Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgCan you hear colors? Can you see sounds? Do words have colors or images associated with them? It may sound impossible, but there are many documented cases of people who experience all these things. We’ve discussed it before on Cognitive Daily, and even found some limited evidence of similar phenomena among the general population. Collectively, these experiences are called synesthesia. Perceptions have many modalities corresponding to different ways of experiencing the world. The most well-known modalities are the five senses, but “words” or “numbers,” or “colors” may also be considered separate modalities. So to experience synesthesia is to perceive things with multiple modalities simultaneously.

The most common forms of synesthesia involve associations of words, letters, or numbers with colors. Some estimates say that as many as 1 in 200 people may have word-color synesthesia.

By contrast, there have only been five documented cases in the past century of “word-gustatory synesthesia,” where hearing or seeing a word evokes an involuntary taste association. Mathew Gendel spent several months working with a woman with this type of synesthesia who goes by the initials “TD.”

Since synesthesia is a completely internal process, it’s sometimes hard to believe it exists at all. It’s particularly difficult to demonstrate that it exists when only one or two people currently living experience it, so Gendel focused his efforts on determining if TD’s description of her synesthesia was real.

For more common (or rather, less uncommon) forms of synesthesia, the most convincing evidence that it’s real comes from studies showing that synesthetic associations are stable. If “A” is associated with the color blue now, it will still be associated with blue six months from now. What’s more, sometimes the letter-color associations are the same for different people. With only one example to study, this type of evidence is harder to come by, but at least Gendel could test TD at different times and see if her associations were stable.


Gendel presented TD with 806 randomly selected words, and 222 nonsense words created from English-language sounds. She was asked to write down what taste (if any) she associated with each word, and rate the strength of the association. Then the test was repeated three months later. Almost 50 percent of the time, TD experienced a taste sensation accompanying the word. In those cases, 88 percent of the time that sensation was identical or nearly identical three months later. Stronger taste sensations were significantly more likely to be repeated at the end of the study.

For comparison, a group of nine women without synesthesia were given a similar, shorter test. There was no correlation between the strength of the taste sensations they reported and accuracy three months later.

This seems to suggest that TD’s synesthesia is genuine. But this case is a bit more complicated than that. With non-words, synesthetic responses were much less common for TD, as this graph illustrates:

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With non-words, TD had a taste association both times she saw the word just 12 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent of the real words. While in those cases she was quite accurate, it’s possible that the associations were acquired through experience, rather than being an innate part of her perceptual system.

It’s also possible that TD has developed a very good memory for associating tastes with words — that the association has nothing to do with perception, but instead is just a memory trick.

In a separate experiment, Gendle selected 23 words and 23 non-words for which TD said initially that she had no taste association. TD and nine others were asked to invent tastes to associate with each word, and then try to remember those associations two weeks later. Here are the results:

i-f0c942ca3d4af38bf848813a393c5f57-gendle2.jpg

Even though TD had said that she didn’t spontaneously associate a taste with these words, she still performed significantly better than the others. This suggests that she might just have a better memory than others, or have developed a habit of associating tastes with words in order to remember them better.

Whether or not TD is an authentic synesthete, her case is fascinating. The tastes she associates with each word are remarkably vivid. She even has a list of 28 “ugly words” that she avoids using or writing (including Cincinnati, number, portable, squirm, and phony) because of the disgusting tastes she says she experiences along with them.

Mathew H Gendle (2007). Word – gustatory synesthesia: A case study. Perception, 36 (4), 495-507 DOI: 10.1068/p5654

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    December 4, 2008

    where hearing or seeing a word evokes an involuntary taste association

    Well, yes, with the words “brussels sprouts” or “parsnips.” Does that count?

  2. #2 mike
    December 4, 2008

    Interesting. Are the tastes connected to: the word as a whole, the letters of the word, the pronunciation of the word, the concept the word represents? So if “squirm” is a bad-tasting word, is “squirt” ? If “phony”, then also “faux-knee”? how about “phonics”?

  3. #3 Dr. Matthew
    December 4, 2008

    I feel the same way about Cincinnati… it may be normative!

  4. #4 neural
    December 4, 2008

    maybe i’m too cynical, but i just see someone very good at recalling a learned association

  5. #5 Happy Spirochete
    December 4, 2008

    When but a youth, i ingested some lysergic acid diethylamide. For about an hour, I could “taste” the carpet through my feet.

    It didn’t taste good.

  6. #6 Allan
    December 4, 2008

    My wife was listening to the NPR radio program “A Way with Words” where someone called in and said she hated the word “moist.” It wasn’t because of synesthesia, but apparently there are a number of women who have an intense dislike for this word. I wonder if it is on TD’s list?

