Eat Your Words? Some Can Taste Them
People With Rare Condition 'Taste' Words on the Tip of Their Tongue
Nov. 22, 2006 -- Life is a feast -- literally -- for some people with a rare
condition called synesthesia, a new study shows. Words are often experienced as
tastes by them.
In synesthesia, people have unusual sensory experiences. For instance,
someone with synesthesia might "hear" a sound when they see the color
Nature's latest issue includes a brief report on six people with a version
of synesthesia in which they experience tastes upon hearing certain words.
The researchers include Julia Simner, DPhil, of the psychology department at
Scotland's University of Edinburgh.
In an email to WebMD, Simner discusses her findings.
Participants in the study ranged in age from the early 20s to one lady in
her 80s, Simner says. Five were female, one male. One was British, the rest
All had had synesthesia as long as they could remember and experienced food
tastes in response to words, she says.
"The proportion of words that triggers taste varies from synaesthete to
synaesthete, and for those in our study it ranged from about 15% of words, to
one lady who experiences tastes for 100% of words," Simner says.
Tastes Like Earwax
Participants reported some elaborate taste sensations with words.
"All their tastes represent complex food experiences (e.g., salad with
Caesar dressing; lightly buttered toast; the vanilla cream you get inside
donuts) and some are brand-specific (e.g., Heinz tomato soup)," says
"Some tastes can be rather unpleasant, as for example, with the small
number of words that trigger the taste of 'organic inedibles' (e.g.,
earwax)," she notes.
That specific type of synesthesia "is particularly rare -- so rare in
fact that we don't have an exact idea of its prevalence," says Simner.
Perk or Pest?
Most people with synesthesia -- whom Simner calls synaesthetes -- don't mind
having the condition, she says.
"The vast majority of synaesthetes see it in one of three ways: either
they love it, or they're neutral ('It's like having a little finger -- it's
just there'), or they think everyone has it," she says.
"Only a very small number are less keen, and these tend to be either
those people who have a very large number of sensory crossings (e.g. one lady
hears colours, sees sounds, tastes shapes, etc.) or they are those people who
experience tastes," she says.
"Tastes seem to be particularly intrusive and can cause problems for
those who experience them," Simner notes.
For example, she says one man who experiences tastes with words told her he
finds the sensations "very distracting: they interfere in meetings, when
he's reading, when he's driving and looking at road signs, etc."
"However, even he said he'd not lose it [synesthesia] if he had the
choice," she adds.