Tasting the Rainbow – A Synesthete’s Experience

Loud colours.
The sharp sound of the clock chiming.
The tasty aroma of fresh-baked goods.

These are just a few examples of mixing senses to convey a feeling. Colours can’t be heard, and sounds can be sharp though most people wouldn’t say that a sound feels sharp to the touch. A certain smell might take you back in time to your youth, making your mouth water for a slice of grandma’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, but you can’t really taste an aroma. Combining senses for the sake of painting a vivid picture with words has been done forever. It is called “synesthesia” in the literary sense. But there is also a condition known as synesthesia. And I myself am a synesthete.

When I was very young (and didn’t know any better) I sat on the porch talking to my grandma about how different words tasted. “Thursday” tasted like a popsicle. Particularly Flavor-Ice. She just kind of went along with me so I assumed she agreed, and I later found that this was not normal so I stopped talking about it. I remember watching Sightings as a kid. Pretty sure it was Sightings. For those of you who have never heard of it, it was that really great show about aliens and ghosts and creepy little what-nots in the realm of the supernatural that was produced by The Fonz. One particular segment spoke to me. There was something about a man who talked about a chicken with lots of points on it. There were also people who saw visual effects whenever they heard a sound. “Mixed senses,” the narrator said, and he even gave it a name. Synesthesia. That’s when I knew I wasn’t just some sort of freak. It actually had a name, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who had this “gift” as people refer to it. My senses were mixed up! How cool was that?!?! I still hesitate to call my kind of synesthesia a gift most times and when I do, it’s usually in sarcastic jest. I wish I had a cooler kind that didn’t make me crave Sugar Babies every time someone says the word “Table” or wanting a strawberry sundae when I hear the word “Laptop”. It’s similar to the feeling you might get if someone were to tell you to imagine taking a bite out of a big, juicy lemon. Is your face puckering yet?

When I was older and had access to the internet, I researched synesthesia with renewed interest. Knowing that this thing had a name allowed me to talk to people about it because I just saw it as a fascinating subject. Most people would ask what their name tasted like, but it was rare for me to find other people who had it. I was hoping to find more people like me. And then I was talking to a friend named Sarah. She said her mother took her to a doctor when she was a kid thinking she had allergies because she tasted everything. She was diagnosed with synesthesia, and while to me “Sarah” tasted like a caramel sundae, she said her name tasted like cardboard.

There are some people out there with really cool powers of synesthesia. When reading black print on white paper, every letter has a colour. One person’s “M” might be blue, while another would see the “M” as orange. When you have a paper filled with thousands of O’s and a few C’s thrown into the mix it’s hard to pick the C’s out. But someone with this particular type of synesthesia can seek out the C’s almost at a glance. Sometimes a person might see little designs when the phone rings, or maybe even colours. Or perhaps someone might smell sounds or hear colours. The combinations are endless! Basically, synesthesia is any two of the five senses (smell, sound, taste, sight, touch) that merge together. People think that babies are all born with it but lose it when they get older. Maybe that’s why there are so many sense-stimulating toys for babies, and maybe it’s why they respond to them with such awe.

I don’t know how or why it happens, and there are doctors who say this is some sort of made up thing. The studies that have been performed show evidence that it is real, because the individuals who participated came back years later for a follow up. If their B is green and their X is orange, it normally stays that way even in the follow up studies. Every now and again there may be a slight change, but for the most part, everything remains as-is over the years.

For me personally, I just don’t feel that I have a really cool power. For me, words, sounds, and colours have flavours. I find it kind of boring and would love to know what sounds look like. But there are certain things I gravitate toward and some things I stay away from because of the flavours. Tropical blue is my favourite colour because it tastes like blue juice. I hate light blue mixed with yellow because it tastes like macaroni and cheese. That seems to be a common colour-combo in pajama sets and baby blankets. Ick! Some people have voices that to me, have very distinctive flavours. One of my teachers spoke like pink lemonade and wore matching lipstick! I’d leave that class dying of thirst! Judge Judy’s voice tastes like a mint patty, and the sound high heels make on a hard floor taste like Junior Mints. It’s very specific, because though mint patties and Junior Mints taste pretty much the same, it’s about texture, too.

