Real Voices interview: James Wannerton
Meet the man who can taste sounds
Every time James Wannerton hears or reads a word, he can taste it in his mouth. What is it like living with this extremely rare form of synaesthesia? He talks to Chrissie Giles about difficult menu choices, having to abandon French lessons and the importance of great-tasting friends.
Who are you?
I work in IT and have lexical-gustatory synaethesia, an extra connection between two areas of my brain. It means that whenever I hear, see or read something, I get a specific taste. Even though I’m not eating something – and I know I’m not – it seems pretty real to me. Unless I spoke about it, there’s no way you’d know I was a synaesthete. I did bring it up a couple of times at school and home but it never went anywhere. My ex-girlfriend didn’t know for years and years. My parents found out because I was on an episode of ‘Horizon’. They were quite put out about it at the time and still are now.
When did you first realise you had this ability?
You have to bear in mind that this is perfectly normal for me, so it’s a bit like asking when was the first time you smelt something and what did it smell like – you can’t remember. I can certainly remember picking up tastes when I was at school, around the age of four and a half. I have very strong memories of sitting in assemblies. We were read the Lord’s Prayer every morning: it had a taste of very thin crispy bacon.
Talking about it now, can you taste it?
Yeah. It’s quite strong as well.
Can you describe synaethesia?
It’s not an extra sense, but it does give me an extra perception. It’s like getting an eye-dropper of taste dripped on my tongue. I get a taste, temperature and texture. One of the ways I stop this affecting my concentration on a day-to-day basis is to eat strong-tasting sweets like Wine Gums, and drinking coffee.
Do you ever synaesthetically taste something you’ve never eaten before?
It can be difficult to articulate a particular sensation and compare it to a foodstuff. These things are specific and very, very complex. When I’ve taken part in research, I could write maybe half a page of A4 on a particular word’s effects. Ever since I was young, I had a taste for the word ‘expect’ and I could never quite put my finger on what it was. One day, I bought a packet of Marmite-flavoured crisps. When I had one, it clicked – that’s the taste of ‘expect’! If I had to describe it I’d say it’s a bit tangy, slightly thick but crunchy. I get lots of metallic tastes that I can’t describe, other than saying it’s smooth or rough. The name David gives me a very strong taste of cloth, a bit like sucking on a sleeve.
How has it affected your life?
When I was younger, I used to choose friends according to whether they tasted nice or not. When I got older, it used to affect my choice of girlfriend. Their name would be just as attractive to me as the way they looked or their personality.
You couldn’t go out with somebody who didn’t taste right?
Oh no. There are ways of coping with that, though. If I don’t like the sound or taste of somebody’s name then I’ll try and call them something else in my head. If that doesn’t work then I can’t live with it. A good analogy is meeting somebody who you really like, who looks great and who has a fantastic personality, but has a horrible smell about them. It would affect your perception of them – and it’s always there in the background.
Do you have a girlfriend at the moment?
Yes, she’s called Janette. Funnily enough, she actually tastes like bacon too – slightly thicker bacon, though.
Does synaesthesia affect your relationship?
It is a bit of a problem. Like everyone, Janette likes going out, but I don’t like hanging around in a noisy pub as it can be overwhelming. If it’s quiet then I’m usually OK, but it’s not that enjoyable for me.
How does it affect your relationship with food?
Eating’s always been a bit odd. If I went out, I’d go out with an idea in mind of what I was going to get, probably strong foods with a range of textures. Looking at a menu is just a complication. Menus are described, I assume, to try and stimulate the same thing in you that they do in me naturally – in that you look at something and it’s supposed to make you want it.
Do food words ‘taste’ like the food they describe?
Most of them do, yes. When I eat things I get a synaesthetic taste over the top of it. It works one-way, though – if you were to say, “Give me a strawberry yoghurt word”, I wouldn’t be able to do it because I’m relying on memory. The other way is totally involuntary and automatic. That’s why I have difficulties answering “What’s the worst word you’ve ever heard?”
Do any food words taste better synaesthetically than the food itself?
If you said “cheese” to me, I get the taste of quite crumbly cheese, but it’s not particularly strong. The name Richard, for example, gives me an extremely strong taste of cheese, but it’s that processed type. That’s quite nice actually, as it’s got a nice, smooth texture and I like the taste of it. There are quite a few words that give me a better taste than the food itself [pause]. I lost track there, I was getting hung up on Richard. All I can think about now is yellow cheese.
Does it make you feel hungry?
