The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

What Do Words Taste Like?

Interview with James Wannerton, part I

By John Camacho, affiliate member of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research

James Wannerton, the President of the UK Synaesthesia Association, has word to taste synesthesia. I conducted the interview in two parts. This is part I.

Do you have a family history of Synesthesia?

My mother and younger sister both report mild forms. My sister perceives different typefaces in different colors and my mother sees days of the week in color. As far as I’m aware no other members of my immediate family have synesthesia.

What is the best or your favorite definition of synesthesia? And, what kind of synesthesia do you have?

For me, the most accurate definition has to be the very simple “Blending of the senses” because that’s exactly what my own synesthesia seems to do. Whenever I hear a sound, be it a word sound or an ambient sound, I experience a burst of taste and texture on various parts of my tongue – a real mouth-feel experience. This also happens when I see color. The sound may indeed trigger the synesthetic taste but this happens so instantaneously that to me it all blends together to form a whole experience.

How did the synesthetic experiences affect your childhood? Did the synesthetic experiences help or hinder your abilities to perform schoolwork?

Along with the vast majority of synesthetes, I can’t remember not experiencing synesthesia so any difficulties I possibly had with pre- and early schoolwork would have been taken in my stride as does a child. It was certainly never mentioned in any of my school reports of me having any apparent difficulties. Whenever I recall any childhood memories they come back at me with what can sometimes be very intense flavors at the forefront which serve to help reel in the sound and vision of the event being remembered. So, if anything, my synesthesia possibly enhances my memory by providing me with such a strong memory hook. What I can say is that it undoubtedly affected my choice of friends. Now, when I recall the names of my childhood friends, they all have nice tastes attached.

Can you give one or two names of those childhood friends?

Some examples: Robert (taste & texture of a jam sandwich—with loads of jam); Simon (Sliced apple); Martin (Bakewell tart); Matthew (hard toffee)! The first time I became really aware that my synesthesia was having some sort of negative effect on my schoolwork was when I had to remember facts and figures via exams, something I didn’t find particularly easy to do unless the subject and conditions were just right. Partially recognizing the cause of my difficulties caused me for the very first time to begin to question exactly what was happening and why. I can easily recall attending classes and coming out with nothing but a mouth full of taste and texture. I used to have the same distraction problems when reading books although instruction manuals I found I could handle very comfortably.

What sort of instruction books did you read? Have you thought about why instruction manuals are easier than other books? If so, do you have any ideas for why?

I can only imagine the reason for this is because I find that the language in instruction manuals is crisper, and much less verbose than the language found within a novel or similar. The use of ten words when four would have been more than sufficient, that sort of thing. I find poetry particularly hard to digest for what I assume to be similar reasons. And please don’t mention Shakespeare or Dickens! Sitting under exam conditions used to be quite difficult. Big, echoey halls, the enforced silence frequently punctuated by the sound of an escaping cough, a bird singing loudly outside the window or the clatter of a pencil being dropped. All these sounds and more produced strong taste sensations which could be very distracting. I can only liken it to having a very bright light flashed directly into your face at arbitrary intervals. And please don’t mention Shakespeare or Dickens! Sitting under exam conditions used to be quite difficult. Big, echoey halls, the enforced silence frequently punctuated by the sound of an escaping cough, a bird singing loudly outside the window or the clatter of a pencil being dropped. All these sounds and more produced strong taste sensations which could be very distracting. I can only liken it to having a very bright light flashed directly into your face at arbitrary intervals.

Is it reasonable to infer that the social conditions of reading for an exam affected your difficulty in reading?

My word synesthesia has never made reading particularly easy. I’ve always had to read and re-read things in order to get the information to leap the syn barrier and lodge itself in my memory. I find reading in total silence virtually impossible. This is because each word on the page wouldn’t have anything else to compete with, i.e. ambient sound, and would therefore amplify its presence. I used to love noisy library reading rooms! On the positive side it most definitely helped me with remembering certain things. At my school they placed heavy emphasis on rote learning and I still get the very same tastes when I recite the days of the week, months of the year or my times tables. I can easily and instantly recall the English Royal lineage from the Plantagenet’s right through to the present day Queen simply by the order of their synesthetic tastes.

How many languages do you speak?

Two—English and German. I did attempt to learn French at school but I had great difficulty—still do—as French unfortunately comes with a very distracting undertaste of egg. It has to be something to do with the accent or delivery but I didn’t like it and I gave up after less than 12 months of trying. I can screen out this background egg taste and texture now when I listen to someone speaking French but actually trying to learn it proved far too arduous. German on the other hand carries a background taste of warm marmalade—how lovely is that!

How did you learn German?

I think the fact that it seemed anything Germanic—particularly the language—came with a very pleasant and mild background taste of warm marmalade and this very pleasant feeling gave me added momentum to focus more on the actual task in hand. It made it far more enjoyable and memorable for me and therefore easier to take in.

Do you have synesthetic experiences for words in different languages? Is there similarity in the synesthetic taste of words throughout a language? How did the flavors of the words affect your learning of new languages?

I get synesthetic tastes whatever the language spoken or read as it’s the actual sound of the word that produces the taste For example, when listening to German I experience a very nice undertaste of warm marmalade and over that I get the taste of the word sound itself. Again, as it’s the sound of the word and not the meaning I get similar tastes for similar sounding words whether they are spoken in German or English (not taking into account the mild marmalade taste of course!). A German word such as “Pilz” (mushroom) actually has the taste and texture of marzipan even though I fully realize that it refers to a mushroom in English. The word “Mushroom” tastes like a mushroom.

