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Gustatory-visual synesthesia

Its different subtypes are taste-colour and taste-shape

This is one of the types of synesthesia that can be called "visualised sensations" or "coloured sensations"


Gustatory-visual is not a particularly common type of synesthesia (it is reported by just under 6% of synesthetes, according to Sean Day's study on prevalence), but it is definitely one of the most interesting. It has two main concurrents, colour and shape, and a synesthete may experience either just one of these or both of them together. (Find out more information on each specific type on the pages about taste-colour and taste-shape). Some people actually see the shapes or colours physically in front of them on tasting a food or drink (projector synesthetes, clearly a minority), while associator synesthetes only see them in the mind’s eye.

                                              
"What a strawberry tastes like" 
by CyrusofChaos in this post in Reddit/Synesthesia

However, in gustatory-visual synesthesia the visual aspect isn’t everything. The people who have it usually say that it also has a strong proprioceptive or tactile component: the shapes are felt in a particular part of their mouth or in other parts of the body (hands, arms, chest etc.), or in a spatial location close to the body. To find out more about tastes producing tactile sensations, see the page on gustatory-tactile synesthesia. It is also common for them to have movement: the shape or colour might turn, shake, rotate or travel in a certain direction (upwards, backwards, diagonally, etc.). It can clearly have a relative position (high, low, on the left or right). Another common aspect of gustatory-visual synesthesia is that it has a major emotional component: not only are the synesthetic photisms very memorable and emotional experiences in themselves, but also if the taste in itself produces a powerful emotion (surprise, novelty, delight, repulsion or any other), the synesthetic experience is much stronger and even overwhelming.


For some people the flavours triggering photisms are reduced to all-encompassing categories such as sweet, savoury or bitter, while for others each nuance of every specific taste evokes its own corresponding colour, shape or movement, which then combine. In this case there are always commonalities between groups of similar flavours, but the photism associated with each taste is unique. The shapes and colours may be simple or they may be highly complex.


It appears that many synesthetes who have visual concurrents triggered by tastes also have them triggered by smells (olfactory-visual synesthesia).


Gustatory-visual synesthesia gives rise to abstract and not pictorial, visualisations. When a taste (or a smell) strongly brings to mind a past experience or place we have visited or lived in and seems to make us "relive" the experience for a few seconds, this isn't synesthesia but something called the Proust effect - see this page of the Tree for more information. However, the last of the descriptions below is an interesting case where some more unusual tastes elicit an almost overwhelming impression of scenes or objects, very memorable and specific and non-autobiographical in nature, manifesting in much the same way as a gustatory-visual synesthete would experience them, so it could be "food for thought" for researchers looking to perhaps extend the definition of this type of synesthesia in future. 


Here are some descriptions written by people with this type of synesthesia:


“Flavors for me takes on certain colors and shapes, but not necessarily “traditional shapes”. Like, almost more of a line that curves, spikes, dips, and flattens based on the flavor profile? And then different areas under and around it are shaded different with more than one color.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)


Artichokes with ham. That’s a typical tapa here in Spain. When the artichokes are just right (they have to be at the exact temperature, otherwise I get nothing) they’re a series of airy cylinders turning, just to my left, on a level with my face and at just a short distance from me. It’s fantastic, it makes me happy. And then the serrano ham zaps across the same space with thin red diagonal lines.

I know why beer and strawberries go so well together: they have a really similar shape, but the movement of the beer is upwards and the movement of the strawberries is downwards. They complement each other perfectly!

Sushi and sushi maki send me out on a flight upwards and backwards on a big flat black rectangle behind me, very light and weightless. It’s like the ecstasy of flying. I can’t speak or listen when I eat a piece of sushi, I flap my hands like I’m flying and no one understands me. At first I thought everyone experienced the same thing but just didn’t express it as enthusiastically as me. Turned out I was wrong.”

(Source: Pau 365, my own experience.)


“Sweet tastes are rounded. (…) Sour tastes are white, and the sourer the flavour the sharper and thinner the forms are (more pronounced spikes). (…) The taste of an orange, as you can see in the picture, is very similar to the colour of a real orange, and that makes it more appetising to me (the same goes for apples!).

Another food I love (…) is lemon, and as you know some lemons are sourer than others. In this picture I’ve shown the different nuances its taste can have.

(Source: the blog Expresión Mínima, 2009. Original in Spanish.)

And... this last description below does not fit into the normally accepted definition of gustatory-visual synesthesia as it not about abstract shapes and colours, but it is an interesting case of tastes eliciting an almost overwhelming impression of scenes or objects, similar in many ways to the specific, memorable experiences that gustatory-visual synesthetes have, and perhaps therefore synesthetic in nature:

"On occasions, things I eat (usually when trying something for the first time) will taste like places/people/things, in a way that doesn't really make sense.

As an example, I once tried to get creative with my smoothies and tossed together blueberry, lime, and cinnamon (0/10 btw do not recommend). I tried it and immediately was overwhelmed with the thought that it tasted like businessmen. (…) I remember taking a sip and my mind filling with the image of a few faceless men in black and white suits, briefcases in hand, I think one was looking at his wrist watch. The emotion of it was very... suffocating? It was like boredom, stress, impatience, maybe even a little bit of dread. (...)

Some orange jello I had once tasted like a pair of worn out white converse sneakers with the laces untied. Almost exactly like thisExcept the shoes were facing towards the right, not the left, and they were sitting on the floor (a cement floor I think). (...)

I had some tea once that tasted like a playground slide. Tonight I'm drinking a new brand of tea and it tastes like a storage warehouse. A zesty storage warehouse. When my friend asked me what a zesty storage warehouse tasted like, I said dusty cardboard, OSHA violations, a hint of bergamot, and something unidentifiable at the end that I can only describe as corporate sadness lmao."

(Source: online conversations with V.S. from Canada. 2022.)


Painting the taste of chocolate

A confectionery brand was recently looking for someone with gustatory-visual synesthesia to paint their taste impressions of some of its new products. This interesting video (2021) shows the experiment and includes a short interview with the synesthete.


Ratatouille

Although he’s only a fictional character, Rémy the rat, who stars in the animated film Ratatouille (2006), has gustatory-visual synesthesia. The animation of his reactions to the taste of cheese and strawberries was commissioned to the synesthetic artist and musician Michel Gagné, who doesn’t have this particular type of synesthesia but understood very well what was needed, and the result is perfectly recognisable as taste-to-colour/shape synesthesia. Michel Gagné has done other animation videos representing his own music-based synesthesia and he’s also depicted the shapes and colours he sees with his silent migraines (painless migraines that produce a strong visual experience, not a type of synesthesia but similar to it in some aspects).

                                         

More about Michel Gagné, synesthesia and Ratatouille here and here


A Feast for The Eyes: Visualising Flavour-to-Vision Synesthesia 

This excellent study by Meijia Wu and Oliver Gingrich (2020) describes a design project where 3D printed sculptures were created following the descriptions of three gustatory-visual synesthetes. The aim was to creatively conceptualise this abstract phenomenon and make it visible and accessible to the general public in an exhibition.


More information and examples of gustatory-visual synesthesia on the pages about taste-colour and taste-shape:

Taste-colour synesthesia

Taste-shape synesthesia

Other gustatory synesthesias:

Gustatory-tactile synesthesia (taste-touch sensations)

Gustatory-auditory synesthesia (taste-sound)

Other pages of interest:

Olfactory-visual synesthesia (smell-vision)

Taste, smell, memory and Proust's madeleine (not considered synesthesia)


This page last updated: 19 November 2022


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