There are more than 60 known types of synesthesia, a condition in which two or more of the senses are joined and result in mixed sensations. Synesthetes’ experiences are involuntary and the associations are unique to the individual. One of the rarer forms of synesthesia involves words being experienced as strong tastes. This type is called lexical-gustatory synesthesia. People with lexical-gustatory synesthesia can taste a word even before they speak it or write it, and it seems to be the word’s meaning that triggers the taste sensation. For example, the word “bed” could trigger the taste of apples, and the name “Jim” could result in the taste of ice cream. There is even a female synesthete who chose her husband because she loved the taste of his name. Of course, often food names taste like the food named: “garlic” tastes like garlic, “banana” tastes like a banana. However, many other words also have distinct tastes, and synesthetes with lexical-gustatory synesthesia taste many types of words.
Another type of lexical-gustatory synesthesia, occurring rarely, happens when the synesthete not only experiences a strong taste but experiences a sense of touch because of the taste. For example, a strong, spicy flavor of jalapeno causes a rush of warmth down the leg. This indicates that a third sensory cortex has been crossed, the parietal lobe area of the brain that deals with touch. Some synesthetes even taste and see colors when they have an orgasm. Some have lists of words with terrible taste associations that they cannot handle hearing, writing, or reading.
Research on lexical-gustatory synesthetes has yielded some interesting information about the condition. Many of these synesthetes associate similar tastes for the same words—evidence that seems to indicate that it is not the whole word but certain sounds within words that are related to tastes. For example, many of the lexical-gustatory synesthetes find that words with the sounds “mmm” or “eh” taste of mint, the sound “aye” tastes like bacon, words with “x” sounds taste like eggs, and the sound “tony” tastes like macaroni. Plus most of these synesthetes are influenced, to some extent, by the language they speak—which means that the word associations are different in a different language. This suggests that the experience of the condition might change depending on the language in which an individual is conversing.
Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia Research
Recent studies have shown that lexical-gustatory synesthesia might go even deeper than words. In an experiment, synesthetes with this type of synesthesia were shown images of objects that were familiar but not regularly encountered—a sextant, a gazebo, an artichoke, a platypus, and a phonograph. They were asked if they knew the word or any part of it for the object and what it tasted like. Even when they could not identify the object, they still sometimes experienced taste sensations, and these word-taste combinations persisted even years later.
Researchers theorize that word-taste associations are developed at a young age. These associations in nonsynesthetes stop being experienced perceptually as the individual grows. Nonsynesthetes make the same types of word and taste associations if they are required to make a judgment. For example, the word “onion” is linked to the taste of onion in those who have eaten onions and know what they are. One hypothesis suggests that all humans begin life as synesthetes and the connections between different sensory areas become blocked or pruned as a person matures. This is a part of the process called synaptic pruning that plays a role in neuroplasticity. For synesthetes, it is proposed that the process of pruning does not occur completely and some of these connections are left intact and active, causing the experiences that synesthetes have. This might explain lexical-gustatory synesthesia where the region just behind the temporal lobe in the forebrain and the area of the brain that controls auditory and specifically lexical cognition are crossed.
Carolyn Johnson Atwater
See also: Auditory-Tactile Synesthesia; Grapheme-Color Synesthesia; Mirror-Touch Synesthesia; Proprioception; Synesthesia; Taste Aversion; Taste System
Colizoli, Olympia, Jaap M. Murre, & Romke Rouw. (2013). A taste for words and sounds: A case of lexical-gustatory and sound-gustatory synesthesia. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 775. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00775
Inglis-Arkell, Esther. (2011). Lexical-gustatory synesthesia: When people taste words. Gizmodo. Retrieved from http://io9.gizmodo.com/5847521/lexical-gustatory-synesthesia-when-people-taste-words
Than, Ker. (2006). New insight into people who taste words. Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/1141-insight-people-taste-words.html