Archives For Senses

Delicious Words

August 19, 2021 — 15 Comments

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.

Synesthetic Rodents

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.

One of the earliest lessons children learn is how many senses the human being possesses. You know the answer off the top of your head, right? Five. But, apparently, that’s no longer correct. Oh, you may think I must be including that long-time poser, extrasensory perception (ESP), which purports to be a sense of sorts beyond the five we all experience. If you thought that . . . sorry, but you are wrong again.

We all agree on the basic five: the faculties of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. To this list, science has recently added several other senses we experience. They’re not actually new; Adam and Eve knew them too (with the possible exception of nociception). They actually make sense (in the other use of the word), as well. Here they are:

Proprioception – perceiving where your body parts are relative to one another, and the strength of effort being employed in movement

Thermoception – sensing temperature

Equilibrioception – perception of balance

Chronoception – sensing the passage of time

Interoception – feeling internal needs such as hunger and thirst

Nociception – experiencing pain

More expansive lists exist as well. Some are discussed online at The United Kingdom’s Sensory Trust. The Trust is devoted to “sensory design . . . [using] nature and the outdoors to improve the health and wellbeing of people living with disability and health issues.” They describe how “neurological classification” can result in numbers up to fifty-three. (It makes one long for the simplicity of the past when we followed Aristotle’s citation of only five.)

C.S. Lewis’ Celebration of Life

You can pick up nearly any one of Lewis’ essays or fiction, open to any page of his autobiography, read almost any of his letters, and you will see his love for nature. And Lewis is often quite vivid in his description of his encounter with God’s creation. The sights, sounds and smells he describes make the depictions real. Consider his description of Tash, the “god” worshipped by the Calormenes, in The Last Battle.

[King Tirian said] “What foul smell is this?”

“Phew!” gasped Eustace. “It’s like something dead. Is there a dead bird somewhere about? And why didn’t we notice it before?”

With a great upheaval Jewel [the unicorn] scrambled to his feet and pointed with his horn. “Look!” he cried. “Look at it! Look, look!” Then all six of them saw; and over all their faces there came an expression of uttermost dismay.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was gray and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. . . . It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

[They] watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight.

From a more philosophical, even metaphysical perspective, Lewis ponders the senses experienced by angels in his poem, “On Being Human.” He describes the differences between how angels and humanity experience God’s creation. Lewis suggests that in exchange for their unblurred perception of cosmic reality, they lack the more mundane (i.e. earthly) experience of physical perception of creation.*

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it, all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
—An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang—can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot,
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges—
An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us, like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charm’d interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

This notion that we comprehend things the angels cannot—for example, the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit—is expressed in the spirit of the First Epistle of Peter. These wondrous miracles are “things into which angels long to look.”

As amazing as our human senses are, we should never delude ourselves into thinking they are infallible. Far from it. As precious as they are, due to our fallen nature, they possess two shortcomings. First, they may misperceive reality. Such is the case with allodynia, in which a person “feels pain from non-painful stimuli,” such as a light touch or a cool temperature.⁑

The second limitation comes in the obvious fact of our finite nature. We are simply incapable of perceiving, much less processing, all the information that washes over us. Perhaps you would join me in identifying with C.S. Lewis’ description of himself in A Grief Observed.

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them-never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?

The number of human senses is not important. Our recognition of their divine source is, however, of eternal import.


* Chris Armstrong, Senior Editor of the Christian History Institute, wrote an exceptional article on the importance of our senses. Citing C.S. Lewis’ “On Being Human,” he declares our senses are the only means by which we can “know God.”

Nor is sense-knowledge about God through his Creation, second-class knowledge. Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way—to the advantage of the latter.

The Christian History Institute publishes the exceptional Christian History magazine, which is offered for a simple donation. They also provide free, downloadable copies of past issues. I strongly encourage your support of this superb ministry.

⁑ From Medical News Today. “Some people feel extreme pain from something minor, such as a paper cut. Feeling increased pain or being hypersensitive to mild pain is called hyperalgesia. Individuals with allodynia, however, feel pain when something is ordinarily painless.”

kellerSome are born deaf. Others lose their hearing due to accident or illness. Still others find our hearing failing us gradually, as it is displaced by the persistent presence of that unwelcome visitor, tinnitus.

As I was pondering the slow decay of my own hearing, I recalled one of C.S. Lewis’ most brilliant insights.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Problem of Pain)

Even as I am concerned about the inevitable decline of my hearing—and more so, my vision—I try to conscientiously follow my wife’s guidance about vitamins and behaviors that will keep these senses around as long as possible.

