Disability Discourse, edited by Mairian Corker and Sally French, McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 1999, pp. 59-67.

4 – Baron-Cohen, Simon, et al. “Is synaesthesia more common in autism?” Molecular Autism, vol. 4, no. 40, 2013.

5 – Petrie, William. Keoeeit: The Story of the Aurora Borealis. E-book, Macmillan, 1963.

6 – Savage, Candace. Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights. E-book, Firefly Books, 2001.

7 – Hamacher, D.W. “Aurorae in Australian Aboriginal Traditions.Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, vol. 16, no. 2, 2013, pp. 207-219.

8 – Hearne, Samuel. A Journey to the Northern Ocean: A journey from Prince of Wales’ Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean in the years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, edited by Richard Glover The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1958, pp. 221–222.

9 – Brekke, Pål and Fredrik Broms. Northern Lights: A Guide. Forlaget Press, 2013, pp. 24-7.

10 – Savage, pp. 53.

11 – Petrie, pp. 90-91.

12 – Laine, Unto. “Auroral Acoustics project – a progress report with a new hypothesis.” Baltic-Nordic Acoustic Meeting, 22 June 2016, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. Conference Presentation.

13 – Laine, Unto. “Auroral Acoustics–Aurora Related Sounds–News.” Aalto University. Accessed 20 Nov. 2019.

All photographs and videos are created by and property of Carrie C Firman, and were created in Svolvær, Norway, in the Lofoten region.