“As music is the color of sound…so is painting the poetry of sight.”
~James McNeil Whistler
Do you taste strawberries when you hear the sound of a guitar? Are you convinced that Fridays are Yellow? When you see the number 7 do you see it in Light blue? Approximately 2%–4% of the population has some form of synesthesia, perhaps you do, too!
What Is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a perceptual condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, numbers or shapes with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor.
Synesthesia can involve any of the senses. The most common form, colored letters and numbers, occurs when someone always sees a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet or number. For example, seeing the word “dog” as forest green or the number “9″ as light purple . There are also synesthetes who hear sounds in response to smell, who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight, some even taste sound. Just about any combination of the senses is possible.
Scientists hypothesize that in synesthetes, neurons and synapses that are “supposed” to be contained within one sensory system cross to another sensory system. It is unclear why this might happen but some researchers believe that these crossed connections are present in everyone at birth, and only later are the connections refined. In some studies, infants respond to sensory stimuli in a way that researchers think may involve synesthetic perceptions. It is hypothesized by these researchers that many children have crossed connections and later lose them. Adult synesthetes may have simply retained these crossed connections.
Some People Really Can Taste The Rainbow
We’ve covered this phenomenon in the past. And I’m a synesthete myself — I see letters and numbers in color, and associate sounds with shapes and textures. But only a very few people — maybe only 1 percent of synesthetes — have sensory crossovers that affect their relationship with food and drink.
Jaime Smith is one of those people. He’s a sommelier by trade, and he has a rare gift: He smells in colors and shapes.
For Smith, who lives in Las Vegas, a white wine like Nosiola has a “beautiful aquamarine, flowy, kind of wavy color to it.” Other smells also elicit three-dimensional textures and colors on what he describes as a “projector” in his mind’s eye.
This “added dimension,” Smith says, enhances his ability to appraise and analyze wines. “I feel that I have an advantage over a lot of people, particularly in a field where you’re judged on how good of a smeller you are,” he says.
Atlanta-based pastry chef Taria Camerino also has synesthesia. But for her, synesthesia is more than just an advantage — it’s a necessity.
Camerino experiences the world through taste. She tastes music, colors, shapes and even people’s emotions. She says she has a hard time remembering what things look or sound like, but she can immediately identify objects based on their synesthetic flavors.
“I don’t know what a box looks like unless it’s in front of me. I don’t know what the color green looks like. But I know what green tastes like,” she says.
“I don’t know what the color green looks like. But I know what green tastes like.”
In addition to working as a pastry chef, Camerino is often asked by clients to make dishes that mimic her synesthetic experiences. She creates “flavor profiles” of things like satisfaction and discontent. She takes inspiration from music to put together nine-course tastings.
“I move through the world this way all the time,” she explains. “If I want someone to understand it, I have to create a dish out of it. I have to make it palatable.”
Although there is no officially established method of diagnosing synesthesia, some guidelines have been developed by Richard Cytowic, MD, a leading synesthesia researcher. Not everyone agrees on these standards, but they provide a starting point for diagnosis.
Synesthetes do not actively think about their perceptions; they just happen. Rather than experiencing something in the “mind’s eye,” as might happen when you are asked to imagine a color, a synesthete often actually sees a color projected outside of the body.
The perception must be the same every time; for example, if you taste chocolate when you hear Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, you must always taste chocolate when you hear it; also, the perception must be generic — that is, you may see colors or lines or shapes in response to a certain smell, but you would not see something complex such as a room with people and furniture and pictures on the wall.
Often, the secondary synesthetic perception is remembered better than the primary perception; for example, a synesthete who always associates the color purple with the name “Laura” will often remember that a woman’s name is purple rather than actually remembering “Laura.”
A select group of synesthetes can truly “taste the rainbow.”
According to researcher Sean Day, approximately one in 27 people has some form of synesthesia.
A synesthete himself, Sean Day is president of the American Synesthesia Association and has been tracking research on this condition for more than three decades.
Summarizing the state of current research, Day says the brains of synesthetes do appear to be anatomically different (although he cautions that scientists have only studied a few types of synesthesia so far).
In particular, it seems that the neural connections between different sensory parts of the brain are more myelinated in people with synesthesia. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds neurons and enables neural signals to travel more quickly.
“Because the myelination is different, the interaction between certain parts of the brain is different,” explains Day. “This allows parts of the brain that are responsible for different senses to communicate when they normally wouldn’t.”
Hypermyelination could explain why synesthetic experiences seem so real for people like British IT consultant James Wannerton, who is also the president of the UK Synaesthesia Association.
Wannerton has a particularly intrusive form of synesthesia, in which sounds, words and colors all have taste and texture.
“It’s like having an eyedropper of taste sort of dripped on your tongue constantly, just one after another after another,” he explains. “It’s a full mouth feel. It’s exactly like I’m eating something.”
Even Wannerton’s brain gets fooled.
“I wouldn’t know what a hunger pang is because I don’t get hungry,” he says. “My brain is constantly pumping acids into my stomach to dissolve food that isn’t there.”
Synesthesia affects his social life, too. Eating out, for example, is a nightmare:
“Different voices, the ambient atmosphere in the restaurant, it all makes a difference to my experience,” says Wannerton. “You serve me food on a blue plate — it just totally messes up the eating sensation.”
But even though his synesthesia can be quite disruptive at times (it’s “absolutely ludicrous,” he admits), at the end of the day, Wannerton still enjoys it.
And most synesthetes would agree, including sommelier Jaime Smith.
“My synthie thing is the added bonus for me,” he says.
“It’s the joy and sometimes the fun of it all.”