    Salon.com even has an article on it:
    http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2007/10/29/moist/index.html

  7. #7 Ralfe
    December 4, 2008

    I know how difficult such things are to understand for non-synaesthetes. I, myself, am a synaesthete with gustatory impressions (among others). For me, it is even stranger, as I taste patters, whether those be statistical data, patterns of dance steps, or behavioural patterns. I hope that more research is done on this, so that we can have a better understanding of what is going on from a neurological point of view.

  8. #8 R R Smythe
    December 5, 2008

    raife…im doing a book on synesthesia…could you contact me

    rvnmaiden@comcast.net

  9. #9 taenia
    December 5, 2008

    As a sound->color synesthete, I can certainly empathize with TD’s avoidance of those words. My experience of certain sounds can be so distracting that it impedes my normal life, and relatively normal tasks like driving and running a washing machine can be intensely problematic tasks. Fortunately, I’ve learned to bring my ipod everywhere — if I turn it up loud enough, I can usually screen those noises to gain some semblance of normalcy in my life.

  10. #10 Chris
    December 5, 2008

    Anything on sounds causing taste sensations? This is one I’ve always had, along with perceiving sounds as shapes.
    I once saw, on Bravo TV I think, a reply of an old episode of “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts” where he plays music for children and chats about it. At one point he played a chord and tried to explain it to the kids by saying the sound tasted like lemon juice, as if everyone experienced the same way.

  11. #11 Amanda
    December 5, 2008

    It’s hard to hear when non-synesthetes are cynical about this. I don’t know about TD’s case in particular, but synesthesia is real and it is inherent to that person. I have the most common form of synesthesia, color –> grapheme synesthesia, and so do my brother and one of my sisters. The letters and numbers are not associated with certain colors on any cultural standards, and they’ve been the same since I was a little kid. I’ve actually lost color in two letters (u and y) and can’t remember what color they were associated with when I was a kid. Synesthesia actually affects the way I remember things, rather than me just having a good memory. For instance, I would not be able to, in any way, memorize someone else’s synesthetic alphabet, unless it coincided with my own.

    Also I want to point out that this article says sometimes the fact that different people with synesthesia report the same associations can prove synesthesia is real, and this is not true. Synesthetic associations are made completely outside cultural learning. Any similarities between synesthetic patterns is completely random.

    Also, someone mentioned associated a taste with a word based on that word’s actual taste (like “brussel sprouts”). While I do not know from the perspective of someone who tastes sounds, from a color perspective, the same question is often asked. When I see the word “red,” what color do I imagine? Well, if I associate it with the color red, I’ll see red, but if I look at the word without connotations, it is purple and green. Color words often have two connotations for me – one learned, one synesthetic. Except “green.” That one’s just brown.

  12. #12 Dennis
    December 5, 2008

    Hey, I’m from Cincinnati! While parts of the city may smell bad (at least they used to when I lived there as a kid and the stockyards were still in operation) there’s no reason the name should taste bad. ;-)

  13. #13 bg
    December 6, 2008

    There are these gloves I can’t wear in the lab because they have a specific texture on the fingertips that makes me taste burning hot mustard when I wear them. It doesn’t stop until I take them off. The same thing happens when I hear a sound that’s too loud, like music at a rock concert. I have to wear earplugs at concerts not to taste mustard for the whole show.

    Also, fresh tomatoes off the vine smell like green to me. I love that one! I’ll smell tomatoes in the grocery store just to see that color.

  14. #14 Peter Turney
    December 6, 2008

    When but a youth, i ingested some lysergic acid diethylamide. For about an hour, I could “taste” the carpet through my feet.

    A search on Google shows that many people report LSD can cause synesthesia.

  15. #15 Bill Ectric
    December 7, 2008

    Here in Jacksonville, Florida, I once interviewed a musician, who also happened to be a high school psychology teacher, named David Roberts. He said, “I’ve also always been able to hear the taste of food in words since I was about 5 years old. For example, the word ‘example’ tastes like the meat filling from Chef Boy R Dee’s canned ravioli. The word ‘work’ tastes like oatmeal cookies and coffee to me. The word “tape” tastes like butterscotch. However, not all words make me taste tastes in my mind. The word ‘computer’ for example doesn’t taste like anything but there is a certain ‘orangey’ smell to it.”

    I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking. I can put him in touch with you if wish.

    – Bill

  16. #16 Krissa
    December 7, 2008

    I own a yahoo group for synesthetes… if any of the skeptics here would like to actually talk to someone who experiences it, click on my homepage.

    No, it isn’t merely learned associations. I know one who was born blind, yet still “sees colors” when hearing certain words. Having never actually seen a color with his eyes before, how could this be learned?

