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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
'I can taste my words'
Jane Elliott
BBC News Online health staff

James Wannerton
James is reluctant to tell people about his synaesthesia
James Wannerton lives in a house that tastes of mashed potato and is situated in a fruit gum town.

He has a toffee flavoured nephew and used to have a condensed milk granny.

His next door neighbours are a mixture of yoghurt, jelly beans and a subtle hint of a waxy substance.

James is not mad, nor is he on a taste orientated drug trip - he has a neurological condition called synaesthesia, which mixes up his senses.

Colours

To him verbal and written words can conjure up taste sensations.

"This doesn't affect every word or sound, although I have a horrible feeling that it could if I allowed it, " he said.

Say the word safety and James, aged 44, will imagine lightly buttered toast. When someone says or writes the word jail, it sparks the taste of cold bacon.

Synaesthesia is frequently based around colours - letters of the alphabet, or sounds, are associated with specific shades - and a number of artists are thought to have had the condition

It also runs in families and is thought to be linked to the X-chromosome, as it is more common in women.

This doesn't affect every word or sound, although I have a horrible feeling that it could if I allowed it
James Wannerton

Less frequent is the taste-based synaesthesia experienced by James, a systems analyst from Blackpool.

James says his condition means having conversations can be difficult.

As people talk he finds his mind wandering to the taste image conjured up.

'Complex'

He said he was reluctant to tell people about his synaesthesia because it was difficult to understand.

"I don't tell people about it because it is an odd thing.

"If you say you have this and that this happens to me they expect you to be able to do something exceptional."

Dr Jamie Ward, of University College, London, who has studied the condition, said it should be seen as a genuine phenomenon in search of a psychological explanation.

In his article in the Psychologist, the British Psychological Society's Journal, he says that if synaesthesia could be proved it would increase understanding of how the brain works.

About one in 2,000 people were affected by synaesthesia and of these only 10% had the taste form, he said.

The tastes/word imagery was often complex.

"One patient, when you said the word six to him, he thought of vomit, and the word seven and he said Spangles (a type of sweet).

"It is kind of interesting that some of the words are linked with childhood.

"Bizarrely there are often phonetic relationships between the triggering word and the name that is used to describe the taste that is elicited.

"For example, cinema may taste of cinnamon rolls and Chicago may taste of avocado."

Dr Ward said about twice as many women than men suffered from the condition.




SEE ALSO:
'I can see sounds'
03 Jan 02  |  UK News
Of hens, feet and art
30 Aug 01  |  UK News
Taste's bitter experience
15 Feb 03  |  Denver 2003


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