Think of a concept, taste it on your tongue
New Scientist, 22 November 2006
insight into one of the most intriguing word-associated conditions may
have been found, with the discovery that, for one type of synaesthesia
at least, the meaning of a word is key to the sensation experienced.
some people, the mere mention of a word can bring a very specific taste
to the tongue. "Mountain" might elicit cold bacon, for instance, while
"Michelle" might conjure egg whites.
People who experience this
have a rare condition known as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, and for
many of them every word comes with an appended taste. For some, even
when the exact word cannot be recalled, the taste of the word is there.
tend to experience the same taste for words with similar sounds. In one
subject, for instance, not only does the word "mince" call up a mince
flavour, but "prince" and "cinema" do too. This suggests that the taste
is somehow tied to the sound or the spelling of the word.
Tip of the tongueJulia
Simner at the University of Edinburgh and her colleague, Jamie Ward, at
University College London, both in the UK, showed 96 pictures of
obscure items such as a gazebo, a geisha or a metronome to six subjects
with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia.
In all but one subject they
managed to induce a "tip of the tongue" condition, where the person
recognised the object but could not remember what it was called, what
letter its name started with or how many syllables the elusive word
had. The researchers found that these individuals could still identify
what taste the item elicited. One woman, for instance, unable to come
up with the word "gramophone", reported tasting Dutch chocolate,
precisely the flavour that the word is associated with for her.
shows that it is the meaning of the word - not the sound or spelling -
that elicits the taste sensation in these people, Simner says. She
suspects the associations begin in childhood.
Phil Merikle, at
the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, has carried out research
with synaesthetes that experience numbers as colours. He found that
those doing simple arithmetic can compute faster when they see the
colour they associate with the correct answer. "It's the concept that
elicits the synaesthetic experience," he agrees.