I get the taste and I think that I’d love to have a bit to eat now. It’s making me hungry but it’s very easy to turn off – all I have to do is read something and I’m instantly distracted. Time and time again, if I do have the physical food it’s not as nice as the synaesthetic taste.
If you didn’t have to eat, would you be happy with synaesthetic eating?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve got a very strange relationship with food. I don’t really need it, I suppose, in the way that other people seem to. It’s totally beyond my comprehension when somebody has to eat just because it’s 7pm. I’m quite slim and when I do eat I tend to binge eat, a bit like a dog does, so I don’t have to eat again soon. Eating for me is a bore, a chore – I don’t need it.
Does your name evoke any taste in particular?
The taste and texture of my name is chewing gum that’s lost all its flavour. I don’t like my name very much. With your name – Chrissie Giles – I get quite a strong salty taste with the Chrissie bit and the Giles is very difficult to describe, it could be metallic. With the two together, the Chrissie is very strong. The way someone speaks affects the taste I get, too. At school some of the lecturers would speak very slowly and that used to cause all sorts of trouble. Reading is difficult. I couldn’t go through a piece of text slowly as I’d get caught up on all the tastes, so I have to speedread.
Does music trigger tastes?
Yes, it can be good listening to music. There are certain tracks that are incredible. I was listening to a track by Green Day the other day and it was full of the texture, taste and sweetness of pineapple chunks. There was loads of chocolate, too – the rippled kind you get on top of biscuits.
Tell me about the research you’ve been involved in.
As you can imagine, lexical-gustatory synaesthesia is a very subjective thing. It’s fine for me to say, “When I hear X, I taste Y”, but anyone could say that. When I first went to a neurologist, they were a bit sceptical and didn’t know what my condition was. They used to give me consistency tests. I’d submit a list of words and the corresponding flavours, then I’d have to come back six months later and they’d give me the list in a different order and check that the flavours I gave matched up. Of course, I could have passed this test just by having a great memory. Later, I was able to get a functional MRI scan, which was quite expensive at the time. They did an fMRI scan of the brain of a person without synaesthesia while they were eating, and then they scanned my brain as I listened to particular words without eating. The same brain areas lit up.
Did you feel vindicated by this?
Oh yeah, it was a really good moment. Sometimes I used to think to myself that it was just a weird memory trick – but it’s so automatic that I didn’t see how it could be. Researchers did a ‘tip of the tongue’ test with me once. They showed me things that I didn’t quite recognise, such as a narwhal. I was sitting there trying to think of the name, but I got a taste straight away. When they translated these tastes back to the original list, they found that the name of the object matched the flavour, which was amazing. It shows you that taste comes first, then I somehow link all this together. It’s an integral part of how I view things. Whenever I think back to past events or holidays, that’s what I think of first – a taste – and then all the pictures come back.
Is it just words that affect you?
Researchers have tried made-up words and non-word sounds and they all trigger a taste. It’s purely the sound of the thing, which is why some foreign languages can cause me problems. I started learning French and German at school. French gave me a horrible overtaste of runny egg, but German tasted nice, like marmalade. It forced the choice about which language to study. I still don’t like French accents. One of the theories is that this kind of synaesthesia is language-based. For example, for me, most words with a ‘je’ sound in (such as ‘college’ or ‘message’) have a sausage flavour. I also get tastes from colours. I can’t go into my local Sainsbury’s, for example, because the orange everywhere makes me feel awful. It’s a bit like what a gone-off orange would taste like. I can taste it now, just on the corner of my tongue. The word ‘Sainsbury’s’ has the taste and texture of something similar to rhubarb.
How common is synaesthesia?
One study suggested that one in 23 people have it in some form. It can cause problems in education; affected schoolchildren might struggle in noisy environments, for example. One of the joys of being President of the UK Synaesthesia Association is having people say, “I’ve always done that and I thought I was weird”. People don’t mention it as they think it’s natural, or others have mentioned it and been slapped down. Some people say, “I’ve always thought of Wednesday as green”. Now you can put them under an MRI scanner to find out more.
If you could switch it off, would you?
A technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation can be used to disrupt the neural flow in the brain and switch off the synaesthesia for around 20 minutes. The brain area where the link is in my head is quite deep and it might cause other damage, so I haven’t had it done. To me, having a memory without a taste attached would just be weird. I don’t know how or if I’d remember things. Of the thousands of people with different types of synaesthesia I’ve met, not one would want it taken away. This, to me, is normal; I can’t imagine life without it.Lead image:
Paul Griggs/Wellcome Images