Eat Your Words? Some Can Taste Them
People With Rare Condition 'Taste' Words on the Tip of Their Tongue
In the study, Simner's team first screened participants to make sure they
weren't bluffing about having synesthesia.
Next, the researchers showed each participant a series of pictures of
unfamiliar items, like a platypus or castanets.
Participants were asked to name the pictured item, and what tastes, if any,
they experienced with that word.
The goal was to stump participants in order to see if their synesthesia
kicked in while they struggled to name the pictured item. The key question was
which comes first: the word or the taste?
Food for Thought
In most cases, the participants could name the pictured item without much
But in 89 of 550 trials, they struggled with that task. And in 17 of those
89 trials, participants said they tasted the word before they could name
For instance, one woman said she tasted tuna while she was staring at the
picture of castanets, trying to remember the word "castanet."
Why would she taste tuna when she saw a picture of castanets? The
researchers don't say, but perhaps she subconsciously broke down the word
"castanet" into cast-a-net, as in tuna net.
The researchers gave participants a pop quiz more than a year later to make
double sure their synesthesia reports were genuine.
Last year, another synesthesia report appeared in Neuron's Nov. 3, 2005
Those researchers included Vilayanur Ramachandran, MD, PhD, director of the
Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego.
Their study was a review of research done on the condition.
Synesthesia was first studied more than a century ago but has since
"largely been treated as a curiosity in psychology and neuroscience,"
the California researchers note.
They add that "although the study of synesthesia has recently undergone
resurgence, a great number of open questions remain."
For instance, Ramachandran's team points out that scientists don't yet know
exactly how synesthesia happens. Studies of brains scans have shown
"somewhat inconsistent" results, he says.