HERMANN — Megan Pohlmann is one in 2,000.
To her, Friday is blue; 4 p.m. is on her right shoulder; the number five is always pink.
She is a synesthete, a person with a neurological-based condition that makes up about four percent of the population.
The term derives from the meaning “to perceive together.” Pohlmann often criss-crosses language and color or her feelings with those of someone else.
“[It’s] a brain trait that causes connections in my brain where they maybe shouldn’t be or just aren’t in other people,” Pohlmann explained.
According to Psychology Today, synesthetes involuntarily link one sensory percept to another. Pohlmann has multiple involuntary links.
“A is yellow,” she explained. “It has always been yellow for me; it will always be yellow for me, I have no say in it.”
She said the language processing part of her brain’s neurons connects to the color processing parts of her brain.
“That’s why I see language in color,” she said.
A Touch of Kindness
Pohlmann has been able to identify that she has at least 18 different types of synesthesia, though she stopped counting a few years ago. Various studies have revealed that there are at least 20 different forms.
“They kind of run into each other,” she said.
One of the more rarer forms is mirror-touch synesthesia or MTS.
“That one is a little hard for people to grasp,” she said.
She explained it as the area of her brain that perceives other people’s emotions, feelings and sensations is rewired or connected to the part of her brain that perceives her own.
“Whether it’s laughter or pain or love or anger I take that on myself,” she said.
“My brain is essentially confused if someone is experiencing it or I’m experiencing it.”
She continued, “So that causes me to feel what other people are feeling.”
Roughly two in 100 people have MTS, according to a study in the journal Cortex, making Pohlmann part of an even more elite group.
Pohlmann didn't always know of her neurological abilities; she did know that she always wanted to help people.
"I wanted to be in the medical field," she said.
"Because I thought that could be the best way I could help people and kind of be myself."
That's why twice a week she wakes up at 5 a.m. in Hermann and clocks in at St. Louis Children's Hospital at 7 a.m.
Pohlmann works as a pediatric nurse in the float pull. Every 12.5-hour shift she works in a different unit. For as long as she can remember, she's enjoyed it.
When she talks about how her synethesia plays a role, she said her MTS could be a little overwhelming.
"The parts that can be overwhelming, sometimes obviously with the mirror-touch, is whatever's going on with my patients and my co-workers around me," she said.
"Also, since I feel sounds on my body, if somebody hits a call light or if their alarm starts beeping, I actually feel that on my body, usually on the back of my neck."
And she uses her ability to be a better nurse.
She recalls a story of a boy who had not left the hospital in a while. She and some of the staff wanted him to experience something different with his family; they wanted him to get out of the hospital and feel like a normal kid.
"We were met with some setbacks," she said about the day. "He was trying to be super strong and not show his disappointment, but it was very clear to me just how devastated he was by this."
Pohlmann knew better.
"They could tell he was disappointed, but I don't think anybody understood just how devastated he was by this and how much he was looking forward to this day," she said.
That's what Pohlmann could immediately sense. To try to make up for the challenges the staff faced giving the boy an opportunity of relief from his care, she brought him a gift.
"When he got back, I got him a little treat from the cafeteria," she said.
It was an apology for the setbacks they faced earlier.
"I told him 'I'm really proud of you and good luck," she recalled. "He couldn't hide it anymore with me, he started crying."
She said the moment of vulnerability was a moment all nurses strive for.
"To kind of see someone as a human being, a soul instead of just as a patient," she said.
"And your patient to see you as a kind soul and not just as a nurse. That's an experience all medical caregivers want to have."
She says she still keeps that moment of vulnerability in her heart.
She knew since nursing school she always wanted to be the good person in a child's life.
"It was my very first day of 'peds' clinicals," she said.
"And I took care of my patients for the day, and I loved it."
She remembers one of her fellow classmates hated it. His patient was a young girl, a child abuse patient. He had the task of watching movies with her and keeping the young girl company.
"I remember he said he couldn't do it, it was too sad," she said.
She had asked him if he enjoyed it, and if he felt better for being the good person in his patient's life. He didn't.
"It does feel really satisfying for me that I get to be the good guy," she said.
"This is why I'm supposed to be a 'peds' nurse."
Pohlmann has been a pediatric nurse for about a decade, finishing nursing school in St. Louis and making the trek to treat young patients there.
With the responsibilities of a mother, she has since switched to a part-time schedule to spend more time with her children.
"I'm a better mom because I'm a nurse; I'm a better nurse because I'm a mom," she said.
"Synesthesia just kind of rolls in it."
A Taste of Difference
Pohlmann was born and raised near Hermann. She graduated from Hermann High and her family has lived in the country all of her life.
"I played sports and joined FFA," she said.
"Pretty normal things for a girl in the Midwest."
The earliest memory she has of her synesthesia was when she was being screened for kindergarten, just before starting school.
"The volunteer was showing me the kind of blocks that have letters written on them in different colors, basic childhood blocks," she recalled.
"I was so confused about why someone would put the letters in the wrong colors."
To Pohlmann, the color she sees each letter is its characteristic.
"A was yellow kind of like how it was triangular," she said.
"It wasn't really up for debate."
Her grandpa identified her synesthesia later in her adolescence when she was about 15.
"He asked all of his grandchildren, 'what is three?'"
Everyone answered 'a number.'
"I said, 'blue'."
The Sound of Music
"My grandpa had a very superb taste in music."
