Food and Synaesthesia
Food provides us nourishment and helps our bodies to grow, but somehow it is more than that too. When someone arrives at our house, our sense of politeness dictates that we must offer them a cup of tea and perhaps a biscuit. If we were in Russia or other Eastern European countries it would traditionally be salt and bread. Food brings us together as individuals and as countries.
Synaesthesia is the name for an experience where one sensory stimulus reliably causes the experience of another apparently unrelated sensory experience. If we look at the 5 basic senses we find 20 possible combinations (vision→touch, taste→hearing etc.) However, when researching synaesthesia we find it is even more complicated. For example, a shape may elicit the sensation of a colour; or a word, seen or heard, may elicit a certain taste - this is known as lexical-gustatory synaesthesia and it is one of the rarest forms of synaesthesia. Some chefs, sommeliers and other taste experts have some type of gustatory synaesthesia and use it to inform their cooking or blending of flavours.
Experiments have shown that synaesthetes are able to reliably show associations between unrelated sensory stimuli whilst other people forget links because of memory failures. Further confirmation of their experience is provided by fMRI experiments where (for example) activation is shown in areas of the brain associated with taste when they are presented with words. Research seems to show that different regions of the brain are more myelinated in synaesthetes. Myelin is a fatty coating around neurons that allows electrical signals to pass more quickly through the neuron.
Taria Camerino is an American pastry chef who is a gastral synaesthete who senses not just the four other main senses but also emotions and experiences as tastes. To give others a taste of this experience she makes lollipops where a green colour has a strawberry flavour, a yellow a fish flavour and a black one tastes of mango. Guests tasted them while listening to Tschaikovsky’s 1812 overture and many found that the colour did affect the taste at least initially, and some found the taste intensity to rise and fall with swells in the music. How the taste affected the appreciation of the music will have to be an experiment for another day.
I will end this article with two questions posed to Taria at this event and the answers she gave.
"Can you help me cook for my husband who had radiation? He can still smell, but he cannot taste, and he's miserable."
"Start having him smell things. Vanilla, shortbread, lavender. When he gets to a smell he likes, make something with that."
"What did the  presidential election taste like?"
"Like bitter, but also like hope, plus something astringent...something chemical…I know! HAIRSPRAY! Wow…that's really weird!"