People with synesthesia experience stimulation in multiple senses: hearing color, feeling sounds—or, in writer Julia Skinner's instance, tasting everything they see
Illustration by Sandro Rybak
Some people hear colors. Some taste sounds. A few, like me, can taste everything around us. The condition of synesthesia—experiencing one or multiple senses through another sense—offers a world informed by the intersection of our experiences rather than the boundaries between them, a world that exists between sense and sensation.
In my world, I experience flavors on my palate unique to each thing I see. Imagine you’re on Glenwood Avenue in East Atlanta Village. Here are a few of the flavors I experience: The road itself “tastes” kind of like blueberry Pop Rocks, while the light poles are almost like smooth, cool black licorice. Each building has its own flavor, some informed by the color of the facade—Argosy’s, with its dark-stained wood, is caramelly. Learning about synesthesia, and talking with synesthete friends, has revealed that my experience is part of a long history—and a reminder that we know less about our senses than we think we do.
The first known writing about synesthesia symptoms dates to the 1770s and the German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who described people experiencing the “obscure feeling” of sound in color, or chromesthesia. More consistent study picks up in the 1860s, when French physiologist Alfred Vulpian coined the word synesthesia, though he used it to refer to something else: coughing and sneezing triggered by touch and light. In 1873, Fidelis Alois Nussbaumer—apparently unfamiliar with Herder’s work—considered himself the first person in history to experience the condition, which he called phonopsie (phonopsia), for töne-sehen (seeing sounds). Later on, the word Vulpian created would be matched to the symptoms Nussbaumer described.
In 1881, two Swiss medical students documented six different kinds of synesthesia, including the first I’ve found of gustatory synesthesia, which they describe as “color sensations for gustation perceptions.” Researchers then (and today) primarily focused on people who hear colors; until the turn of the 20th century, audition colorée was used to describe every form of synesthesia. The condition fell out of scholarly favor by midcentury but resurged in the 1970s, and, in the decades that followed, research has shown that synesthetes’ experiences are consistent across time and measurable in the brain.
Nowhere in the historical record have I found synesthesia to be stigmatized in the way many “disorders” have been. Instead of being looked on as a threat, synesthetes have, for the most part, been regarded as a curiosity, perhaps even as people whose lives have a bit more magic. Most describe their synesthesia as a gift: It’s like having a bonus sense, like a secret track on an album that only had a few copies made. For me as a food writer and all-around food enthusiast, that means an extra-rich soundtrack for my culinary adventures: I can cook flavors unique to my own experience and share them with others.
Each person’s experience of a place or object may be different, because synesthetic “tastes” seem to be deeply rooted within each of our personal experiences. These differences can be amplified by the layers of flavor in a given environment: While individual objects have their own flavor, these come together into an overall experience, just as individual ingredients come together in a meal. The secret track becomes your secret track: a special part of the world that no one else tastes or feels in exactly the same way. It’s beautiful, confusing, exhausting, and wonderful all at once. As a historian, it makes me wonder how many other cooks have been equally informed by the flavors around them that only they can perceive. Did they share my equal parts frustration and joy with this disconnect? Are there whispers of their culinary exploits, the flavors of their extra sense(s), still to be found in food we eat today?
I love to try to turn the world around me into edible experiments based on texture, color, shape—and, of course, taste. Sometimes, this offers a pleasant sensory surprise (like a vanilla-rhubarb sauerkraut I made), but sometimes, a flavor as it exists in my mind is a far cry from the actual flavor combination itself (see, for example: chocolate cake with raw tomatoes).
Anyone can get a small taste of this world. Perhaps the easiest way to start is just to take a moment before eating to imagine what each food might taste like based on its color, texture, and so on. Then, focus on a nonfood object in your environment. Define its characteristics: What is its color? Shape? Size? What other foods can you think of that share those characteristics? Let’s say the object is a wooden cutting board. Maybe it’s the color of butterscotch or caramel, and might even be a similar shape, like the soft rectangles of a chewy candy. Is the surface hard and smooth, like a table, or soft and warm, like a fleece jacket? Is it warm or cool to the touch? The texture of the wood can help us imagine if we might associate it with a hard caramel candy or a soft and chewy one—or something warm, like caramel sauce. I’ve noticed that regular meditation and mindfulness practice helps, too, perhaps because I’m more tuned in to my surroundings and my connection to them.
I’ve tried this out with a few nonsynesthete friends, and they’ve come up with some surprising and nuanced results. One friend noted they had seen, but never really observed, their table before. The scratches and dents, the smooth finish, the warmth of the wood, all ultimately helped her formulate a bread pudding, the crunch of the top of the dessert contrasting with the warmth and softness underneath. Did she experience synesthesia through making this bread pudding? No. But did sitting down at her table, and drawing a connection between place and taste, help her appreciate the world around her in new ways? Almost certainly.
This article appears in our October 2022 issue.