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Lexical-gustatory synesthesia

With this type of synesthesia, words (either heard, spoken, read or simply thought about) trigger a concurrent of flavour. Some synesthetes with particularly strong lexical-gustatory synesthesia are constantly assailed by taste impressions evoked by a huge number of words, but there are also weaker varieties where a significant but limited number of words give rise to flavour perceptions. In any case, each word has its own specific flavour, the flavours are consistent and the synesthete has normally perceived them ever since they can remember. Synesthetic flavours for words are usually a real sensation felt temporarily in the mouth, although they may also just be a very strong association, immediately and automatically induced on perceiving the word in question.

Lexical-gustatory is an uncommon type of synesthesia, although its exact prevalence is as yet unknown. However, it is a relatively well-known type, mainly thanks to James Wannerton, the President of the UK Synaesthesia Association, who has this type and has taken part in numerous studies and given many interviews so it is easy to find information on his case (see the list of links below).

As to its actual prevalence, it is reported by Sean Day that 2.89% of 1,143 synesthetes interviewed had lexeme-to-flavour correlations. A figure of “less than 0.2% of synesthetes” can sometimes also be found, as in the important study conducted by Julia Simner et al. in 2005 on a sample of 500 members of the general population no-one reported it at all. However, accounts of lexical-gustatory synesthesia can be found without excessive difficulty, and it is certainly not “the rarest type of synesthesia that exists” as some websites currently claim. Until now there has been no standardised method for determining it, so the figures may eventually prove to be higher. The recent study The MULTISENSE Test of Lexical–Gustatory Synaesthesia: An automated online diagnostic (Ipser, Ward and Simner, 2019) addresses the problem and proposes a useful system for diagnosing this type. 

The word-taste combinations are idiosyncratic and vary greatly from person to person. The phenomenon can be traced back to the synesthete’s early childhood, as this seems to be when most or even all of the word-taste pairings are created: in the case of James Wannerton, for example, all the synesthetic flavours correspond to food he used to eat as a child, with no words at all tasting of anything he only began to eat as an adult. Some “logical” connections can be observed between the inducer (the word) and the concurrent (the synesthetic flavour): for James, the words cottage, village and message all taste like sausage, so the relevance of the /idg/ phoneme can be established in this case.


Families of words often have similar tastes, with the lexeme or root of the word frequently being the part that carries the taste association, although there can also be rarer cases in which individual letters determine a flavour. The terms lexeme-taste, grapheme-taste and phoneme-taste could therefore be used to describe part of the lexical-gustatory phenomenon. Here is an interesting example of phoneme-taste synesthesia:


(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

So what do words actually taste of? The flavours can be natural or synthetic and of any known kind, but sometimes they do not correspond to any taste existing in real life and are therefore difficult to describe. They can sometimes taste of non-food items like wax or metal. They can be strong or weak, delicious or unpleasant. They can have texture. Mixtures of two totally incongruent flavours can also occur (in the case of compound words, for example).


Although this type of synesthesia is usually pleasant and not overly invasive in the synesthete’s day-to-day life, in more accentuated cases it can create problems, as some words have such an unpleasant taste that they have to avoid hearing or saying them as far as possible. In other cases the words can be so delicious that they make the person feel hungry. However, these synesthetes usually say that they don’t get confused while they’re eating, as the real tastes of the food are stronger and tend to cancel out the synesthetic flavours of any words they might be hearing at the same time.


For some lexical-gustatory synesthetes these perceptions are triggered not only by words but also by general or animal sounds: “If my dog barks, I experience the taste and texture of runny custard in my mouth”, says James Wannerton, for example.


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

 

“I experience a constant flow of flavours. It’s like a drip, drip, drip from an eyedropper on my tongue, one taste after another, varying in strength and intensity and each overlaying the previous one.”

(James Wannerton, on this website. 2017.)


“I have an unbearably salty taste in my mouth when I hear/read/say the words feet, feature and fault. DISGUSTING.”

“Oooh ! interesting! Fault - rice krispy cereal, a bit watery though, feature - chocolate milk through a straw, feet - kind of bland for me.”

(Source: These comments on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)


This post written by lexical-gustatory synesthete Raea in Reddit/Synesthesia has plenty of comments, questions and answers and gives an interesting picture of how the phenomenon is experienced.


Links

In this short video by BuzzFeed News, "What Your Name Tastes Like", a girl called Friday who has lexical-gustatory synesthesia explains how she tastes a variety of people's names. 


When Senses Collide” is a BBC documentary about synesthesia that explores James Wannerton’s lexical-gustatory world and more cases of people with different types of synesthesia.


Here’s an example of his series of representations of metro lines: “This is what the Toronto subway tastes like.” More information here.


Some studies:

A taste for words and sounds: a case of lexical-gustatory and sound-gustatory synesthesia (Colizoli, Murre and Rouw, Univ. of Amsterdam. 2013)

The MULTISENSE Test of Lexical–Gustatory Synaesthesia: An automated online diagnostic (Ipser, Ward and Simner, Univ. of Sussex, UK. 2019)


Related synesthesia types:

Lexical-olfactory synesthesia (word-smell)

Auditory-gustatory synesthesia (sound/music-taste)

Voice-to-taste synesthesia


This page last updated: 10 August 2021

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