  17. #17 jwannerton
    December 14, 2008

    For anyone who’s interested, there’s been heaps of serious long-term study carried out in the UK on most forms of synaesthesia including the word – taste variety. fMRI scans prove unequivocally that synaesthesia is most definitely not a learned experience.

  18. #18 Nigel
    December 15, 2008

    Krissa:

    I know one who was born blind, yet still “sees colors” when hearing certain words. Having never actually seen a color with his eyes before, how could this be learned?

    I am not a sceptic about synaesthesia in general, but I am very sceptical about that. If he has never seen a color the normal way (and thereby learned what the word “color” means in the way that sighted people do), how could he even know that his experiences were colors? Does he claim to know which colors they are? If so, how does he know that?

  19. #19 Sascha
    December 22, 2008

    I’ve been reading this blog for months now and never was motivated enough to comment. AND its a little late for this comment, but if anyone had an answer to my question, I’d appreciate it. I have always seen colors in sound (music, not words) and always assumed that everyone else did too. Or at least, that everyone UNDERSTANDS what is meant when you describe a sound as silver or to make the sound a darker red. Now, I’m not sure if they do or not. I’ve met a few other people who describe music by its color. Is this a synaesthesia or not? Do most people think about the color of music?

  20. #20 B.
    December 23, 2008

    I have always seen colors in sound (music, not words) and always assumed that everyone else did too. Or at least, that everyone UNDERSTANDS what is meant when you describe a sound as silver or to make the sound a darker red. Now, I’m not sure if they do or not. I’ve met a few other people who describe music by its color. Is this a synaesthesia or not? Do most people think about the color of music?

    This is music->color synesthesia. And most people won’t understand what you mean by making it a darker red, because most people probably won’t have synesthetic interpretations like your own.

  21. #21 Josie
    February 19, 2009

    I have been researching synesthesia for a while because i think i may have some type of it. But whenever i research on it, i cant find any info about it. it is not like the normal synesthesia. i will just be sitting in class one day and randomly taste apple pie or smell cigarrete smoke or something. that happens about 10 times a day for me. also, i relate the taste of certain foods to other ones. for example, i was eating a grilled cheese the other day and the whole time i ate it, the bread tasted like graham crackers. i couldnt taste the actual taste of bread, just the graham crackers. this happens often to me. i explained it to my friend, so she knows what im talking about when i say my mint gum tastes like veggies. is it synesthesia?

  22. #22 carl
    May 8, 2009

    I can look at an object and know how it would taste. Well I know how it would feel against my teeth without having touched the object before. When I was young my grandma had dinner plates and ornaments adorning a high beam around her living room. As I was small, I was unable to interact with these objects, yet I always knew how they would feel against my teeth. Anyone else ?

  23. #23 Alessandra
    July 21, 2009

    I am working on a documentary about synesthesia and until now I had great contribution from synesthetes. However in my documentary I am missing an essential interview with someone experiencing taste synesthesia. Is anyone interested in helping me out?

  24. #24 Alessandra
    July 21, 2009

    I am working on a documentary about synesthesia and until now I had great contribution from synesthetes. However in my documentary I am missing an essential interview with someone experiencing taste synesthesia. Is anyone interested in helping me out? London

  25. #25 Jon
    September 29, 2009

    I have the same synesthesia. I have had it since I can remember. My older sister has it too. We were close growing up and would always compare words, my mother thought we were nuts. Our word relationships are different, however. Someone mentioned the word ‘moist’..I really hate that word…like a LOT. I actually hate most food adjectives…moist, crisp, tender…all are rotten. It doesn’t really bother me to read them, but hearing them makes me cringe every time. I have a theory on this and would love to talk to a professional about my theory sometime.

  26. #26 Julie Bell
    October 6, 2009

    I read an article about this the other day, I don’t know if it’s the same thing but ever since I was little certain words remind me of foods but mainly it’s people’s names, I told my Mother this when I was about 5 years old but she told me not to be so silly, all my soft toys had names that reminded me of food that I liked, but I still associate the same foods with the same names, I don’t tend to mention this as people think I am bonkers.
    With the name Madelaine I taste tinned satsumas but the name Elaine it’s rice crispy cakes, Christina is salty plain crisps but Tina is semolina, I don’t know why similar names make me think of completely different foods.
    When I hear the word chocolate I don’t taste chocolate but I do when I hear the names Gary, Sharon or Karen.
    I’ll get me coat.

  27. #27 Julie
    October 6, 2009

    Bill
    I have just read your post and he sounds exacly the same.
    The word ‘tape’ is butterscotch to me too but the word ‘example’ is mashed banana and ‘work’ is fudge.
    I have never heard of anyone else doing this before I read the article the other day, I thought it was just me as when I have ever mentioned it people think I am just weird.

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