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November 25, 2006

BehindTheMedspeak: Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia


Donald G. McNeil, Jr.'s November 23, 2006 front-page New York Times story about the extraordinarily rare individuals who involuntarily "taste" words when they hear them was fascinating.

Here's the article.

    For Rare Few, Taste Is in the Ear of the Beholder

    To some ears, the following Thanksgiving menu sounds — and tastes — absolutely scrumptious:

    A plump bird stuffed with Stephanie and served with giblet civil, accompanied by marshmallow-topped sweet Londons, a bowl of performs with pearl unions and a serving of steamed microscopes. And, for dessert, city a la mode, followed by a confession.

    If only you were a lexical-gustatory synaesthete, you could savor those words.

    People who have synaesthesia — a rare condition running in families — have joined senses. They may “see” letters, numbers or musical notes as colors — a capital A will be tinged red, or 5 plus 2 will equal blue, or B. B. King will play the yellows.

    A rarer few, said Julia Simner, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Edinburgh, involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them. In a study, “The Taste of Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the journal Nature today, Dr. Simner reported finding only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.

    The condition may sound enviable, but it can be unpleasant. One subject, she said, hates driving because road signs flood his mouth with the flavors of things like pistachio ice cream and earwax.

    And Dr. Simner has yet to spot a pattern.

    For example, the word “mince” makes one subject taste mincemeat, but so do rhyming words like “prince.” Another subject, hearing “castanets,” tastes tuna fish. Another tastes only proper names: John is his corn bread, William his potatoes.

    They cannot say why, she said. There is no Proustian madeleine moment — the flavors just come.

    But not all flavors. When Dr. Simner checked her word list for today’s specialties, she came up with the salivary triggers for the meal above. “Stephanie” linked to sage stuffing, “civil” to gravy, “London” to potato, “perform” to peas, “union” to onions, “microscope” to carrots, “city” to mince pie and “confess” to coffee.

    But, alas, no turkey. Or cranberries.

    “I can give you a whole fry-up English breakfast,” she said apologetically. “But not a Thanksgiving dinner.”


The best book ever written about synaesthesia — and a superb book by any measure — is the legendary Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria's classic, "The Mind of a Mnemonist", first published in English in 1968.

I guarantee you'll enjoy it — or I will cheerfully refund every penny you paid.

As always, the Ferrous-Clad™ bookofjoe guarantee means you can count on it — and take it to the bank.


Bonus: enjoy the full text of Luria's book in its original Russian — absolutely free — right here.

November 25, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Ever hear of the book, "Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How synesthetes Color their Worlds". It's by Patricia Lynne Duffy, a synesthete herself.

Posted by: praise mbeka | Nov 25, 2006 11:23:15 PM

Facinating. It took me about twenty-five years to realize that "seeing" music with colors, shapes and textures was something out of the ordinary. Here's a website where people share their Synaesthesia experiences:


Keep up the excellent blogging work. Reading your blog tastes great, is less filling.

Posted by: Brian | Nov 25, 2006 2:34:53 PM

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