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Keith Varnum

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The Man Who Tastes Shapes
By Keith Varnum   

Last edited: Sunday, August 24, 2003
Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

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Some people see, taste, hear and feel things the rest of us don’t. James Wannerton tastes words: "New York is runny eggs. London is extremely lumpy mashed potatoes." Carol Steen sees every letter with a color: "Z is the color of beer, a light ale."


Some people see, taste, hear and feel things the rest of us don’t. James Wannerton tastes words: "New York is runny eggs. London is extremely lumpy mashed potatoes." Carol Steen sees every letter with a color: "Z is the color of beer, a light ale." For Carol Crane, music is felt: "I always feel guitars on my ankles and violins on my face."

Other people experience smells when exposed to shapes, or hear sounds inside taste. And for some, numbers have color, sounds have smell, and words have flavor. Music is not only heard, it’s seen and tasted--the list goes on.

Neurologist Richard Cytowic explores this surreal world of "synesthesia" in his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. "Synesthesia means joined sensation, and some people are born with two or more of their senses hooked together," explains Cytowic. The most common form of synesthesia is when a person see letters in different colors instead of seeing black ink letters as black. Although people differ from each other in what colors the letters are, the colors usually remain the same for each individual throughout their life. Depending on what food they taste, other synesthetes experience taste as a shape, like a triangle or circle. Another person sees orange when feeling pain.

For New York artist Carol Steen, synesthesia is inspiration. She sees shapes and colors when listening to music or receiving acupuncture—images that she transforms into works of art. "It’s like putting on sunglasses and being able to see the world through the sunglasses," she says. Once, when Steen injured her leg while hiking, all she saw was a world bathed in orange. And, Carol Crane does more than simply hear a concert. She physically experiences each instrument within a different part of her body.

Still another person hears a sound that tastes like pickles. For as long as he can recall, words have triggered the part of Wannerton’s brain that responds to tastes and flavors. "I can remember being in a big school assembly hall listening to the Lords Prayer," he says, "and it was while listening to that, I used to get flavor after flavor coming in. It was mostly bacon."

Wannerton says his synesthesia causes him some discomfort in his personal life. "I’ve had girlfriends with names I couldn’t stand saying. Tracey is a very strong flavored name and it’s flaky-pastry. Whenever I was in her company, that’s what I thought of constantly." And at the end of the day, he suffers from sensory overload. But still he doesn’t want a cure. "I’ve had it since I can remember, and taking it away--I wouldn’t like the thought of that," he says.What’s going on inside the synesthete’s brain?

Dr. Vilyanur Ramachandran, a neurologist who studies quirks of the brain, was scanning the brain of McAllister, a man who sees music. During the imaging, the music being played stimulates not only McAllister’s audio cortex, but also his visual cortex. "The visual area lit up in him," says Ramachandran, "so you know there was neurological activity in the visual region of his brain even though he was only listening to music." McAllister describes it as a "Fantasia-like experience: explosions of color all over the place. A bright flash of lavender getting dimmer and dimmer; now we’re going over a pink staircase, some lavender violins. It looks very beautiful."

This is all the more surprising since McAllister is blind! He lost his sight when he was 12, the result of a degenerative eye disease. But he never lost his synesthesia.Are we all born with joined sensation?

Though scientists can prove synesthesia exists physiologically, they still don’t know what causes it. Some researchers think cross-wiring in the brain produces the phenomenon. Another theory is that everyone is born with synesthesia—that we, as infants, experience the world as a jumble of interwoven sensations. Then, as most of us mature, our physical senses slowly become distinct and sharply defined, like images being brought into focus by a camera lens. With synesthetes this doesn’t happen.

For some, synesthetic perceptions seem to exist outside the body. Carrie Schultz describes how she sees electric guitar riffs in purple swirls that envelop her. For others, the awareness is internal, in their "mind’s eye." When Glenda Larcombe hears a truck backing up--making a beep-beep-beep sound--she sees the beeps as a series of red dots. The mingling of senses is often difficult for synesthetes to describe. Larcombe, for instance, said the red dots she sees when she hears beeping are not part of her actual vision. "It’s not like I would see a red dot right in front of me—it’s in my mind’s eye" she says in an interview. She also reports feeling her interviewer’s voice, "like a wave, like water, with yellow and orange."

Ex-journalist, Page Getz says "God is blue." She describes headache pain as a kind of greenish-orange, music by the rock group Nirvana as having the taste or sensation of Dr Pepper, and the color after sex as static silver. She quit her job as a journalist because her editors’ word changes often disrupted what she saw as a sentence’s natural chromatic progression.

Everyone’s got blended senses to a degree. Psychologist Carol Mills says this sensory-blending ability might be a normal part of all adult brains. "It may go on in all of us even if we don’t have synesthesia," said Mills. "For example, if I give you a very high-pitched note and a series of colors and ask you to match one, you are going to pick a light color. If I give you a low bass note, you are probably going to pick a dark color. The difference is when a synesthete hears a low note, they see dark. When they hear a high note, they see a light color."

No firm figures exist for how common synesthesia is. The best estimates range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 20,000.

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