Sunday, April 15, 2018

My Synesthesia Experience

At some point in college, I had a professor explain synesthesia.  She described it as crossed neurons in specific sensation receptors of the brain, so that people experience senses in different ways than might be considered neurotypical.  The examples she used were associating colors with words or letters, sounds with visuals or numbers with visual space.  I raised my hand and offered that I had synesthesia, to which her response was "bullshit" in her French accent.  What followed was a pretty funny 30 minutes in which she made me eat basically all the food she could find, draw them and then compare the drawings.  Because I taste in shapes. Which is weird.

I don't remember when my synesthesia started, probably because it developed around the time I was learning to communicate, so I never figured out that it was different.  To be honest, it isn't an intrusive thing for me - I don't think many people try and consciously describe tastes very often. When I do, however, people usually look at me like I have three heads.

For me, taste is a visual sensation.  I recognize that what I'm tasting is a mouth thing, but I experience it as sight.  To clarify, I don't actually see stuff (no hallucinating), but the food's taste creates a painting in my head, basically.  For some foods, the visual is 2d and pretty basic - bread is basically just a flat oval towards the bottom of the frame.  Others are 3d or shift as the taste develops.  Wine is especially fun - because the flavor is complex and changes as you keep it in your mouth, the shape can be very dynamic.  Certain flavor profiles are always the same for me.  Salt is a jagged series of points to the top and front of the shape, the saltier the pointier.  Citrus is often a single cone shape at the top.  More umami flavors develop to the back of the shape.

My food preferences are definitely shaped by the visuals.  For instance, dairy tends to be rounded and citrus pointed, and I hate when round shapes intersect with pointed ones.  Lemon ice cream freaks me out, so does coconut seltzer.  Mushrooms are low and super bulbous to me, and their shape feels ominous in a weird way, so I don't eat many mushrooms.  One of my friends likes to tell the story of the time she gave me a cold clementine, and I couldn't eat it because it was way too pointy.

Trying to cook with synesthesia can be challenging - I'll taste what I make and know something's missing, but need to go by the shapes in order to figure it out. Often times, the visual I get will be missing a piece, like a big gap in the shape, and I need to identify a food or flavor profile that will fill that space. Sometimes that's easy, especially if it's food I've prepared, but you should basically never ask me to help you finish a dish you made. You're going to get feedback like, 'make it pointier in the front' or 'it's too low and round in the back', which is helpful to no one.

Synesthesia is pretty common - around 5 percent of adults in the US have it.  A number of novels have been written about it, and more information can be found here

1 comment: