I Drank Colors at a Synesthesia Happy Hour

Exploring a neurological condition through sense-stimulating cocktails.

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Sep 18 2014, 2:00pm

Image: Eddie Andress

A jet black cocktail is handed to me. I take a sip, concentrate, and try to ignore the pond-water consistency. Citrus, possibly; gin, definitely—but no one cares about that. They want to know what colour I can taste. Orange? No wait, yellow? No, orange. I think.

This is a synaesthetic cocktail, created by KillGrief & Comfort for ArtNeuro's inaugural event at Stories Bar in East London on Tuesday. Set up by postgraduates at Queen Mary's University and King's College London, ArtNeuro aims to explore the world of neuroscience through the visual arts, creating unique experiences to bring science research into the public domain. 

Tonight's event focuses on synaesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that causes people to associate one sensory experience with another; in this case, taste with vision. Participants are given three black cocktails and asked to assign a colour to the taste. The results are collated and displayed on a colour wheel board, and at the end of the night the ingredients will be revealed.

Image: Eddie Andress

Supatra Marsh and Diliana Pecheva, ArtNeuro's founder and co–curator respectively, tell me they want to "get people excited about science." Half the collective are artists and half scientists. Synaesthesia as the topic for their first event was "the obvious choice."

Synaesthesia is a brain processing condition in which stimulation of one sense stimulates an automatic response by another. For example, numbers may be experienced as colours, sounds as tastes, etc. There are in fact over 60 different known types of synaesthesia and representatives of five have been invited along tonight.

The first I meet is Michael, a rare 'ticker-tape' synaesthete. His condition means that, as I talk, he sees text of my speech scrolling along beneath my face. A researcher at Goldsmiths, he uses fMRI brain scanning to study self-perception and his research includes 'mirror touch' synaesthetes, who feel touch they see on others. If they see someone slapped, they will feel pain in their own face. It can be debilitating but studying it could help us understand our sense of self and bring us closer to solutions for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's.

I don't know how you remember stuff without tasting something.

Brain scans like those Michael does also mean that synaesthesia, once questioned, is now accepted as a real condition. FMRI shows differences in the brain activity of synaesthetes; they really do experience the world differently.

All of tonight's synaesthetes are keen to stress that it's a difference, not a disorder. Felicity describes herself as a 'girl next door' synaesthete. She's the most common type: a grapheme-colour synaesthete, which means she sees numbers as colours. She tells me she doesn't remember the day she realised she was synaesthetic, but the day she realised other people sadly weren't.

The author with James Wannerton, president of the UK Synaesthesia Association. Image: Eddie Andress

James agrees. "I don't know how you remember stuff without tasting something," he says. "To me, you are the abnormal one." James tastes sound, words, and colour. Now head of the UK Synaesthesia Association, as a child he was told he simply had an overactive imagination. School became a "pointless exercise" as the text he was made to read "triggered an overwhelming barrage of sound and taste." He tells me there's really no point him tasting the cocktails; the black would make his taste uniform—"that of fruit pastilles without the sugar."

I'm wary of being insensitive in my fascination with these synaesthetes, but they're happy to answer questions all night. Over the course of the evening I learn a lot about the brain and perception. I drink a lot of cocktails. All in the name of science, obviously.

I fear, however, that the cocktails may be undermining the scientific accuracy of the results on display. Colour-taste correlations definitely become less distinct as the night goes on. There are some trends in the results and I am told I fall in the majority colour bracket for each of the three cocktails. I guess my perception is depressingly normal.