She explained that when he would listen to music, he would see a visualization in front of him of colors and movement. She felt his synesthesia had an affect on how much he loved music.
"He had perfect pitch," she said.
Pohlamnn feels the music on her body. She explained how listening to someone play piano feels like someone tapping on her face. The sounds of a French horn is a vibrating line going down the back of her neck.
"If I'm listening to like violin or cello I feel it deep in my chest," she said.
"It makes me cry almost like every time."
She also suspects her synesthesia plays a role in her love for music. Right now she enjoys listening to The XX and bought tickets to see The Decemberists show in St. Louis for her birthday.
Her love of music is also a shared trait in her family. Her husband enjoys it, too.
"My husband and I fell in love by making mix CDs and writing love letters with song lyrics, as cheesy as that may sound," she said.
It is a common thread among her children as well, though it isn't hereditary the way synesthesia is.
"We go down the highway and Caleb is like, 'mom play chains, chains, chains," she recalled about her six-year-old son. She's impressed he enjoys Aretha Franklin and loves the White Stripes.
Benjamin, 4, loves listening to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain on repeat.
"Miriam seems to like The Eagles," Pohlmann said about her one-year-old daughter.
"She moves her little booty when they come on."
The Smell of Skeptics
Pohlmann seems very comfortable with her various forms of synethesia, though it wasn't always that way.
"It was something that I thought was cool about me but other people looked at me like I was looking for attention if I talked about it," she said.
Growing up, she didn't meet other synethetes, she said she was lucky to have her grandfather. She realized early-on she couldn't talk to just anyone about it either.
"I learned pretty quickly I was going to have to be very careful about who I talked to about it and I would make my mind up about a person before I mentioned it to them."
Online she found a whole community she made up her mind about. Facebook pages where others shared similar experiences, though perhaps not the same neurological abilities.
"It’s kind of weird that I’ve developed friendships based on synethesia because other people can’t really relate to talking about it," she said. "Here are these people half way across the world that understand something about myself that a lot of other people who I’ve grown up with don’t know."
Her synethesia has created global friendships, these friendships offering relief since she has found a community she can relate to.
"I have a friend right now in Japan," she said.
"I know someone in Mississippi, I've talked with people in Europe. I've never met some of these people before. Thank God there’s the internet, how else would I experience talking to anybody else about it?”
With a community of people who understand this part of her, there's still a community of people who don't quite understand.
"Information picked up again in the mid-90s," she said about synthesia research.
She remembered there not being enough information online to give her a full explanation, but just enough to giver her an idea. Since then, she has participated in studies with the St. Louis synethesia research team.
"I just kind of like to sit back and talk about my experiences and let the scientists do their job and explain the whys behind it," she said.
"Fortunately for mirror-touch, they’re really putting a lot of science into it. People before would kind of call themselves empaths. Fortunately the science has caught up and we have answers for it."
Pohlmann learned to own who she is and has been vocal about her neurological differences. The Hermann native has received recent media attention with a three-page spread in Glamour Magazine and an interview on the Today Show. She's used these platforms to bring awareness to synesthesia and explain how she views the world.
"I'm not nearly as interesting as everybody seems to think I am," she said.
"I’m kind of who I am and if the scientists can explain the whys behind it I don’t really try to convince people."
A Family Affair
For Pohlmann, listening to music is a whole body experience. At times, Pohlmann experiences sensory overload. Funerals can be excruciating and emotionally exhausting. She loves going to baseball games because the mood is happy, heightening her own experience.
Her synesthesia is part of who she is. And since it seems to be hereditary, it could be part of her children too.
"Some of the theories are we all have synesthesia and that we outgrow it" she said.
"I'm kind of watching my kids. [They] have all kind of given me examples."
She said it is too early to tell if her children are also synesthetes but her boys show signs of it.
"I recognize in my middle child he kind of shows signs of mirror-touch as well," she said.
"Everyone in the room has to be OK in order for him to be OK."
She mentiones Caleb also experiences moments of sensory overload.
"I think I'm a good mom for him in that aspect," she said.
"I can understand what his needs are to help him overcome that."
During her pregnancies, Pohlmann could feel her kids' personalities, at least as far as the boys.
"Caleb felt blue because it matched his name," she said.
"Benjamin is a brown name, and I pictured him to be more orange."
Her daughter was the wild card.
"Miriam I thought maroon. She sort of shocked all of us when she came out with bright red hair," she laughed.
"Her personality is more of a light teal, turquoise color."
Pohlmann's daughter just turned one, and has yet to show any signs of synethesia. She said that it's not really something she hopes for.
"You have this idea in your head as kind of what you would be as a parent and then your kids come and they just totally blow it out of the water," she joked.
Her husband's personality is emerald green. Fitting, as Pohlmann’s favorite color is green.
She said the family dynamic makes sense, her family feels complete.
See the Message
For Pohlmann, sharing her experiences helps prove people view the world differently.
“That’s my whole goal about talking about it," she said. "Kind of make people step back and think."
Pohlmann explains that people view the world in their own way, and others wouldn't know any different unless they speak with others about it.
She stresses she's an average person, a nurse who loves her job and a mom who loves her kids. Her everyday life isn't much different, but her reality is.
"The reality is different for everyone, there’s no one way to view the world. Whether you’re planted in a big city or in Missouri, literally every person in the world’s brain is different,” she said.
“And that’s really cool if you think about it.”