Tasting the Colors of Words: Opening Minds to the World of Synesthesia

Patrick T. Randolph, Western Michigan University

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This article is the fourth in a multi-article series based on “What Every Teacher Needs to Know About the Brain,” a presentation given at the 2013 ITBE Convention in Lisle, IL.


S.V. Shereshevski perceived reality in a unique way as a rich crisscrossing of the senses. “He would see sounds, hear colors, feel tastes, and taste shapes” (Ratey, 2002, p. 203). For Ingrid Carey, “Chocolate is rich purple and makes Carey’s breath smell dark blue” (Than, 2005, p. 2). Tania Camerino proudly claims, “I don’t know what the color green looks like. But I know what green tastes like” (Carlsen, 2013, p. 2). And Franz Liszt, the great Hungarian composer, is documented as telling his orchestra, “Please gentlemen, a little bluer if you please. This key demands it” (Seaberg, 2011, p. 24). These individuals were not experiencing hallucinatory moments of consciousness after deep, drug-induced states; rather, they were accurately explaining how they see the world, for each one shares the very intriguing neurological condition known as synesthesia.

Synesthesia: A brief explanation 

It may feel like an odd way to experience day-to-day life for most of us, but a synesthete (a person who has synesthesia) would never trade it for the world. It’s a condition that literally makes every moment a magical feast for the mind.

What, then, exactly is synesthesia? The word itself says it all: syn means “together,” “union,” or “with” and aistaesis means “sensation.” This tells us it has something to do with “joined sensation” or “feeling together.” That is, synesthesia is essentially a neurological condition whereby there is a mixing or crisscrossing of two senses, so stimulation of one sense (e.g., auditory) produces a sense experience in a completely different sense (e.g., sight). One type of synesthesia, then, is sound --> color synesthesia, in which sounds produce colors in the eyes. For example, hearing the sound of the word “Saturday” may cause one to see the color purple, or hearing a cat meow may elicit the color pink. Another very common kind of synesthesia is called grapheme --> color synesthesia. In this type of synesthesia, letters of the alphabet and numbers have a designated color. For example, G could be blue and P red.

Who has synesthesia?

The data seems to vary from Sir Francis Galton’s 1880 estimates of 1 in 20 to Richard E. Cytowic’s 1989 numbers of 1 in 25,000. In 2005, however, Julia Simner and her colleagues found the numbers to be closer to those of Galton’s. Her data, which experts trust the most because of her rigorously objective testing methods, showed that 1 in 23 have some type of synesthesia (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2011).

And yet others such as Maurer and Mondloch at the University of Ontario argue that we all start out with some form of synesthesia. “So, when a baby hears her mother’s voice, she is also seeing it and smelling it” (Than, 2005, p. 3). Furthermore, we have Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments that looked at the relationship between sounds and shapes. He found that 98% of his participants felt that the word “kiki” matched up with a star-spiked figure and that “bouba” matched up with a cloud-shaped figure (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2011). Perhaps it was because the voiceless velar stop (k) feels “pointed” whereas the voiced bilabial stop (b) feels “soft” or “undulating” like a wave. What I find worth noting here is this tendency to react to shapes and sounds. So, the inevitable question arises: Do we all have, to some degree, a form of synesthesia?

How to apply synesthesia to vocabulary lessons

In their book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, Cytowic and Eagleman ask a number of synesthetes what the main benefit of synesthesia is. Based on their research, the most common response seems to be that it helps with vivid recall (Cytowic and Eagleman, 2011). Others, including Harvard Medical School’s John J. Ratey, have found similar results. Because of their multisensory experiences, the synesthetes actually seem to make more connections and use more of the brain during encoding.

In my own classes, I am developing a method for vocabulary acquisition called the Head-to-Toe Method. One part of this method requires the students to associate colors and smells with words. I base my reasoning for this on the observation that when we encode vocabulary in our first language, it is not done in isolation. It is a synesthetic-like experience. In fact, most, if not all, learning is done in a multisensory environment; consequently, I believe that sensory integration is the natural way we learn.

Take, for example, when you first learned the word “apple” as a child in your L1. Let’s say your mother showed the apple to you and repeated the word, so you first associated the color with the object. Then perhaps she cut a piece for you, and you smelled the sweet scent. She gave you the piece of apple, and some juice dripped on your fingers. Then you put it in your mouth. After biting into the fruit, you heard the crunchy sound in your mouth and tasted the sweetness on your tongue. In short, all five senses were employed in the acquisition of the word. There is also the possibility that you felt an emotional connection with your mother, so both sensation and emotion helped you learn this word.

Although I cannot replicate such an experience in the classroom, I can make it a multisensory one with the sensory-integration component of the Head-to-Toe Method. And studies (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2011) have shown that even having people imagine sensations activates certain areas of the brain. The more these areas are activated, the more neural connections develop, and the better the learners retain and recall the material (Medina, 2009; Willis, 2006).

Let’s look at an example of how I teach this segment of the method in class. After the students have gone over the definition and a few examples of a word or phrase, I ask them what color they see or what odor they smell when I say the word or phrase in question. For instance, in one lesson last term the students were introduced to the word “coherent,” so I asked them, “What color do you see when I say the word coherent?” One student answered by saying “blue.” When I asked why he chose blue, he said something to the effect that as coherent means consistent, lucid and logical, he immediately thought of his father whose ideas are always very coherent. Moreover, his father loves the color blue and frequently wears blue suits. So, when the student recalls the meaning of coherent, he will think of his father and the color blue.

The exchange I had with the student was full of intriguing associations and personal connections. He identified the word as blue because he associated it with his father. There is also a strong possibility that he experienced some other aspect about his father (the smell of his cologne or the sound of his voice), so a highly emotional element also may have been in play.

Given the simple above scenario, we have helped make a number of associations and connections by merely starting with the visual sense and the use of color, and by doing so, we have literally forged a very secure neural network in the student’s brain. But more important, the word now has a very personal and familiar relationship to the student’s own psyche and identity.

Concluding Remarks 

What color do you see when you hear the word “synesthesia?” Perhaps we are not all genuine synesthetes (although, as above, some—including myself—would beg to differ); however, research has shown (Jensen, 2008; Medina, 2009; Sousa, 2001; Willis, 2006) that the more multisensory the learning environment is, the more the students learn and the better they retain the information. I would suggest we make our classrooms as multisensory as possible to add taste to our lessons and to reinforce a love for learning in the hearts of our students.

Carlsen, A. (2013). Synesthesia: Some people can taste the rainbow. The Salt. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org
Cytowic, R. E., & Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Wednesday is indigo blue. Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press.
Day, S. (2013). Synesthesia. Retrieved from www.daysyn.com/Types-of-syn.html
Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Corwin Press.
Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Ratey, J. J. (2002). A user’s guide to the brain: Perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York: Pantheon Books.
Seaberg, M. (2011). Tasting the universe: People who see colors in words and rainbows in symphonies. Pompton Plains, NJ: New Page Books.
Sousa, D. A. (2011). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin/Sage.
Than, K. (2005). Rare but real: People who feel, taste and hear color. Live science. Retrieved from www.livescience.com
Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to 

Patrick T. Randolph currently teaches at Western Michigan University where he specializes in creative and academic writing, speech, and debate.

*Photo Credit: Kelly Cunningham

ITBE Link - Winter 2014 - Volume 41 Number 4

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