Synaesthesia: Tasty Words and Colourful Sounds by Molly Robinson

For my first foray into the delights of the ILW calendar I attended an informal lecture on the neurological condition of synaesthesia, a merging of the senses, by Dr. Julia Simner (Editor of the Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia) and James Wannerton (synesthete and President of the UK Synaesthesia Association).

I have been aware of synaesthesia ever since someone suggested that it might be the reason that I have a specific colour associated with every letter and number in my mind. I learned today that this is called “grapheme-colour synaesthesia”. In the extreme, synaesthesia can cause people to actually see colour when they hear sounds as if it was hanging in the air, or to taste and feel the textures of words. As a non-scientist, I found Dr Simner’s account of the science behind what appears to be a bizarre phenomenon accessible and amusing.

James Wannerton’s first-hand account of his life with syneathesia was my favourite part of the event. He explained that for every word and sound he hears, writes or thinks about, he experiences a taste as real as if someone had placed a spoonful of that food or substance into his mouth. By showing us photographs and extracts from his personal diaries he was able to give us a glimpse into what his life must be like. The power of these tastes was clear when once or twice he paused and apologised; he was distracted by the taste of warm custard.

It seemed like everyone in the room had a question – a sign of an interesting lecture.

Finally, we got the chance to view a piece of James’ art (which he is donating to the University) entitled “Tastes of London”, a reproduction of the Underground map with station names replaced with the tastes that each evokes for James.

I found out that my home station tastes of “blancmange and candied shrimp”.

 

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