Some people see, taste, hear and feel things rest of us don' t. James Wannerton tastes words: "New York is runny eggs. London is extremely lumpy mashed potatoes." Carol Steen sees every letter with a color: "Z is color of beer, a light ale."
For Carol Crane, music is felt: "I always feel guitars on my ankles and violins on my face." Other people experience smells when exposed to shapes, or hear sounds inside taste. And for some, numbers have color, sounds have smell, and words have flavor. Music is not only heard, it's seen and tasted--the list goes on.
Neurologist Richard Cytowic explores this surreal world of " synesthesia" in his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. " Synesthesia means joined sensation, and some people are born with two or more of their senses hooked together," explains Cytowic.
The most common form of synesthesia is when a person see letters in different colors instead of seeing black ink letters as black. Although people differ from each other in what colors letters are, colors usually remain same for each individual throughout their life.
Depending on what food they taste, other synesthetes experience taste as a shape, like a triangle or circle. Another person sees orange when feeling pain.
For New York artist Carol Steen, synesthesia is inspiration. She sees shapes and colors when listening to music or receiving acupuncture-images that she transforms into works of art. "It's like putting on sunglasses and being able to see world through sunglasses," she says. Once, when Steen injured her leg while hiking, all she saw was a world bathed in orange.
And, Carol Crane does more than simply hear a concert. She physically experiences each instrument within a different part of her body.
Still another person hears a sound that tastes like pickles. For as long as he can recall, words have triggered part of Wannerton's brain that responds to tastes and flavors. "I can remember being in a big school assembly hall listening to Lords Prayer," he says, "and it was while listening to that, I used to get flavor after flavor coming in. It was mostly bacon."
Wannerton says his synesthesia causes him some discomfort in his personal life. "I've had girlfriends with names I couldn't stand saying. Tracey is a very strong flavored name and it's flaky- pastry. Whenever I was in her company, that's what I thought of constantly." And at end of day, he suffers from sensory overload. But still he doesn't want a cure. "I've had it since I can remember, and taking it away--I wouldn't like thought of that," he says.
What's going on inside synesthete's brain?
Dr. Vilyanur Ramachandran, a neurologist who studies quirks of brain, was scanning brain of McAllister, a man who sees music. During imaging, music being played stimulates not only McAllister's audio cortex, but also his visual cortex. "The visual area lit up in him," says Ramachandran, "so you know there was neurological activity in visual region of his brain even though he was only listening to music." McAllister describes it as a "Fantasia-like experience: explosions of color all over place. A bright flash of lavender getting dimmer and dimmer; now we're going over a pink staircase, some lavender violins. It looks very beautiful."