Why do some people taste colours?

Imagine being able to taste sounds or smell colours. This may sound bizarre, but it is actually very real for some people.

Imagine being able to taste colours or smell sounds. This may sound bizarre, but it is actually very real for some people.

Technically speaking, the ability to taste colours is caused by a condition called synaesthesia, which happens when any two of our senses cross over. One synaesthete might experience a bitter taste when they see the colour purple, while another could smell roses whenever they hear a certain music note.

Curious about this fascinating condition (and wondering if you might even have it yourself)? We’ve gathered together some interesting facts to give you the full story.

There are many different types of synaesthesia

The funny thing about synaesthesia is that there are so many different ways it can be experienced (there are 80 types to be exact).

A common type is when letters and numbers are “tinged” with a colour – ‘A’ being red or ‘B’ being yellow. Another common one is when days of the week or months of the year, have particular colours (Tuesday might be orange, but Wednesday might be green).

For some, sounds such as doors opening or cars honking can trigger seeing colours, or they can also induce sensations in the body (feel the something that someone is something is touching them).

And then there are the rarer forms… for a few people, if they see someone being tapped on the shoulder, they can feel the tap on their own shoulder as well.

One of the most interesting rare types is when you taste different flavours when you hear certain sounds – like tasting custard when a door slams, or waffles when you hear the word ‘tissue’. Some people in fact may experience a constant flow of flavours.

You could have synaesthesia and not know

While some synaesthetes become aware of their unique sense of perception when they are a child, others don’t realise there’s anything unusual for quite some time, or at all.

Also, the condition is often so subtle that people often don’t consciously pick up on it at all.

Most synaesthetes do say that the experiences are actually very pleasant or neutral, but for some – like those who can taste colours, it can be more challenging to deal with day-to-day and can at times cause sensory overload.

It is more common for people with autism

While anyone can have synaesthesia, experts say that people with autism are three times more likely to have the condition.

This doesn’t mean they always appear together, but the relationship is definitely there – possibly due to the fact that autism may also a result of over-connectivity of neurons.

Synaesthesia can actually be a big plus

We’re sure that you can imagine that some people say their synaesthesia is actually an advantage for them.

Many claim that the condition helps them memorise certain facts (did you ever use association to help you study for an exam?). And this seems to be true because experts say people with the condition have much better memories than the rest of us.

But it doesn’t end there – synaesthetes have also been found to be more creative overall and often spend their time focusing on music, art and theatre.

The cause of synaesthesia is still a mystery

Although synaesthesia seems to be partly genetic with people inheriting the condition from their family, it’s also thought to involve environmental factors.

The interesting thing is, all babies are born with synaesthesia, but by the time we’re four or five months old our senses have been wired up to the right bits of our brains.

So for people with synaesthesia, experts believe that sometimes our brains don’t wire up correctly, leading to this ‘cross wiring’ of the senses.

There are also a few cases of people saying they got synaesthesia much later in life after experiencing a big trauma or a severe head injury.

We all have a basic understanding of synaesthesia

Some experts believe we actually all have synaesthesia to an extent – the only difference is that some of us are more sensitive to it than others. And in fact, tests have been done to show that we all have an innate sense of how it works.

One famous example is an experiment where people are shown a round shape next to an angular one, and are asked “Which shape is called Kiki and which one is called Bouba?”. Have a look at the images below and give it a shot yourself before you read on…

Kiki and Bouba

Although this question might seem like nonsense, almost everyone (no matter what culture they come from or language they speak), says Bouba is the round shape and the pointy one is Kiki. This experiment is now known as ‘the Bouba/Kiki effect’ and shows that are brains are capable of these associations whether we’re considered synaesthetes or not.

So do you think you have synaesthesia?

Because there are so many types, there isn’t really a fool proof ‘test’ for synaesthesia.

Just for a bit of fun…. the GIF below is making the rounds at the moment.

Gif of powerlines jumping up and down

If you hear a loud boom each time the tower lands, you’re not alone — but there isn’t actually any sound playing. Some people with “hearing-motion” synaesthesia, however, can hear the tower thudding into the ground.

By Monochrome version 1 June 2007 by Bendž Vectorized with Inkscape –Qef (talk) 21:21, 23 June 2008 (UTC) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons