Imagine that you are relaxing in your living room when you hear your dog bark. Before you know it, your mouth is filled with the taste and texture of runny custard. Later on, you are talking to a friend and they say the word “like”, which creates the flavour of thick creamy yoghurt. When you think the word “Martin”, you taste a warm almond tart and listening to piano music gives you the experience of eating pineapple chunks.
This is the life of James Wannerton, a symphony of flavour.
For as long as he can remember, James has been able to taste sound, but he was twenty before he realised that this was unusual. One evening he caught the end of a TV show and learned that his condition had a name: “synaesthesia”.
People with synaesthesia experience a “blending” of senses that are usually unrelated. There are thought to be over eighty different types of the condition, and individual experiences vary dramatically. For synaesthete and psychologist Carol Crane, music produces tangible sensation, creating a kind of sensory fantasia. Guitar sounds gently tickle her ankles and piano keys press down on her chest just over her heart. New Orleans style jazz hits her all over, she says, “like heavy, sharp raindrops”.
For Sean Day, a linguistics professor at National Central University in Taiwan, every meal is an adventure in technicolour. “The taste of beef, such as a steak, produces a rich blue,” he says. “Mango sherbet appears as a wall of lime green with thin wavy strips of cherry red. Steamed gingered squid produces a large glob of bright orange foam, about four feet away, directly in front of me.”
Synaesthesia can also affect how individuals process and recall information. For example some people may automatically imagine the calendar year in particular shape, perhaps as an oval around their body. Some may associate language with specific colours, so that “Wednesday” is always yellow, or the number four always blue. If somebody with “mirror-touch synaesthesia” reaches out to touch someone else, they will feel the sensation in the same place on their own skin. These experiences are all involuntary, and cannot be “turned off” by the person.
Pineapple flavoured piano and chocolate flavoured guitars
So what is it like to taste sounds? I asked James to describe the process in his own words. “Individual voices all have taste and texture as does all music,” he says. “A continual flow of sound will produce a continual flow of flavours in my mouth, like the drip, drip from a tap, one after another, varying in strength and intensity and each overlaying the previous one. This process carries on all day, every day.”
For James, synaesthesia is linked strongly with emotion. “Basically, if I don’t like the synaesthetic taste of something, or indeed someone, I won’t particularly like it or them,” he says. “It may seem a little harsh to take an instant dislike to someone I don’t know purely because hearing their name leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, but that’s exactly what happens.” He likens it to the offputting experience of meeting someone who has a peculiar smell about them.
Similarly, James says that he will try to avoid saying words that he doesn’t like the taste of, running them through his “synthesaurus” to find a word with the same meaning and a nicer flavour. He also notes that saying certain words can make him crave certain foods — for example, the word “university”, which, inexplicably, makes him want Mars bars. He will even “feed” himself using his synaesthesia sometimes, just by saying or thinking about a word with a flavour of something he wants.
Fascinatingly, for James, the spelling of the word also makes a difference to the flavour, despite the fact that his synaesthesia is primarily related to sound. “The word “slay” tastes of soft, underdone lamb,” he says, “whereas the word “sleigh” tastes, not unsurprisingly, like a very cold weak flavoured Ice lolly.”
As you might imagine, listening to music is quite an experience for a sound-taste synaesthete. All musical instruments have their own individual taste and texture, with the mood, tempo, melody and harmony all affecting the “hit” of the flavour. Pianos, for example, taste of pineapple chunks, and guitars the crinkly chocolate found on digestive biscuits. “I’ve always viewed the creation of music in the same light as creating a beautiful food dish.” Says James. “Lots of disparate ingredients all mixed in together to create a whole that works — and sometimes doesn’t!”
The science behind the senses
Researchers are still learning about what causes synaesthesia, but there are some theories. Our brain is made up of many neural connections, and when I say many, I mean 100 trillion, which, for perspective, is about 1,000 times the number of stars in the galaxy. Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that synaesthetes have a genetic overabundance of these connections. Usually, he argues, the different senses would be regulated by distinct parts of the brain, but in synaesthetes this altered brain architecture could link senses that would otherwise be seperate.
