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The Man Who Tastes Shapes

Some people see, taste, hear and feel things the rest of us don't. James ... tastes words: "New York is runny eggs. Londonis ... lumpy mashed ... Carol Steen sees ... with a


Some people see, taste, hear and feel things the rest of us don'
t. James Wannerton tastes words: "New York is runny eggs. London
is extremely lumpy mashed potatoes." Carol Steen sees every
letter with a color: "Z is the color of beer, a light ale."

For Carol Crane, music is felt: "I always feel guitars on my
ankles and violins on my face." Other people experience smells
when exposed to shapes, or hear sounds inside taste. And for
some, numbers have color, sounds have smell, and words have
flavor. Music is not only heard, it's seen and tasted--the list
goes on.

Neurologist Richard Cytowic explores this surreal world of "
synesthesia" in his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. "
Synesthesia means joined sensation, and some people are born
with two or more of their senses hooked together," explains
Cytowic.

The most common form of synesthesia is when a person see letters
in different colors instead of seeing black ink letters as black.
Although people differ from each other in what colors the
letters are, the colors usually remain the same for each
individual throughout their life.

Depending on what food they taste, other synesthetes experience
taste as a shape, like a triangle or circle. Another person sees
orange when feeling pain.

For New York artist Carol Steen, synesthesia is inspiration. She
sees shapes and colors when listening to music or receiving
acupuncture-images that she transforms into works of art. "It's
like putting on sunglasses and being able to see the world
through the sunglasses," she says. Once, when Steen injured her
leg while hiking, all she saw was a world bathed in orange.

And, Carol Crane does more than simply hear a concert. She
physically experiences each instrument within a different part
of her body.

Still another person hears a sound that tastes like pickles. For
as long as he can recall, words have triggered the part of
Wannerton's brain that responds to tastes and flavors. "I can
remember being in a big school assembly hall listening to the
Lords Prayer," he says, "and it was while listening to that, I
used to get flavor after flavor coming in. It was mostly bacon."

Wannerton says his synesthesia causes him some discomfort in his
personal life. "I've had girlfriends with names I couldn't stand
saying. Tracey is a very strong flavored name and it's flaky-
pastry. Whenever I was in her company, that's what I thought of
constantly." And at the end of the day, he suffers from sensory
overload. But still he doesn't want a cure. "I've had it since I
can remember, and taking it away--I wouldn't like the thought of
that," he says.

What's going on inside the synesthete's brain?

Dr. Vilyanur Ramachandran, a neurologist who studies quirks of
the brain, was scanning the brain of McAllister, a man who sees
music. During the imaging, the music being played stimulates not
only McAllister's audio cortex, but also his visual cortex. "The
visual area lit up in him," says Ramachandran, "so you know
there was neurological activity in the visual region of his
brain even though he was only listening to music." McAllister
describes it as a "Fantasia-like experience: explosions of color
all over the place. A bright flash of lavender getting dimmer
and dimmer; now we're going over a pink staircase, some lavender
violins. It looks very beautiful."

This is all the more surprising since McAllister is blind! He
lost his sight when he was 12, the result of a degenerative eye
disease. But he never lost his synesthesia.

Are we all born with joined sensation?

Though scientists can prove synesthesia exists physiologically,
they still don't know what causes it. Some researchers think
cross-wiring in the brain produces the phenomenon. Another
theory is that everyone is born with synesthesia-that we, as
infants, experience the world as a jumble of interwoven
sensations. Then, as most of us mature, our physical senses
slowly become distinct and sharply defined, like images being
brought into focus by a camera lens. With synesthetes this doesn'
t happen.

For some, synesthetic perceptions seem to exist outside the body.
Carrie Schultz describes how she sees electric guitar riffs in
purple swirls that envelop her.

For others, the awareness is internal, in their "mind's eye."
When Glenda Larcombe hears a truck backing up--making a beep-
beep-beep sound--she sees the beeps as a series of red dots. The
mingling of senses is often difficult for synesthetes to
describe. Larcombe, for instance, said the red dots she sees
when she hears beeping are not part of her actual vision. "It's
not like I would see a red dot right in front of me-it's in my
mind's eye" she says in an interview. She also reports feeling
her interviewer's voice, "like a wave, like water, with yellow
and orange."

Ex-journalist, Page Getz says "God is blue." She describes
headache pain as a kind of greenish-orange, music by the rock
group Nirvana as having the taste or sensation of Dr Pepper, and
the color after sex as static silver. She quit her job as a
journalist because her editors' word changes often disrupted
what she saw as a sentence's natural chromatic progression.

Everyone's got blended senses to a degree

Psychologist Carol Mills says this sensory-blending ability
might be a normal part of all adult brains. "It may go on in all
of us even if we don't have synesthesia," said Mills. "For
example, if I give you a very high-pitched note and a series of
colors and ask you to match one, you are going to pick a light
color. If I give you a low bass note, you are probably going to
pick a dark color. The difference is when a synesthete hears a
low note, they see dark. When they hear a high note, they see a
light color."

No firm figures exist for how common synesthesia is. The best
estimates range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 20,000.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Drawing from the wisdom of native and ancient spiritual traditions, Keith Varnum shares his 30 years of practical success as an author, personal coach, acupuncturist, filmmaker, radio host, restaurateur, vision quest guide and international seminar leader (The Dream Workshops). Keith helps people get the love, money and health they want with his FREE “Prosperity Ezine” at www.TheDream.com.



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