Man With Rare Condition Literally Tastes Words, and You Could Too

December 26, 2014 Updated: December 26, 2014

Some people can strongly taste words or see sounds—for example, tasting buttered toast when the word “safety” is said or read. But we all may have this ability to a lesser degree.

James Wannerton has always experienced words differently than others. His tastebuds are stimulated by the thought of a word, like an eyedropper filled with a flavored substance has been squeezed on his tongue. The same word always produces the same taste in his mouth.

“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,” he told Wellcome Trust in 2011. “One day, I bought a packet of Marmite-flavoured crisps. When I had one, it clicked—that’s the taste of ‘expect’!”

“The name David gives me a very strong taste of cloth, a bit like sucking on a sleeve,” he said. His friend’s wife’s name, unfortunately, gives him the taste of cold vomit. The condition is called synesthesia, and it causes the senses to intermingle.

Not every word has a taste for Wannerton, he told the BBC, “although I have a horrible feeling that it could if I allowed it.”

He described a few words as tasting like bacon, with slightly different hints of flavor. For example, his girlfriend’s name is Jeanette, tastes like thick bacon. He has neighbors whose names taste like jelly beans, yogurt, and a waxy substance.

“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,” he said. “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.

When choosing friends as a child, Wannerton explained in a video interview posted by Equality Human Rights on YouTube (shown above), “It was very natural to go around with somebody that tasted of strawberry jam sandwiches as opposed to dirty … wood chips.” Video

He had to give up learning French because of how the words tasted. He thinks it’s the sound of the word, not the meaning of it that.”

We Could All Have a Little Synesthesia

Of the two images below, which do you think should be named Kiki and which should be named Booba?

This picture is used as a text to demonstrate that people may not attach sounds to shapes arbitrarily, but rather we all tend to make the same associations. (Wikimedia Commons)
This picture is used as a text to demonstrate that people may not attach sounds to shapes arbitrarily, but rather we all tend to make the same associations. (Wikimedia Commons)

Psychologist Wolfgang Köhler found that more than 95 percent of people who don’t consider themselves synesthetes all responded the same way—that the pointy figure on the left should be Kiki and the rounded one on the right should be Booba. 

Dr. Jamie Ward asked non-synesthetes to draw their visual impressions while listening to the New London Orchestra. A group of identified synesthetes were given the same task. At a museum, 200 visitors were randomly selected to listen to the same music and pick which of the drawn images best corresponded. The majority chose the synesthetes’ drawings, suggesting many of us have a sense of what sounds look like, though we may not be able to express it as well as a synesthete or may not experience it as consciously. 

If you’re a synesthete, we hope this article left a good taste in your mouth!

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Epoch Times staff member Leonardo Vintini contributed to this report.