Peter Gossenburger, a psychologist at Naropa University, believes that the brains of synaesthetes are wired the same as everyone else’s. Instead, he proposes that the brain uses these same connections in a different way. His argument draws on the fact that hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, may generate a kind of temporary synaesthesia. “I don’t think that new connections are forming in the brains of those individuals for a few hours and then disappearing,” he says. “What’s much more sensible is that existing connections become used in a way that’s neurochemically altered for a few hours.” Currently, we don’t have enough data to prove either theory, and we also don’t know for sure that the kind of synaesthesia induced by hallucinogens works the same way as long term synaesthesia.
Some scientists believe that many of us have the capacity to experience some form of synaesthesia, though perhaps not the intense “blending” of senses that James experiences. In fact, a study at the University of Edinburgh found that almost all of us associate certain letters and numbers with particular colours, feeling, for example, that “aa” was more red than green and “ee” more light than dark.
In another study, two scientists from the University of Michigan, Anupama Nair and David Brang, wanted to see if they could induce a synaesthetic experience in people who were not usually synaesthetic. The experiment was inspired by a strange event that Brang had experienced as an undergraduate when trying to get off to sleep. He had noticed that an unexpected sound would generate a quick flash of light, either in an abstract pattern or taking up his whole field of view.
Brand and Nair recruited 21 undergraduates and sat them in a dark room with their eyes closed. As the participants waited, a recorded voice read them letters of the alphabet. Sometimes, a short beep would follow the reading, and the undergraduates were told to say if they saw anything unusual. Interestingly, up to 50% reported that strange visuals accompanied the sounds. It appeared that the scientists had successfully managed to activate a latent synaesthetic ability in these participants. Perhaps, then, more of us are capable of experiencing synaesthesia than we had previously thought.
Another intriguing question is how specific associations airse in the first place. Why, for example, does the word “like” give James the experience of yoghurt instead of another flavour? Are these links genetically determined or developed through experience? Of over 30 other people that James has met with sound-taste synaesthesia, only one shared the specific taste associations he had with certain words. “She was a Russian emigre who lived a pampered existence in a very wealthy part of Los Angeles — a world apart from my own upbringing in Willesden, NW London!”
While studying a group of 6,588 american synaesthetes, neuroscientists David Eagleman, Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer noticed a pattern: large numbers of the individuals had strikingly similar letter-colour associations. The similarities were particularly noticeable in people born between 1970 and 1985, where up to 15% of synesthetes had shared colours for the different letters. The researchers managed to identify an unlikely culprit: a magnetic Fisher Price alphabet manufactured in the 70s. In fact, more than 6% of american synaesthetes are thought to have colour associations that match this particular collection of magnets. This suggests, at least in some instances, that synaesthetes can incorporate cues from their environment into their associations.
The “gift” of synaesthesia
Far from a disorder, synaesthesia often comes with unique advantages. In some cases, sensory associations can serve as a useful memory trigger. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman notes that many individuals with an extreme ability to memorise information have some form of synaesthesia.
Take Daniel Tammet, whose ability to recall information veers into superhuman territory. At 39, he set the european record for reciting pi, correctly listing 22,514 digits in just over 5 hours. For Tammet, numbers don’t just have colours, but shapes, textures and personalities. The number four, for example, is a timid, blue number that Tammet feels an affinity to because of his own shyness. When linked together, the numbers don’t form a meaningless list as they would for most of us, but instead create sentences with feeling, like lines of poetry. “Pi is like a poem written in numbers.” He says. “And the further I went into the numbers, the more sense it made.” Individually, the numbers might wink or snarl at Tammet expressing their unique personalities. Together they form an emotional narrative, broken up into chunks that he can easily recall.
As we strive to learn more about different kinds of minds, synesthesia is a reminder to celebrate neurodiversity. Even our senses, the very channels through which we perceive the world, are subject to individual variation. For James, sound-taste synaesthesia is a fundamental part of how he experiences life. “I couldn’t imagine the world without all the flavours that come with every sound.” he says. “How could I possibly remember anything without an attached taste?”.
The only frustration he notes is that he often needs to be reminded to eat, “I can go days without eating anything at all. The downside to this is my stomach pumps in stomach acid when its not needed and this can produce quite intense stomach cramps. The upside is I’m very cheap to feed!”