What if you could taste music?: A primer on Synesthesia
"Do you taste feelings?"
Yes – "Fear tastes like blood and metal."
"What did the presidential election taste like?"
"Like bitter, but also like hope, plus something astringent...something chemical…I know! HAIRSPRAY! Wow…that's really weird!"
Meet Taria Camerino, a world-class chef. When Camerino listens to music, she not only hears the notes, but also tastes the melody. She experiences colours, shapes and even emotions as taste.
Why can Camerino taste music?
Camerino has synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which signals from various sensory organs are processed in more than one cortical area, resulting in sensory information being interpreted as more than one sensation. Basically, sensory data meant to arouse only one of your senses, arouses many of them.
Camerino lives with Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia.
Instead of giving into the expectation of cognitive disorders being some kind of disadvantage, Camerino rescripts the narrative and uses her unique abilities to her own advantage.
In a novel attempt to help others understand her condition,Camerino has created numerous lollipops for people to taste, while they listened to 1812 Overture (a riveting composition by Tchaikovsky, that would make the perfect soundtrack for when you’re murdering someone, ahem). The lollipops infuse multiple flavors, layered in a complex palette that syncs with the musical experience of the composition, and gives people an artists’ rendering of what Camerino experiences while listening to the same piece.
"I tasted bitter, and then sadness, and then something more herbal," said one taster.
"How did she get the lollipop's flavour to swell and subside with the music?" marvelled another.
People with synesthesia are called synesthetes. The first reported synesthete according to research, around two centuries ago, was Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs. Since then, there have been multiple records of synesthetes and their experiences living with this defining condition. Let us take a look at some lesser known types of synesthesia.
Different types of synesthesia
This is when the synesthete mirrors the sensations another person is feeling. For example, if the synesthete observes someone being poked in the stomach, they will feel a poke in their stomach as well! These sensations vary widely from a mild touch, itching, tingling, or pressure to a deep, shooting pain. This also leads to the person having higher empathy, since they can feel and relate to the people around them. A study demonstrates how this phenomenon also elicits a change in the mental representation of the self, blurring self & other boundaries.
In the experiment, the synesthete’s mental representation of the self was quantified by a self-face recognition task, which included morphed images, containing varying proportions of the participant’s face and the face of the unfamiliar other. When the MTS witnessed the unfamiliar other being touched, those who had initially perceived the image as containing equal quantities of self and other, became more likely to recognise it as the self.
When you picture the number 5, do you see a stout, chubby man? Do you grumble at January for being patronizing? Or sigh because December acts like a snarky 18-year-old?
Well, that’s how it works for people with Ordinal-Linguistic Personification (OLP). OLP is a form of synesthesia in which ordered sequences like days of the week, alphabets, months are associated with personalities or genders. These associations are not deliberate, but involuntary and automatic. When you picture a letter or number, you realise that it has a vivid and evocative personality.
Doesn’t this sound amusing? Imagine trying to type out an article while all the letters and numbers on the keyboard are jumping out; being sweet, grumpy, whimsical?
Source and further interpretations of different alphabet: Jesse Jaren.
This is a form of synaesthesia in which the synesthete automatically perceives colours when
listening to any kind of sound, like someone’s laugh, a knock on the door or a song.
A Case Study of a Chromesthetic published in the Journal of Research in Music Education, reveals a lot about the same.
The case revolves around the subject, D, a middle-aged woman with chromesthesia, who states that the chromesthetic effect occurs regardless of whether her eyes are open or closed. Her colour sensations are "not something seen outside, like spots on a wall, but more internal."
D was asked to indicate her color hearing responses to snippets of various atonal sequences and arpeggios. An arpeggio is when notes from a chord are played individually, instead of all at one time. When major chord tone sequences were played for D, her chromesthetic response involved rapid flashes of colours, "somewhat like fireworks exploding." For many of the arpeggios, one colour tended to predominate, with the others flashing around it.
Unlike Camerino, D often finds her chromesthesia debilitating, especially while listening to music. Rather than listening to the overall song, she involuntarily dissects it into notes and colours, leaving her exhausted after.
Music that puts us out of our slump on tough days, helps us relax, and concerts that we jam over, drain D.
Misophonia is when a person is negatively emotionally affected when exposed to certain sounds. While most of us experience this to some degree, the heightened impact of this on the listener, and the severity of their response is what separates the rest of us from a misophonic synesthete. For instance, they might avoid going to restaurants because the sound of people munching food makes them anxious , their mother’s voice might annoy them.
I know what you’re thinking and no, you do not have misophonia.
Grapheme Colour Synaesthesia
This is the most common type of synesthesia, in which an individual’s perception of letters and numbers is associated with colours. For example, this alphabet “K” might appear purple to a synesthete.
While we saw certain cons to having synesthesia, it seems like a compelling experience. You might be wondering if synesthesia can be artificially induced. Certain psychedelic drugs like Mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD , can heighten and connect different sensory experiences, causing temporary synesthesia. Other stimulants, like cannabis, alcohol, and caffeine have shown to cause the same.
Many artists like Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Stevie Wonder and Billie Eillish have produced great artworks, while aided by their synesthesia. Vincent Van Gogh was a famous synesthete too. However, his chromesthesia seemed to hinder him, rather than amplify his skills.
It seems that although a disorder, Synesthesia is actually not considered a disorder by many who suffer from it. It can be conferred simply as a difference in how our brains function, rather than a deficit; it can be termed neurodivergence. The neurodiversity paradigm believes that the variations in neurocognitive functioning within our species are so diverse and endless, that the idea of a ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ brain is baloney.
Who is to say synesthesia is a disorder; looks like synesthetes are super humans in their own rights. ;)
Deshna Nagar (she/her) is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs, pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology. She dances to old tunes and creates illustrations for amusement.