The Man Who Tastes Sounds
Things get difficult when you're a synaesthete and the name of a friend's wife tastes like sick.
Image: James Wannerton
Tomato ketchup, salty ham, elastic bands, and bakewell tart are just four of the many flavours that James Wannerton tastes during our interview. Having only agreed to speak to me because my name, Kate, tastes like a creamy bar of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut chocolate, Wannerton is repeatedly distracted by his taste buds throughout our conversation.
Wannerton has a rare form of synaesthesia known as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, meaning that his taste and hearing senses do not operate independently of each other. As a result, for Wannerton every word and every sound has a distinctive flavour. Although the words and sounds do not usually bear any relation to what they taste like, the flavours are always consistent; "speak", for example, has tasted like bacon for as long as Wannerton can remember.
"Words and sounds go 'bink, bink, bink' in my mouth all the time, like a light flickering on and off," he explained. "Some tastes are very quick but others can last for hours and make me crave that particular thing; I'll feel distracted until I actually eat it."
Wannerton believes he has been a synaesthete all his life, and that he inherited his condition from his mother who "sees days of the week as colours." Synaesthesia in general is not uncommon; it is found in roughly four percent of the population and usually takes the form of a connection between letters and colours known as grapheme-colour synaesthesia, where, for example, those with the condition innately "know" that "A" is red. Wannerton's unusual form, however, meant that it took decades before it was seriously addressed.
"When I was ten, my parents took me to a family doctor as I was getting distracted by flavours when sitting exams—the sound of pencils rolling off desks would taste like wholegrain bread with big lumps in it, and it would put me off my work," he said. "The doctor told them it was part of growing up, that I had an overactive imagination and would grow out of it. During my teenage years I was told I was just attention-seeking. I didn't even learn that synaesthesia existed until I was 20."
Eleven years later, scientists began to gain an interest in Wannerton's condition. In 1991, he was transferred to the Maudsley Hospital in London, which deals with head trauma, for testing. A few years later he received the funding to have an fMRI scan.
"I can remember feeling very apprehensive when it was first suggested that I should have a brain scan," Wannerton told me. "I had an irrational but very real fear that if I went into the machine I'd somehow lose my synaesthesia."
"The sound of the scanner had the taste and texture of a very hard, raw potato."
While the fMRI took place, Wannerton was made to watch a small screen which showed a series of videos and still images of people, places, words, and food. "The sound of the scanner had the taste and texture of a very hard, raw potato. I have no idea how long I was actually in there but it seemed like an age," he reminisced.
Several non-synaesthetes acting as control subjects had been through the same scan prior to him, during which they were shown identical videos and images.
"The results proved that my brain reacted in a different way to the brains of the non-synaesthete controls," according to Wannerton. "It was clear that I had an extra link running between the part of my brain that deals with sound and the part that deals with taste perception. As it reacted to the sounds and images while in the scanner, this extra neural link lit up like a Christmas tree."
Receiving the results of the scan was a pivotal moment for Wannerton as it finally proved to him that his condition was real. "I gained a lot more confidence in speaking openly about being a synaesthete—it led me to become the president of the UK Synaesthesia Association."
"I've always preferred my mum to my dad, because my mum tastes better—he tastes like processed peas and she tastes like ice cream."
Interested in gaining a scientific perspective, I discussed Wannerton's condition with Dr Nicolas Rothen, a visiting research fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at Sussex University who is now carrying out research into synaesthesia and memory at the University of Bern in Switzerland.
According to Rothen, studying the differences between synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes can reveal a lot about the human brain.
Studies into synaesthesia are also undertaken to discover more about binding (or memory) problems. "There is evidence that synaesthetes, at least colour synaesthetes, seem to have a memory advantage for various specific materials," Rothen said. "By studying those with synaesthesia, we can learn about what leads to that specific memory advantage and use it to draw conclusions about the general population."
However, Rothen is unconvinced that an MRI scan is the most accurate way to detect synaesthesia. "Every single brain is as different from another human brain as different people's fingerprints are," he explained. "As Wannerton was the only person with his condition being tested, it is difficult to draw strong conclusions from the scan's results."
Although research into synaesthesia has been popular since the late 1990s, Rothen admits that elements of the condition remain mysterious. "There are many benefits to having synaesthesia and we do not know much about the disadvantages," he said.
In 2010, he, along with Professor Doctor Beat Meier of the University of Bern, carried out a study which involved testing the prevalence of grapheme-colour synaesthesia among fine art students, to ascertain a link between synaesthesia and creativity. For the experiment, Rothen and Meier recruited 99 art students from the art college of Zurich in Switzerland and 96 "ordinary" people, then used behavioural and phenomenological measures to test them.
The pair found that seven of the art students had a version of grapheme-colour synaesthesia, compared to just two of the control subjects. The study concluded that there is indeed a connection between synaesthesia and creativity. Wannerton truly believes this. "Many artistic people—like David Hockney, Lady Gaga, and Billy Joel—claim to have synaesthesia. I do feel more creative because of it," he told me.
Wannerton said he has "special powers" as a result of his condition—for instance, his ability to navigate the whole of the London Underground by taste alone. According to Wannerton, Oxford Circus tastes of cake: "If I want to travel north, the stop after cake should taste like ham, so if it doesn't, I know I've gone wrong." The lines have tastes for him too—the Bakerloo Line tastes of jam roly-poly, the Victoria Line of candle wax, and the District Line of "a kind of fatty, horrible lamb dish."
However, having synaesthesia has its downsides. Wannerton cannot enjoy many ordinary activities, such as going to the cinema or watching TV, "because there are so many noises." Even going for a meal is a struggle; as Wannerton disassociates taste with food, he rarely gets hungry. "I don't care about the taste of food—what I look for is texture," he said. "I like crunchy food like crisps and also things that are either very hot or very cold. Flavour is meaningless."
It is also "unbearably annoying" when a word triggers a strong taste that Wannerton can't identify. Wannerton struggled for many years with the word "expect". "I couldn't work out what its savoury flavour was," he said. It wasn't until he tried a Marmite crisp for the first time that his brain "pinged". "I remembered that when I was in infant school, there used to be a tuck shop where you could buy these Marmite-like OXO crisps—and that is what 'expect' tastes like to me."
Having synaesthesia has even affected Wannerton's personal relations. He has had to move jobs in the past because he hasn't liked the flavour of a colleague's name, and he admitted that it would be difficult for him to date a woman whose name wasn't tasty "as I'd be less tolerant with them." He spoke of the difficulties of his close friend's wife's name tasting "like sick": "She's a nice person and I like her, but I can't disguise it."
He added, "I've always preferred my mum to my dad because my mum tastes better—he tastes like processed peas and she tastes like ice cream. She sometimes gives me brain freeze."
Despite its disadvantages, Wannerton would not want his synaesthesia removed. "Although it sounds unusual to think that the name Jackie tastes like liquorice, Blackpool like fruit pastilles, and vodka like very fine granules of soil, my condition is so much a part of me that without it I would lose my sense of self," he said.