At the same time, being a realist, I have decided to disengage my emotions from the matter as much as I am able, and simply accept the unavoidable. In fact, I have learned to enjoy some of the inaccuracies of hearing that I more and more often experience.

Hardly a day passes when I do not get a good laugh out of something I misheard. What I mean is that my brain translates the garbled sounds into actual words that constitute some sense that is in reality nonsensical. It hasn’t cause any problems yet, so I just smile or chuckle. If the mishearing is especially humorous, I sometimes share it with my family.

Recently, I smiled when my pastor went on about how great “Lutheran circuses” are, and how important it was that we invite others to attend our “Lutheran worship circuses” (services). That substitution was easy to recognize; it’s far funnier when I mishear something and what I think they said makes an odd sense that could almost be true . . . but is actually ludicrous.

I don’t share my personal way of dealing with the weakening of my sense of hearing with the intention of belittling the seriousness of a cross many have to bear as their lives are detrimentally impacted by these afflictions.

The Original Plan

Certainly, the impairment of any of the senses God has given us is cause for sadness. After all, when our first parents were created, their senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste were undiminished. That’s the way that the Lord intended for us to enjoy the rest of his creation.

Actually, some people argue that there are seven senses, adding two that do make sense:

Vestibular – the sense of balance, perceiving our body in relationship to gravity and movement (equilibrioception)

Proprioception – the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, particularly as it pertains to movement (kinesthesia)

Another source declares there are nine senses, adding to the palette

Thermoception – the sensation of the presence or absence of heat

Nociception – “nonconscious perception of nerve or tissue damage”

I personally imagine that when “the day of the Lord” arrives, and we witness the restoration of a new heaven and a new earth, that our restored bodies* will possess a myriad of other senses we are not even capable of fathoming at this present moment.

Yes, it is a tragedy when people have to live with their senses crippled. This is especially true when it is the young who are afflicted. To be born without sight or hearing rightly seems like a curse to many. The testimony of Helen Keller, who actually lost her vision and hearing at the age of nineteen months, illustrates how the human spirit is capable of transcending even these severe limitations.**

In 1952, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a young teacher at the Manchester Royal School for the Deaf.

The work you are engaged in is a magnificent one (much in my mind because, as it falls out, I’ve just been reading Helen Keller’s book): hard, no doubt, but you can never be attacked by the suspicion that it is not worth doing. There are jolly few professions of which we can say that.

The translation of great stories into a limited vocabulary will, incidentally, be a wonderful discipline: you will learn a lot about thought and language in general before you are done. I hope you will sometimes let me know how you get on. God bless you.

In writing this column I learned something of which I had been unaware. Keller was also a poet.

And, while I’m a poor judge of verse, I found my brief exploration of hers to be moving. However, here is a review from The New York Times which declares, “Modern psychology cannot account for Miss Keller nor explain the psychic sense by which she apprehends the minutest phases of a beauty she has never witnessed.”

You can download a copy of the book The Song of the Stone Wallhere.

Across the meadow, by the ancient pines,

Where I, the child of life that lived that spring,

Drink in the fragrances of the young year,

The field-wall meets one grimly squared and straight

Beyond it rise the old tombs, gray and restful,

And the upright slates record the generations.

Stiffly aslant before the northern blasts.

Like the steadfast, angular beliefs

Of those whom they commemorate, the head-stones stand,

Cemented deep with moss and invisible roots.

The rude inscriptions charged with faith and love,

Graceless as Death himself, yet sweet as Death,

Are half erased by the impartial storms.

As children lisping words which move to laughter

Are themselves poems of unconscious melody,

So the old gravestones with their crabbed muse

Are beautiful for their halting words of faith,

Their groping love that had no gift of song.

But all the broken tragedy of life

And all the yearning mystery of death

Are celebrated in sweet epitaphs of vines and violets.

Helen Keller’s life is a witness to the fact that God can intervene in our brokenness and make us whole. It is also a foretaste of that complete restoration that awaits disciples of Jesus on the Last Day.

And one more thing her life proves is the truth of C.S. Lewis’ insight that in our suffering we become more attuned to our need, and God “shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

_____

The image at the top of the page shows Helen Keller as she looked on the day of her graduation from college.

* This transition from these fragile and perishing bodies to the new is described here. And, here’s a link to a readable essay on the subject of the resurrected or new body Christians are promised.

** Helen Keller found hope in the good news of Jesus Christ, albeit through the extremely peculiar teachings of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen Keller’s book My Religion is available for free download here.