"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

MORE ABOUT: food, music, senses
  • opossum

    When I hear Ozric Tentacles, I see colors and shapes.

  • Jason

    Sounds like a very interesting experience. I remember watching something on the Discovery Channel about this awhile back and I believe there was some research on how this condition affects their memory. It was shown, though I’m not sure how controlled the research was, that those with synesthesia had a higher than average recollection of events. Certainly not to absolute genius levels, but enough to make an impact upon the data.

  • Jason

    My wife is a synesthete. She was so excited to learn that other people experienced similar relationships. Someone wrote a book about it a few years ago that brought her attention to the condition. Her experience is expressed with numbers and colors having genders ages and love relationships. “9” is the wife of a 44 year old dominate “Red.”

  • Jumblepudding

    Hmm. I don’t know if connecting personalities to numbers counts, I think that comes from Sesame Street. For me, 1 was a playful kid , 2 was a beautiful maiden, 3 was kind of an overeating jerk, 4 was a gallant idealist who wanted to marry 2, and 5 was 2’s domineering father. (notice the family resemblance)six was 5’s wife, 7 was a solitary beatnik poet, and so on it goes up to 100, who was a superhero.

  • Helen

    Letters have their own colours for me. Doesn’t matter if it’s black script on white or vice versa: ‘a’s are yellow, ‘e’s are blue, ‘s’s are leaf green… It’s handy when reading: each word has its own colour-scheme, so I can kinda gloss over the individual letters.

  • http://www.paullamb.wordpress.com Paul Lamb

    Except that A’s are really green and so are E’s. So is S. But O is white, P is blue, D is brown, and so on. I can often see the shapes of sounds, especially when I am listening to symphonic music. Someone put forward the idea that synasthetes invented metaphor.

  • http://www.swmm2000.com red

    Too bad we cannot do this by choice! It would help learning and retention of information.

  • Grace Komasaka

    I have synesthesia with food/word relationships. As a child, I thought all people experienced language with taste. At age 32 learning Japanese, I realized that the connections were not being made with the new language (unless a Japanese word sounds similar to an English word). Also as I get older (52 now) a new thing started happening: sometimes the related word comes into my head when I’m eating (cottage cheese … “spelling, spelling, spelling”). Have changes in synesthesiac’s experience been noted anywhere?

  • Pingback: Rorschach Exposed! Doctor Posts Test Secrets on Wikipedia | Discoblog | Discover Magazine()

  • texaz

    ur fucking retarded

  • Tamsin

    I have a word-food synesthesia and I don’t know anyone else other than my mum that has it. Any words that I hear make me think of different foods and sometimes taste them too (Lucy = ring-shaped jelly sweets, Mario = orange smarties etc… no sense at all!) Does anyone else this? And why do so many things make me think of carrots?? Lol. Some seem to make sense (I guess?) like fudge is obviously fudge, but chicken is actually potato snacks in the shape of chickens, being roast chicken flavour. Don’t ask me to explain, I don’t get it, I just have it.

  • wharfrateric

    I had instances of synthesia under the influence of hallucinogenic substances.
    LSD would do it.
    Hear a sound, or music, see a color or mix of colors…instead of what was right in front of me. It’s as if the optic and auditory nerves were crossed.

  • Wong

    I’m special!

  • Kim

    Tamsin – I too have word-food synethesia – have had it since I was a kid. Some words make me crave foods, as does the way some people talk. Every time I talked to one friend, the sound of the words in her mouth make me crave peanut butter. The word “abrogate” makes me want divinity candy. “Scholar” makes me crave cottage cheese, “speak” = salami, “portrait” = chocolate ice cream, and so on. I have no idea why. A girl in grade school had a gravely voice with very chubby cheeks and whenever she spoke in class, I would think of Butterfinger candy bars. I’ve only recently discovered that this is synesthesia – glad I’m not alone in this!

  • http://youtube.com/cnasweetpeas47 nicole

    i have synesthesia.. the letter/color kind… its the simplest version i think. i thought i was DIFFERENT, but when i told my friends about it, instead of being freaked out they said they experienced the same thing! are they just pretending, or is it getting to be much more common??? sigh.

  • Leah

    I have developed a strange problem where I have a persistant taste of dishwashing detergent, fresh bread tasts mouldy and burnt chicken tastes undercooked. Does anyone know if there is a medical condition that might cause this?

  • Kendra

    I’m sitting here, stunned. Especially those of you who wrote you have the word-food kind. Ever since I was little, certain words would evoke the thought of certain foods – even though the words had nothing to do with food. I’ve never told anyone about this – even my family. The word ‘brindle” has always evoked the thought of carrots. The word “language” evokes thoughts of bologna (yes, really). If pressed, I could not tell you ALL the words that evoke thoughts of foods – it just happens when it happens (and the connection does not change – the same words always evoke the same food thoughts). And it’s not a word or two. There’s probably enough to fill an entire page. Maybe I should start writing them down.

  • http://fashionneondress.blogspot.com fashion clothing pics

    Aw, this was a really nice post. In concept I wish to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and actual effort to make an excellent article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and on no account seem to get one thing done.

  • Joan

    It is so comforting to know I’m not alone here. I have had this since I was a little girl! I have word/food synesthesia. I can’t remember all of them, since it’s mainly contextual but the ones I can recall are:
    Special – tuna fish on toasted white bread
    Complicated – hostess chocolate cupcake with white icing
    the name Peter – peanut butter, just a random jar lol
    Pound (like the weight, NOT the currency) – red and green/christmas plain M&M’s in a glass bowl, the sound of someone scooping them up with their hand accompanies
    Cake – the word turns my stomach
    Fault – waffles
    Waffles – gives me a dry mouth


  • Ashley

    Hey, I know this is not like an exact science or anything perfected yet, but I am really interested in knowing more about it. Is is possible to acquire Synesthesia like as you get older? I don’t recall ever associating sounds with anything other than just sounds until about two years ago. There was no traumatizing brain injury or anything, I just started to notice being almost just extra aware of the sights and sounds around me. Then I came to realize that the reason I was experiencing these things so clearly was that I was “seeing” them through more than just one of my senses.
    One example, I have my eyes closed, but I am fully conscious and awake: my friend knocks on my door, an even though my eyes are both fully closed, I see a wave radiate from the source of the sound almost as if the sound were like a drop of water being dripped into a still pond. It was a dark red and almost hollow sound that radiated outward from the source in wave-like rings.
    Is this something I should be concerned about? I think its a little cool, but whenever I think about things messing with my brain, I can’t help but feel a little nervous.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

See More

Collapse bottom bar