Synesthesia is a neurological condition characterized by the crossing of separate senses, allowing for perception of external stimuli to merge together. An example of such is to have sound appear to the synesthete as pulsing colors floating in the air. Heroes has introduced a synesthete character, Emma, whose stylized synesthesia is presented as a superpower alongside Hiro’s mastery of time and space. I initially found this handling of synesthesia insulting, but have somewhat cooled off after the reveal that Emma’s synesthetic ability allows her to supernaturally control sound in such a way that it can either summon people or cause destruction. However, while her ability seems to be a variant on the sonic powers seen previously, the explicit synesthesia aspect of the power still seems a little offensive given that Heroes is associating a real world neurological condition with a supernatural ability.
In the real world, synesthesia is a neurological condition not that uncommon. Many famous artists were synesthetes, able to compose music by matching color patterns, or able to paint color patterns from existing musical pieces. Synesthesia is fairly common to people who have autism, and as a person with high-functioning autism I have it to some extent. The other night, my dad turned on the CD player, and it was like a bright red snake of shapes fitting together stretching out toward me – that’s what Free Bird looks like on high volume. I personally don’t perceive colored entities as existing in the real world, rather more of an instinctive visualization, but I know many synesthetes do perceive them as real physical shapes.
In Heroes, Emma is an ordinary woman, a deaf file clerk working at the same hospital as Peter, when one day her ability manifests. She starts seeing luminous flashes of color in place of hearing sound, and her doctor mother suspects it to be synesthesia. It’s not just her, though. Heroes Interactive, a promotional campaign with Sprint that reveals pieces of trivia, states that “Emma’s ability is a form of synesthesia, a real phenomenon that’s been studied since the mid-1800s, but is still poorly understood.”
This is what gets me annoyed. The superpower is a form of a real phenomenon that is poorly understood. Clearly no one in charge of Heroes actually has synesthesia, and the audience is expected not to have it. They took a lesser known real neurological condition and chose to depict it as a supernatural phenomenon because they thought it would make a cool superpower.
Emma’s stylized synesthesia not only lets her interact with the world better, it enables her to instantly master musical instruments. She picks up a cello and just by following patterns of colors is able to create beautiful music that enchants everyone around her. She later does the same with a piano and Peter. This aspect of the power references the fact that a few famous musicians utilized their synesthesia to help compose music. Heroes ignores that the reason these guys produced great music was because they were trained experts and not because of their synesthesia alone. While Emma may well have been practicing playing separate musical instruments for years before losing her hearing on some unknown past date, there is nothing to indicate such and it is implied that her synesthesia alone is responsible for her masterful playing.
An implication of this is that famous composers with synesthesia really created their works through magic that comes along with synesthesia. Heroes has done similar things in their online graphic novels. Benjamin Franklin makes his observations about electricity not because of his innovative thinking but because he possesses supernatural electrical powers like but not identical to Elle’s. Similarly, the pyramids of Giza are created by the Pharaohs with supernatural powers, though it’s not revealed exactly how much they contribute. Heroes takes certain things from the real world and rewrites them to conform to its mythology. The thing with using historical figures, though, is that there’s no one to offend. On the other hand, using synesthesia, a real phenomenon that still exists and is still a part of the lives of real living people, is a good reason to be sensitive.
The main thing that makes her ability actually a superpower is that she can apparently play music in such a way that her passionate emotions affect the real world. If she is hurt and upset, her music causes destruction. If she is in a good mood, though, she can bring joy to people who hear the music. She recently (as of writing this) has gained the ability to magically summon persons she thinks about while playing her music, an ability Samuel refers to as her “Siren song”. This references the evil half-woman, half-(either bird or fish; it varies) creatures of Greek legend, who from a small island sing a song so beautiful that sailors leap from their ships and drown in their attempts to join them. The implication that seems to be there is that the mythical Sirens were based on these magical synesthetes in the way that the legends of Takezo Kensei were based on the real superhuman Adam Monroe (and Hiro Nakamura in another timeline).
Now, having a synesthetic power over music implied to have inspired myth isn’t so bad on its own. It’s actually kind of cool that a power could come about in such a way to mold itself to the users’ needs. Emma can’t hear, so she gains an ability to manipulate sound in a way that allows her to perceive it without magically healing her deafness. The main issue I have is that it took several episodes for the reveal that her power goes beyond seeing sound as colors. Until then, it was treated like synesthesia was a supernatural ability in itself. Even when Emma strikes a huge crack in the wall after playing the cello in “Hysterical Blindness”, this is not addressed in the following episode “Tabula Rasa”, during which Peter has Hiro teach Emma to accept her ability. It could have been an important lesson in which a veteran hero teaches a newly superhuman individual to use her power wisely, honorably, (insert fanboy reference here). Instead, her destructive power is never mentioned, and Hiro teaches her to accept her supernatural ability of seeing color in place of sound.
In conclusion, Heroes’ handling of the character Emma’s synesthetic superpower has been rather poor in light of the very real neurological condition of several people who enjoy the show. I was actually quite happy when I realized what they were portraying was synesthesia because I thought it would help the condition become better known and understood. Plenty of people just think I’m crazy when I try to explain synesthesia to them, and a popular TV show would help people understand. I was then quite miffed when I realized that they were actually portraying synesthesia as a superpower – apparently I’m magic. The discovery of what her power really was came far too late to be satisfactory as far as I’m concerned. The depiction of synesthesia in Heroes stands as an example of how not to depict it if you want to be nice to the people who actually have it.