“I’d choose friends by the flavor of their names”: The rare trait that lets people taste sounds

An “ice cream sandwich” (commonly called a Torta in Mexico) is pictured in Xonacatlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Mexico, June 23, 2017. The…
An “ice cream sandwich” (commonly called a Torta in Mexico) is pictured in Xonacatlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Mexico, June 23, 2017. The…
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Meet James Wannerton, one of the 4% of people who have synesthesia, a joining of the senses.

Who are you?

I was born in Manchester, England, and presently live in Stuttgart, Germany. I am the President of the UK Synaesthesia Association and have a rare type of synesthesia, which gives me the ability to taste sounds.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. For example, someone with synesthesia may hear color or see sound.

Where does synesthesia come from?

As adults, our five main senses – hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell – are processed by the brain independently, but at birth they are interlinked. As the brain develops, a gene comes into play that cuts all the extra connections. In some cases, though, this pruning isn’t complete and some extra neural connections remain in place.

One theory is that we all have synesthesia to varying degrees, it is simply that some of us are more aware of the sensory stimuli.

There are also a few documented cases of acquired synesthesia, where individuals experience synesthesia for the first time later in life, following a head injury or a severe emotional trauma.

When did you first realise you had this ability?

This is quite a difficult question to answer simply because the taste experiences have always been there.

What I certainly remember is noticing tastes when I was at school, around the age of four and a half. I have very strong memories of sitting in morning assemblies reciting the Lord’s Prayer – as we did back then – and experiencing a very strong, predominant taste and texture of fatty bacon.

I first learned that synesthesia was a medically recognized condition when I was aged 20.

Talking about it now, can you taste it?

I am constantly tasting things so, yes, I can taste this conversation! I’ll attempt to describe the process:

Every sound I hear, especially word sounds, comes with an involuntary taste and texture experience attached. This is a real mouthfeel and not just a simple association. If I hear my dog bark, I experience the taste and texture of runny custard in my mouth. The word “like” tastes of yoghurt, the name “Martin” has the tastes and texture of a warm Bakewell tart. Individual voices have taste and texture, as does all music.

I experience a constant flow of flavors. It’s like a drip, drip, drip from an eyedropper on my tongue, one taste after another, varying in strength and intensity and each overlaying the previous one.

The individual taste experience is best described as like switching a fluorescent light on and off. It comes on immediately and when switched off, it fades away slowly. If it is a particularly strong synaesthetic taste, it will take a while to fade. If it is a weak one, it will disappear almost immediately or be replaced by another new taste and texture. These taste experiences are automatic and cannot be turned off or turned down.

Do you ever synesthetically taste something you’ve never eaten before?

I quite often experience tastes and textures that I cannot immediately recognize. Whenever I do, my mind tries to match it up with something I have eaten in the past and it becomes like an obsession and can be very distracting.

I think most of my synesthetic tastes do come from my past and a large number seen to emanate from childhood. A possible exception would be the word “coffee,” which does in fact have the taste and texture of strong coffee. I didn’t have my first taste of coffee until I was a teenager so that could be a good indicator that my synesthesia taste dictionary is indeed expanding.

I also experience a lot of non-food tastes for certain sounds. The name “Mark” tastes of pencil lead and “David” produces a very strong taste of cloth, a bit like sucking on a cloth sleeve. I also experience lots of metallic tastes that I can’t fully articulate.

The synesthetic tastes and textures are automatic – the difficult part comes in trying to articulate some of those complex tastes and textures into something others can easily recognize.

How has it affected your life?

Just like the ability to smell or hear, my synesthesia has affected my life in many ways. As a child I used to choose friends according to the synesthetic flavor of their names – they all had very nice-tasting names. Later in life I used the same technique when it came to girlfriends. The taste of a girl’s name was all part of the attraction, and quite a big part at that.

The emotional tag that comes with synesthesia is quite a powerful one. If I don’t like the synesthetic taste of something or indeed someone, then I won’t like it or them and that feeling of dislike or disgust isn’t easy to shake off. It’s a sensory and very personal inner feeling that stays with you.

There are a million other ways my synesthesia affects my life, whether it be deciding what to have to eat or which particular TV program to watch.

You couldn’t go out with somebody whose name didn’t taste right?

Oh no. I suppose a decent analogy would be if you meet someone who you really like, looks great, has a fantastic personality but also has a peculiar smell about them. It would affect your overall perception I’m sure. It’s always there in the background.

Does your name evoke any taste in particular?

The taste and texture of my name is very similar to chewing gum that’s lost most of its flavour. I never have liked it all that much although things have improved. As a young child I was called Jimmy then I grew into Jim, both of which taste a lot worse than James!

How does it affect your relationship with food?

The tastes and textures I constantly experience means that I don’t get hunger pangs as I understand them. I get cravings for food, but those are different and easy to control. This constant, extrasensory feeding does mean that I have to be reminded to eat real food otherwise I’d probably starve!

Do food words taste like the food they describe?

The vast majority do. The word “cheese” does indeed have the taste and texture of cheese. The word “potato” tastes of potato. I do have to point out the synaesthetic tastes are very specific and never change but they do taste of the food they are describing. There are exceptions though. The food word “oyster” has the very strong taste and texture of soft, thin chocolate.

Do any foods words taste better synesthetically?

Most definitely. I would suggest that most synesthetic words taste better than the real food. It’s a constant source of disappointment.

Is it just words that affect you?

No, all sounds have a synesthetic taste and texture. Researchers have tested me with made-up words and non-word sounds and they all trigger a taste. It’s purely the sound of the word and nothing to do with meaning or context, which is why certain foreign languages can cause me problems. I started learning French and German at school. French gave me a horrible overtaste of runny egg, but German tasted nice, like marmalade. It forced the choice about which language to study. I still don’t like French accents to this day.

One of the earlier theories was this kind of synesthesia is language-based. For example, for me, most words with a “-ge” sound in (such as “college” or “message”) have a sausage flavor. I also get tastes from colors.

What research have you been involved in?

As you can imagine, synaesthesia is a very subjective and personal experience, which makes it very difficult to quantify and classify. “When I hear X, I taste Y” is something anyone could say, so the challenge was proving it was real and not imagined.

When I first went to a neurologist, I was given consistency tests. I’d be asked to submit a list of words and the corresponding flavours, then I’d have to return six months later when they would present the list in a different order and check that the flavours I originally gave all matched up. Of course, I could have passed just by having a great memory.

The turning point, the epiphany, was finally gaining access to an fMRI scanner. These had been ruled out previously due to cost but a dogged researcher convinced the relevant people that scanning would prove useful and worth the cost.

The results of the scans showed conclusively that the brain of a synesthete processed sensory information in a different way to a non-synesthete. With this vindication, further funding was granted and I have been a part of the ongoing research ever since. The latest series of studies involves tests to see if synesthesia diminishes with age.

If you could switch your synesthesia off, would you?

No. It is a fundamental part of how I perceive the world around me and I couldn’t imagine that world without all the flavours that come with every sound. How could I possibly remember anything without an attached taste?

I have met and spoken to hundreds of synesthetes and nearly all of them consider their extra perceptions as a gift rather than a curse, and they just roll with and enjoy the experience.

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published by Wellcome on Big Picture. This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.