Some things enhance flavour for me. Those red restaurant cups make a Coke taste all the better. I hate blue M&M’s because blue is not the flavour of an M&M. A Skittle, maybe. I usually sort my M&M’s out alphabetically by colour. Blue, green, orange, red, yellow. I eat the blue ones first because blue tastes the least like an M&M. The orange, red and yellow have pretty strong chocolate flavours, but I set the brown ones aside for last, because that’s what an M&M is supposed to taste like and it seems more satisfying. I have tried blind experimentation to see if I could tell what colour the candy shell was without looking, but I think I have to see it to taste it. Otherwise they all seem to taste the same. I’m still a little upset about the demise of the light brown M&M, as they truly captured the flavour with the colour, even more than the dark brown ones.

Sometimes when I’m munching on something, I’ll think of the word or sound that it tastes like to bring out the flavour. It makes it taste even better! Like the other night when I was enjoying a banana split, I thought of the word “dance” because that’s what a banana split tastes like.

Music also has flavours, and I am not a big blues fan because it has a horrible taste. So does blue grass. But “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order is a total explosion of flavour to my tastebuds! From bubblegum to a tart-sweet candy and even kool-aid, it’s got all of the main food groups! At least, all of my main food groups.

Spelling and context can also change the flavour of a word, even if it’s prounounced exactly the same. “Too” is like a stale glazed doughnut, while “two” is like chocolate pudding. “To” just tastes like coffee weakened with creamer. It’s kind of strange how each flavour is so different but the words are the same. Nancy tastes like a banana split, but Nanci makes the flavour stronger but lighter. Changing a “y” to an “i” tends to do this to just about any name or word. Likewise, “ie” in place of “y” or “i” can also give it a whole new effect. I don’t know if this qualifies as synesthesia, but the “ie” sometimes feels like a hug. I guess it would be a type of synesthesia since it is combining “touch” and “sound”.

Sometimes every syllable of a word has a flavour, but it just depends upon which part of the word I’m focused on. Betsy is a prime example. The “Bets” part tastes like that vegatable beef soup with the letters, but “sy” tastes like a really delicious icing that’s been chilled in the fridge. Tasting the word as a whole is very difficult for me in that aspect, but normally when this happens the syllable I’m more focused on will be the overall dominant flavour.

And of course there are certain colours and words I don’t like because the taste is awful. Ham-pink, another colour found in night clothes, is one of my most hated colours. Sometimes if I focus enough I can change the flavour of something by simply associating it with something else. It may not last, but it will get me by if I have to be exposed to it. The worst part is when something has a flavour of something that causes heartburn, because if I am surrounded by the stimuli enough, I’ll actually feel a pang of heartburn from it.

Then there are times when it causes embarrassment because of the simple fact that I don’t think much about it, especially when I’m around people who know I’m a synesthete. The other day I was shopping with my mom and looking at some curtains or valances that were only a dollar. She said she’d never understand me, because she got me some really nice curtains which I replaced with sheets. I impulsively replied, “But those curtains tasted like cheese and broccoli!” She said she liked cheese and broccoli, and it’s one of my personal favourites as well, but it didn’t taste like the good kind and it was overwhelming.

However, my synesthesia had helped me through school. If there was a review that was basically just like the actual test, multiple choice preferably, I would study by picking out a word in the question that had the strongest flavour. Then I would associate it with the correct multiple choice answer with a word that did not appear in any of the other questions. I could remember it simply by saying, “Okay, the question that tastes like macaroni and cheese goes with the answer that tastes like a banana.” This has also come in handy when I learn new words, because I know that it tastes like Skittles, and by focusing on the flavour I’m able to recall the word from my memory bank.

So I guess in that aspect, it is sort of a gift. Even though I still think it would be way awesome to see a sound.

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