Synaesthesia is a neurological condition where one type of sense stimulation evokes the sensation of another. The lack of separation between two sensory perceptions leads to involuntary experiences in another sensory or cognitive pathway. While it can be caused by different diseases such as schizophrenia or can be drug induced, synaesthesia alone is not a symptom of a disorder.
As fascinating as synaesthesia itself are the many possible variants. The most frequent is the combination of letters and numbers with colors. One might experience a very specific system of arrangements and color mapping for letters and numbers. Influencing factors can also be music, strong feelings, and smells.
Englishman James Wannerton, President of the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Assocation, grew up with a frequent and intense synaesthesia. As soon he hears a word or a sound, sees a person, or goes to a unknown place he immediately experiences a particular taste in his mouth. Even tastes he does not know from real world experiences. It is entirely arbitrary and unpredictable and therefore continually fascinating. In the following conversation James narrates fruity friendships, savory expectations, warm jelly television, and the experience of building his whole life around them.
Can you tell us about your condition?
I have a natural, neurological trait called “Synaesthesia.” People who have this condition experience a blending of two or more of their five main senses. To some synaesthetes, colors have their own distinct sound. Some can see music as shapes in front of their eyes. In my own case, all sounds and colors have a distinct taste and texture.
What ist he first experience you can recall with your synaesthesia?
My very first recollection of experiencing sound as a taste dates back to when I attended infant’s school. I distinctly remember tasting the words of the Lord’s Prayer delivered during the morning assembly. I was four and a half. It didn’t occur to me at the time that what I was experiencing was any different from what anyone else was experiencing.
How many other synaesthetes do you know?
I know hundreds of other synaesthetes! I’ve been involved with synaesthesia research for over 12 years and my work as President of the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association brings me into contact with other synaesthetes from around the globe on a daily basis. I regularly attend international neuroscience conferences and I have had the privilege of meeting in person eight synaesthetes who have exactly the same rare type I have.
Do you ever synaesthetically taste something you’ve never eaten before?
I quite often experience complex tastes and textures that I find difficult to articulate into something that people can relate to. For example the name “Charlie” gives me a taste of what I can only describe as sweaty feet. I certainly don’t spend my time tasting feet nor can I remember doing so in the past but it’s the nearest I can get to accurately articulating my taste experience as I see it. Another related example would be the word “expect.” For as long as I can remember I’ve always had a very savory, sharp, but lightly textured synaesthetic taste experience whenever I heard the word “expect.” It drove me mad years trying to think of the associated food taste whenever I heard or read the word. It became a sort of obsession. Then, one day I happened to try a bag of Marmite flavored crisps for the first time Eureka! That taste and texture was the word “expect.”
Do you sometimes get sick from a taste overload? Is like eating too much or too many different foods?
I sometimes feel very queasy and overwhelmed, particularly if it’s a noisy environment or there are many people speaking at the same time. In those situations I experience one strong and lingering taste after another, which certainly affects my ability to concentrate on what’s being said. Given a choice, I’d also avoid places that are decorated in loud, primary colors for similar reasons. A birthday party in McDonald’s would definitely be a no-no!
What’s your favorite meal?
My favorite meals tend to be ones that contain a mix of different textures, tastes, and temperatures. Curries, shepherd’s pie, or chili con carne come to mind. I adore hot apple pie with cold ice cream, not so much for the taste but for the contrast in temperature and texture. Tortilla chips with chili is another kind of texture contrast I love.
Do you have a favorite word?
I have many favorite words! I like certain words simply because they are a nice balance the synaesthetic taste isn’t too strong and of course, the taste itself is a nice one. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of pattern to this — a beautiful tasting word is simply that, no matter its meaning or context. Examples that immediately spring to mind would be: television, warm jelly, company, strawberry yogurt, Jenna, melted wine gums, home, mashed potatoes.
How does "James Wannerton" taste?
My own name has the taste and texture of a piece of chewing gum that has lost its flavor. Not particularly nice!
