Food for Thought: Synesthesia's Effect on Taste

What if simply looking at a can of paint made you taste coffee with cream?

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Some things never change—for instance, my eternal love for The Simpsons. As a kid, my favorite character was Ralph Wiggum because of his quirky, obscure references and non sequiturs. Picture Ralph, eating glue and shouting “I’m a brick!”. But now, as a fully functioning, grown-up member of society, I interpret, rather than just laugh. I recently watched a classic episode for the umpteenth time, and it made me wonder why some kids actually do eat glue. So I did some good ol’ fashioned Googling. Turns out it’s a symptom of pica, a disorder connected to autism characterized by an appetite for inedible substances, such as chalk, clay and metal. Now, when I watch The Simpsons, I’m concerned.

Maybe I’m overthinking things. Perhaps, instead of tasting glue, Ralph tasted white. And that would be something entirely different altogether. That would be synesthesia, a rare neurological condition that causes the sensory messages in the brain to cross-wire.

In short, stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary experience in another. The cross-wiring component of synesthesia is similar to the cross-communication theory that explains foot fetishes. As explained here, the parts of the brain that correspond to the sexual arousal (genitalia) and motor function (feet) are adjacent to each other and can be cross-wired.

There are several different types of synesthesia—e.g., grapheme-color synesthesia (when someone associates letters of the alphabet and numbers with colors), sound-to-color synesthesia, number-to-form synesthesia and personification—but only one that correlates with food.

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is a rare form in which language will result in a specific taste or smell. The word and the resulting taste experience are not always necessarily concurrent, but this study suggests a recurring correlation among patients between the sounds of the words and the sounds of various foods, e.g., “Tony” tastes like macaroni, or words with the sound “aye” taste like bacon.

So what could go wrong when taste and sight correlate? Does this affect one’s interpretation of food positively or negatively?

Personally, I’m torn: is this condition a blessing or a curse?

If a young synesthete is unable to differentiate between what they think something takes like versus what it actually tastes like, could they potentially be at risk? What if they see something toxic but mentally translates its taste to sweet, and they actually eat it? Even though I know that insulation is actually fiberglass and therefore toxic, I may view it as appetizing, based on its similarity to fluffy, pink cotton candy. Same goes for mucilage, which makes me think of honey; dark-red coat buttons, which remind me of pepperoni; and cans of off-white paint, which look like vanilla milkshakes. But the important thing is that I don’t actually taste these visuals, and I (unlike synesthetes, theoretically) know they’d taste awful.

On the other hand, just think about how immensely cool synesthesia could be. You wouldn’t just taste colors, you’d see flavors! The possibilities are endless. A chef with the disorder could invent flavor combinations that others had never even thought of. For example, Heston Blumenthal is a chef with grapheme-color synesthesia. Although this form of the condition is unrelated to taste, his crossed senses (“…How we find bass notes are chocolatey, malty; high-pitched notes are sharp, lemony”) do alter his perception of taste.

It wouldn’t be all fun and games, though. One study demonstrates the effect of synesthesia on sufferers’ social lives. Eating out? A total disaster. “You serve me food on a blue plate—it just totally messes up the eating sensation,” says James Wannerton, president of the U.K. Synaesthesia Association.

Yet synesthesia provides the palate with limitless, creative, delicious opportunities. I can only imagine what it’s like to taste purple, and then associate it with a food. At the very least, the new focus on synesthesia brings attention to the fact that we can use our senses to influence our perception of food. It’s a discussion well worth having. As we all know, the association between visuals and taste play a key part in food design and marketing. It’s no surprise that businesses like McDonald’s use the color red to increase appetite. But the connection is food for thought.

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