Monday, April 20, 2009

Synesthesia: When Senses Collide

Imagine if every time you saw someone called Derek you got a strong taste of earwax in your mouth. It happens to James Wannerton, who runs a pub. Derek is one of his regulars. Another regular's name gives him the taste of wet diapers. For some puzzling reason, James's sense of sound and taste are intermingled.

"One of my earliest memories was being at school, listening to the Lord's Prayer and getting flavor after flavor coming in. It was mostly bacon. It wasn't unpleasant. "For me," Wannerton said, "nearly everything has a flavor, including countries. You'll be happy to know that the United States tastes like Starbursts. This room, however, tastes distinctly of mashed carrots. I have no idea why."

Julian Asher can hear colors. Others can taste shapes, smell sounds, feel smells. It's called synesthesia, a truly bizarre condition in which our senses become intermingled, and has baffled scientists for decades.

While academics debate the cause of synesthesia - whether its roots lie in the physiology of the mind or the chemistry of it - one thing is certain: It's all about connections. Connections between sensations, connections between brain regions and, perhaps most importantly, connections between individuals.


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