Does the name of the food "chocolate“ taste of chocolate?
Most food names give me a synaesthetic taste that matches the food. The word “cheese” does have a synaesthetic taste of cheese, but there are exceptions. The word “oyster” produces a very strong and lingering synaesthetic taste of chocolate; therefore if I eat an oyster, which I hate, I get a very strong and overwhelming taste of chocolate. “Curry” has the sweet taste and texture of a dried berry, maybe a raisin or something similar. “Duck” tastes of sharp plastic. “Vodka” has the taste and texture of very, very fine soil.
How does you synaesthetically react to music?
Music certainly comes with its own synaesthetic effects, some good, some bad. Listening to piano music gives me an overall taste and texture of sweet pineapple chunks, guitars tend to taste of variations on a chocolate biscuit. Violins taste like Gummi Bears. Obviously lyrics play their part in the experience so I tend to lean towards the less wordy kind of songs as I find them a lot easier to digest.
How do you feel about different countries and places?
As with all words, countries and towns come with their own unique tastes and textures. If the name tastes nice and that taste isn’t too strong then I form a natural affinity for the place itself. It’s similar to having a recurring, pleasant memory of a town you once visited. The pleasant memory becomes firmly attached. It’s exactly the same process with my synaesthetic tastes. London tastes of lumpy mashed potato, Paris carrots, Germany tastes of marmalade and Japan tastes of soggy crisps. I’m currently completing work on a map of the London Underground tube system and I’ve replaced all the station names with their respective tastes and textures. It makes for an interesting and different take on something so familiar.
What sound or word do you absolutely hate and why?
I dislike hearing or reading words that invoke a strong and lingering synaesthetic effect. It’s not so much the taste itself but more the strength of the synaesthetic taste reaction that I don’t like. One particular example would be the word “cooking” or to a slightly lesser degree, “cook.” I detest both words and always have. Simply repeating them here makes me feel slightly nauseous. I’ve no idea why, except that the effect is very intrusive and very distracting. The best analogy I can think of is suddenly taking in a deep breath of something like chlorine vapor it swamps all my other senses.
Do you see a connection between the taste and how much you like a person?
Certainly with my own synaesthesia, there’s a definite link between how a person synaesthetically tastes and whether I actually “like” them or not. This is probably the only aspect of my synaesthesia that as an adult, I’ve had problems fully coming to terms with. I realize that liking someone simply because of their name is a flimsy reason indeed but to me the taste of a name is just as valid as liking a pretty face or admiring someone’s taste in clothes. An accurate analogy would be a situation where you met someone for the first time and you thought them informed, witty, and pretty but, they carried a horribly pungent smell about them. That would change your overall perspective of that person as it does when I taste someone’s name. I remember once being asked to meet a girl called Jacqueline. Her name tasted of washing up liquid. When I was personally introduced, she called herself "Jackie" and her taste changed to something similar to soft, sweet, licorice. I subsequently found out that her friends and family called her "Jack" so her taste changed subtly yet again.
Do you think you subconsciously choose your friends by the personal taste your synasesthesia creates for them?
I most definitely lean towards friends and partners according to the tastes of their names. I recently compiled a list of all my close friends since infant’s school and every one of them had nice tasting names without exception. It’s the same with girlfriends although I can’t honestly say the sweetness of their names has always matched their temperament!
Is there a way to stop it, even just for a few minutes?
There is, the most effective way is by the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). This is where a magnetic pulse is applied to the neural link connecting the two senses. By disrupting that neural flow it is possible to turn down, if not turn off, the effects of synaesthesia. This can be effective for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Do you wish you didn’t have synaesthesia?
Although there are occasions when my synaesthesia becomes intrusive and disruptive, I would never consider having it taken away. It’s a fundamental part of how I perceive the world and how I remember that world. It has played a major role in defining who I am and what I want. I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind briefly sampling life without the constant tastes but I could no more imagine my life without synaesthesia than I could my life without my hearing or sight.
Interview has been edited and condensed, originally appearing in I Love You.