"Seeing" Sounds and "Hearing" Food: The Science of Synesthesia

By Boonsri Dickinson | May 29, 2009 10:06 am

food.jpgWhen Julian Asher hears a violin, he sees red wine. However, this Imperial College London professor isn’t crazy: One out of every thousand people is said to experience this neurological condition called synesthesia. It causes two senses to blend together, so that stimulation of one sense triggers an entirely different one, involuntarily and simultaneously.

Here’s a theory on how it works: When one region of a person’s brain talks with another region that is wired to perceive a certain sense, the pathways cross and allow the person to experience “crossed senses.” Synesthesia is different for everyone who has it— some people claim they can smell a sound, while others hear a color, and some can even “taste” words.

The latest research on the topic has come out of Oxford University, where scientists found that people hear low-pitched sounds when they see large, round images. Experimental psychologist Charles Spence asked twelve “non-synesthetes” if they could identify whether an image or tone came first, in order to see how “soft” or “sharp” sounds registered in their brains. The volunteers associated high-pitched sound with angular shapes, and recognized low-pitched sounds when they were shown large dots.

In the same way, the “soft” or “sharp” sound of words are thought to enhance the taste of food. In a 1929 experiment, people chose the word “kiki” for the orange, angular shape and “bouba” for the purple, rounded shape. To add in a culinary element, researchers are now working with chef Heston Blumenthal to see how tasting words could lead to a new food language. The chef gave subjects two plates of food, then asked them to describe each in sounds, hoping their taste buds could evoke a synesthesia-inspired vocabulary.

People described brie as “very maluma” and cranberries as “very takete.”

So does this mean “yummy” still works for pizza?

Related Content:
Discoblog: Scrawny and Buff People Hear Things Differently
DISCOVER: Are We All Synesthetes?

Image: flickr/ Empire Creative

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