Do you have any experiences when knowing the meaning of a term affects the kind of synesthetic experience?

I do have some oddities. The written name “Stephen” tastes very different (savory) from the written name “Steven” (sweet) so it begs the question as to what taste I experience when I hear someone is called “Steven”? Sweet or Savory? What actually happens is that when I hear it for the first time, it tries to fit in with the taste of whatever I’m experiencing at that time. So, if I’ve just been dealing with a sweet synesthetic taste, it will become “Steven” regardless of how it is really spelled. If I subsequently discover he is actually called Stephen, it will then revert back to savory! I remember once being asked to telephone a girl called “Jacqueline”, a name which gives me the synesthetic taste of washing up liquid. When I spoke to her on the phone she referred to herself as “Jackie” so her taste changed to something akin to hard plastic. Then, when I actually met her, she said everyone called her Jack so she instantly tasted of liquorice. When I found out she spelled it “Jac” and not “Jack”, she changed again to something similar to the taste and texture of carbon fur you get building up in the bottom of electric kettles. It sure makes for a varied experience when meeting people for the first time. The words “pair” and “pear” both carry the taste of mushy pears whatever the context, but the words “fore” and the number “four” have different tastes and textures. There doesn’t, on the surface anyway, appear to be a lot of logic in some of these anomalies but meaning certainly doesn’t affect some synesthetic experiences. For example, I know instinctively that the German word for “Church” is “Kirche”. The word in English tastes like sliced ham, a little hard around the edges whereas in German it tastes like some kind of rich cake. Some words with no meaning whatsoever such as “wupts” or “zirsh” carry strong synesthetic tastes of their own.

Have the synesthetic experiences that affected your childhood changed as you grew older? How is having word/taste synesthesia helpful or distracting today?

My synesthetic tastes have never altered—100% consistency. It may be that my description of the actual taste has changed as I have learned how to verbalize the taste and texture in greater detail but the experience itself has remained remarkably consistent throughout. Nor have I noticed any rise or fall in the intensity. A couple of years ago my very first girlfriend sent me an old notebook containing a list of names and words with a list of tastes alongside. She’d discovered it in an old shoe box and it was something I’d produced one rainy evening aged 16. I submitted this list to Edinburgh University for comparison with a recent list I had produced for them. They matched perfectly—a documented time span in excess of 30 years. My taste synesthesia can be distracting and is rarely helpful—at least not in an obvious way. It can make me feel calm and I do believe that it helps me recall things more readily and I also have a sneaking suspicion that it helps concentrate the mind and thus aids the creative process. But that’s only my own personal opinion.

Can you provide some more details about how it makes you calm? Are the pleasant tastes simply relaxing?

Certain synesthetic tastes are just that—simply calming. Dark blue is my favorite color because of this. I’ve no sure way of analogizing the effect but possibly it’s similar to the apparent calming and relaxing impact that eating a bar of chocolate or having a strong cup of tea has for some people.

What role does attention or awareness play in your synesthesia? Synesthesia seems to play a significant role in your life. When you have synesthetic experiences, do you feel the need to tame or block it out?

I am very aware of my synesthesia all the time including when I dream and of course it can become very distracting if I allow it. If I concentrate on just the constant flow of synesthetic tastes and textures then I could very easily become lost in the experience which has the effect of shutting everything else out. Over the years I’ve developed a number of ways of lessening the distracting effect. When I was a child I chose friends with nice tasting names only, which I suppose counts as my very first attempt to live alongside my synesthesia. As a child I simply ran with it as it all seemed so normal and natural. As a teenager I recognized that it did have an effect on my everyday life. As an adult I’ve tried to understand how and why it happens. There are times when I’d love to block it out or at the very least, turn it down but this is how I perceive the world around me and I’m not sure how I’d function if I lost my synesthesia. I’ve had a long time to come to terms with its effects and I’ve developed some very effective techniques for those occasions that demand them. I speed read, that helps with taking in the written word; I eat strong, tangy sweets as having a strong “real” taste taking up my attention I find it helps minimize the effect of the synesthetic tastes as they flow and ebb. I’ve even tried noise reduction headphones to lessen ambient noise but at the proverbial end of the day, I like my synesthesia and simply couldn’t begin to imagine life without it. I would feel like I’d lost something just as fundamental to me as one of the major senses.

How many other taste/word synesthetes have you met? How many taste synesthetes overall? What are those conversations like? Are there similarities or disagreements?

Over the course of the last 15 years I’ve been in contact with well over 30 taste synesthetes from around the world and I’ve met 8 of these in person. I’d actually met a lot of other types of synesthetes before but my very first encounter with a fellow taste synesthete did feel a little strange. It’s not as if I was expecting some kind of “connection” but it did seem slightly odd to openly talk about taste synesthesia with someone who could relate. Taste synesthesia, as with all other types, is a very personal experience so similar tastes for the same word sounds are pretty rare and most likely coincidental. Having said that it is possible to sometimes spot certain language patterns if you look hard enough. Only last week I was talking to a taste synesthete from Argentina who had exactly the same taste and texture for her name as I have for mine. Pure coincidence but it still makes me inwardly smile when I see word sounds that taste the same to someone else as they do to me. My mother and younger sister both report mild forms. My sister perceives differing typefaces in different colors and my mother sees days of the week in color. As far as I am aware no other members of my immediate family have synesthesia.

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in Philosophy, Psychology and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She directs the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab. more...

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