Have you ever wondered what colors people see when they read what you write? If so, you are not (necessarily) insane. And we’re not talking about coloring your fonts to evoke certain responses.
The fact is, some people honestly do see colors when they read – or hear – particular words.
Perhaps even more oddly, some people actually taste specific words. And the flavor(s) they sense are not necessarily related in any reasonable way. For example, we might think that if someone heard the word “orange,” or saw an orange color, that some psychological trick might cause them to think they can taste an orange citrus flavor. But that’s not how it works. There may not be any fathomable connection at all.
This phenomena is called “synesthesia.” Healthline describes synesthesia as “a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses.” Although they are rare, “synesthetes” are not unique.
A study entitled “Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words?” alleges the condition is experienced by 2% to 4% of the population.
While a proven genetic basis for synesthesia remains elusive, the phenomenon tends to run in families, as ∼40% of synesthetes report a first-degree relative with the condition. Pedigree analyses of synesthesia suggest high transmissibility from parent to offspring . . .
I have a confession to make. Through the years I’ve met a handful of people who told me they could taste colors, or the like. They were describing to me their sincere experiences of synesthesia. Unfortunately, since I’d never read about the validity of the phenomenon, I dismissed it. I assumed that the more playful of the advocates were trying to trick me. And I attributed the other cases to people tricking themselves, due to odd imaginations or to gullibility manipulated by the power of suggestion.
Mea culpa. The awkwardness was my fault. I am sorry for any hurt I may have caused. I, of all people, should have accepted their testimony. You see, for many years I was stunned that people voluntarily ate cilantro. To me, the herb tastes like soap – exactly like picking up a bar of soap and taking a big bite. Everyone laughed and me. But one day I met someone whose eyes widened before they declared “me too!”
Britannica explains the problem: ‘for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves.” The frequency of this “genetic quirk” varies by ethnicity. Trust me, if you knew what it tastes like to “us,” you would never force the unpalatable cleanser on anyone but your worst enemy.
You see, because of my dismissal of their revelation, I could very well have caused some people to consider themselves defective, or discourage them from being open in their lives after that time. Healthline describes it this way:
On the other hand, some synesthetes feel that their condition isolates them from others. They may have trouble explaining their sensory experiences because they are very different. Finding communities of other synesthetes online may help ease this feeling of isolation.
Fortunately, on the other hand, “many people seem to enjoy perceiving the world in a different way than the general population.” There are even artistic efforts which attempt to replicate the experience of these unique individuals.
For a simple guide to the numerous types of synesthesia experienced by your fellow human beings (which may or may not parallel animal phenomena), check out this article.
There is a short scene from the film Ratatouille that creatively illustrates the experience of the synesthete, who is, in this case, Remy the rat. (We’ll link to it at the end of the post.)
What about the Inklings?
I don’t believe any member of the Inklings experienced synesthesia. It is possible, of course.
Nevertheless, there are echoes of synesthesia in their works. Consider for a moment the following description of Lewis’ work as a literary critic in C.S. Lewis at Poet’s Corner.
What I want to call attention to here is yet another example of what one might call Lewis’s narrative synaesthesia. . . . I am not arguing that this kind of movement between genres is unique to Lewis – far from it, I think we all do it to some extent, if only in our imaginations rather than on paper. . . .
[Lewis] is a writer whose perceptions just jostle against each other, and are so interconnected that it is almost impossible to separate one strand from the next. These are characteristics more common in the poet than the critic, and not for nothing did Lewis see himself as primarily a poet.
C.S. Lewis could also skillfully energize his fiction with synesthetic elements. An excellent example is found in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. An article on Encyclopedia.com describes it in the following way.
As they sail nearer to Aslan’s country, references to Christ and our heavenly home accumulate quickly. Reepicheep discovers that the water is sweet! Caspian describes the phenomenon with synesthesia, using the terms of one sense experience to describe another: “It – it’s like light more than anything else.”
In the novel itself we see Reepicheep being pulled from the sea, after falling overboard.
“Sweet!” he cheeped. . . . “I tell you the water’s sweet,” said the Mouse. “Sweet, fresh. It isn’t salt.” For a moment no one quite took in the importance of this. But then Reepicheep once more repeated the old prophecy:
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
There is the utter East.
Then at last everyone understood. “Let me have a bucket, Rynelf,” said Drinian [the ship’s captain]. It was handed him and he lowered it and up it came again. The water shone in it like glass.
“Perhaps your Majesty would like to taste it first?” said Drinian to Caspian. The King took the bucket in both hands, raised it to his lips, sipped, then drank deeply and raised his head. His face was changed. Not only his eyes but everything about him seemed to be brighter. “Yes,” he said, “it is sweet. That’s real water, that. I’m not sure that it isn’t going to kill me. But it is the death I would have chosen . . .”
“What do you mean?” asked Edmund.
“It – it’s like light more than anything else,” said Caspian.
“That is what it is,” said Reepicheep. “Drinkable light. We must be very near the end of the world now.”
There was a moment’s silence and then Lucy knelt down on the deck and drank from the bucket. “It’s the loveliest thing I have ever tasted,” she said with a kind of gasp. “But oh – it’s strong. We shan’t need to eat anything now.” And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it, and presently they began to notice another result.
As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu – the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking.
They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone. And the next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it.
The dashing Reepicheep is not the only cute little rodent who experiences reality synesthetically. That should come as no surprise, since Rodentia such as mice like our hero, Remy the rat chef and their cousins like beavers and porcupines constitute about 40% of all mammal species. God alone knows how many rabbits, prairie dogs and pikas share these sensory delights.
The aforementioned scene from Ratatouille offers a “taste” of what life is like for a synesthete. Enjoy.