Tasting the Rainbow: Synesthesia

At age 10 I asked the nurse if the IV drip came in another flavour. She checked me for a fever.

To this day whenever I’m stuck to an IV, I get that metallic taste in my mouth, as if I was keeping a Euro coin under my tongue. Nowadays, I keep it to myself to (try?) not sound weird. But this phenomenon I and many others experience actually has a name: Synesthesia. (si·nuhs·thee·zeeuh). 

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that causes certain stimuli to trigger more than one sense. You may SEE the colour blue, but also TASTE it or SMELL it. What’s better is that there is no rule to it, blue needn’t taste like the sea as much as it could taste like a packet of Twistees.

The word synesthesia is a mashup of the Greek words “synth” meaning “together” and “ethesia” which means “perception”.

What’s happening is happening in the brain, specifically an area called the limbic system, which is usually involved in regulating our emotional experience-literally the drama in your life. It seems to be a “cross-wiring” of this area with different sensory systems across the brain, say for example those associated with touch or vision. It’s not uncommon for people with synesthesia to view days of the week in colour like purple Wednesdays, hear sounds when people touch them, and even taste certain flavours when they hear certain sounds.

You may SEE the colour blue, but also TASTE it or SMELL it.

Synesthesia has been linked to artistic traits and many famous performers are known to be synesthete, the term we use to describe someone perceiving this phenomenon. Frank Ocean’s 2012 album Channel Orange is themed around his synesthesia and Billie Eilish went on to say this about her condition:

“I think visually first with everything I do, and also I have synesthesia, so everything that I make I’m already thinking of what colour it is, and what texture it is, and what day of the week it is, and what number it is, and what shape,” she divulges. “We both have it [she and brother Finneas], so we think about everything this way.”

She even described her song “Bury a Friend” as grey, black, brown while “Xanny” is more velvety, “like if you could feel smoke.”

There’s lots of different types of synesthesia, and you can live with more than one of them. These include:

  • Grapheme-colour synesthesia. When you “see” specific colours in your mind in association with numbers or letters.
  • Chromesthesia. Associating sounds with colours. These can be musical notes, or even just everyday noises such as a door shutting.
  • Number form. When you have a mental map of numbers, with each one having a specific place (such as on a line).
  • Mirror touch. When you see someone touching their leg and feel a touch on your own leg.
  • Lexical-gustatory. When certain words evoke a sensation of taste. (So, if you hear the word “city,” you might taste strawberries.)

Recognise anything?

Even if you don’t, there’s growing evidence that synesthesia could be more common than we think, and it’s possible that everyone has a small form of synesthesia. For example, when most people hear nails on a chalkboard they involuntarily cringe.

At the end of the day, even though some types can be annoying, you can live with synesthesia very happily. Some describe it as a gift. If it teaches us anything, it’s that our brain is capable of creating its own perceptual reality with endless possibilities.

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