Tag Archives: Jamie Ward

Two recently-published attention-grabbing open-access neuroscience journal papers

Shriki O, Sadeh Y, Ward J (2016) The Emergence of Synaesthesia in a Neuronal Network Model via Changes in Perceptual Sensitivity and Plasticity. PLoS Computational Biology. 12(7): e1004959. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004959


“The model unifies different causes of synaesthesia within a single theoretical framework and repositions synaesthesia not as some quirk of aberrant connectivity, but rather as a functional brain state that can emerge as a consequence of optimising sensory information processing.”


Anders Eklund, Thomas E. Nichols, and Hans Knutsson (2016) Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates.
PNAS 2016 ; published ahead of print June 28, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1602413113


“In theory, we should find 5% false positives (for a significance threshold of 5%), but instead we found that the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results.”

Interesting commentary:

Oxenham, Simon Thousands of fMRI brain studies in doubt due to software flaws. New Scientist. July 18th 2016.





Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show enhanced visual recognition memory for a variety of things

I wonder where they got the idea for these studies:

Jamie Ward, Peter Hovard, Alicia Jones, and Nicolas Rothen Enhanced recognition memory in grapheme-color synaesthesia for different categories of visual stimuli. Frontiers in Psychology. 2013 Oct 24;4:762. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00762. eCollection 2013.



I guess it’s nice to see ideas that I have been exploring for years at this blog supported by research. Did you notice that this paper has the same publisher and the same month of publication as that paper, and one of the authors of this paper was an editor of that paper? I think I recognize a pattern.

Synaesthetes have enhanced memory for images of everyday scenes

according to this:
Jamie Ward Enhanced Memory in Synaesthesia: What’s the story so far? American Synesthesia Association, Upcoming Conference Abstracts, June 1, 2013. http://www.synesthesia.info/upcoming.html

This is interesting to me because I am a synaesthete who has many different types of synaesthesia including types in which images of scenes are either inducers or concurrents, and there is much evidence that the visual processing of faces and scenes are done in the same or adjacent parts of the brain, and I’m also a super-recognizer, meaning that I consistently get perfect scores in tests of face memory. So it makes sense that synaesthetes in general should be pretty smart at remembering images of scenes, in fact you could say that the content of this blog has predicted this finding.

Have you seen this interesting study of personification synaesthesia and empathy?

I experience personified numbers and letters of the alphabet, involving genders, ages and personalities. Although this experience does not fit into the popular definition of synaesthesia as a mixing up of the senses, it is considered to be a type of synaesthesia and it often coincides with another type of synaesthesia, grapheme->colour synaesthesia, in which numbers and letters are experienced as having their own particular colours. The proper term for this personification of written symbols is Ordinal linguistic personification, and in a recent journal paper it was described as a “benign form of hyper-mentalizing” (Amin et al 2011).

In this blog I’ve argued a number of times that there is a causal relationship between synaesthesia and enhanced face recognition ability, and I believe that whatever parts of my brain give rise to my very good face recognition ability are also the parts of my brain that are responsible for my ordinal linguistic personification (OLP) and my grapheme->color synesthesia. I explained some of this in my post lengthily titled “Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper”.

Here’s some quotes from a journal paper about grapheme personification synesthesia which was published this year in the Journal of Neuropsychology:

“From this mixed pattern of results, we cannot conclude that as a group, personifying synaesthetes exhibit heightened empathy.”

“We suggest that grapheme personification, rather than a peculiar set of claims to be dismissed, is a goldmine for social cognitive neuroscientists and cognitive neuropsychologists alike.”

I certainly agree with that!

Maina Amin, Olufemi Olu-Lafe, Loes E. Claessen, Monika Sobczak-Edmans, Jamie Ward, Adrian L. Williams, and Noam Sagiv
Understanding grapheme personification: A social synaesthesia?
Journal of Neuropsychology. (2011), 5, 255–282.

Reflections on The Strange Phenomenon, how I gunned the CFMT, letter personification in advertising and clue to a possible cure for some cases of prosopagnosia after reading an old journal paper.

Super-recognizer test? Forget it mate!

I’ve noticed that quite consistently searches that lead people to this blog appear to be people searching for a test relevant to being a super-recognizer, which is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces, a most useful skill in many ways, and a skill that would be relevant to a number of jobs. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who is hoping to gain access to a super-recognizer test, but the fact is that I only know of one test that I know enough about it to say that it could decisively separate super-recognizers from simply good face recognizers, and I have been unsuccessfully been trying to gain access to that test since September of 2010. The test is the Before They Were Famous Test (BTWF), and it was one of the two face recognition tests that were used in the study that was written-up in the science journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer in 2009. I’d love to get to do the BTWF Test, even though there would most likely be subtle cultural differences that might impair my performance on that test. I believe the BTWF Test is a test that uses the faces of celebrities, and I’m sure it was created outside of Australia, and so I would assume that those celebrities would not include any Australian celebrities, and I am an Australian. Nevertheless, I was keen to have a go at this test. I was so keen that I volunteered as a study subject at a local Australian university’s psychology department to do some face recognition tests. To cut a long story short, I got to do two other tests, but not the BTWF Test, and I’m still many months later waiting to be told of the results of one of those tests. Just to explain my interest in face recognition – in 2010 I got a surprise after finding that I got perfect scores on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) and also the Famous Faces test, and then I realised that I could well be a super-recognizer. I’ve been messed around so much by Australian and overseas academics that I don’t think I’d trust them enough to do any further participation in research, and I think there is something strange about the way that I’ve been dealt with by researchers in the area of face recognition.

I find it a curious fact that of all of the researchers who I’ve told that I am a synaesthete and am willing to provide test results that show it and I also suspect that I’m a super-recognizer, not one, including the university researcher whom I’ve met first-hand, has asked to see any of my test results regarding face memory or synaesthesia. Anyone with some familiarity with the published literature about synaesthesia would surely figure that super-recognizing could well be another cognitive advantage associated with synaesthesia. Do face recognition researchers lack a basic knowledge of synaesthesia research, another area of the neuropsychology of sensory perception? Surely not. Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the work that university researchers do. Their job is to do highly structured research studies, with the aim of getting their reports of those studies published in science journals with a good reputation and status. I believe there is considerable pressure to achieve this and do it as often as possible. So perhaps one should not be surprised to find that researchers are only interested in non-academic, non-student people if they can fill the role of being a standardized study subject.

I believe that study subjects like me who do not conform to what appears to be the current scientific view of super-recognizers as “simply the high end of a broad distribution of face recognition ability” (Russell, Duchaine & Nakayama 2009), people like me who are synaesthetes and who score very high in tests of face recognition, are a threat to the current academic status quo, in which the conventional view is that atypical or abnormal brain structure or brain function is associated with deficits in face recognition, and good face recognition ability is taken to be a marker for normality and health and all things nice. A great many studies of face recognition have been inspired by the idea that poor ability to recognize faces and facial expressions are fundamental features of autism. Autism research is supposed to be very well-funded. Studies of face recognition that are promoted as research into the causes of autism would, I guess, attract funding. While not all autistic people are synaesthetes and not all synaesthetes are autistic, there does appear to be some type of link between autism and synaesthesia, so the idea that synaesthetes should be poor at face recognition would be consistent with the above theoretical framework. In fact, the idea that there might be a link between synaesthesia and prosopagnosia appears to be quite a common belief among academics and interested ordinary people. This is based on anecdotes and some very speculative early writing about synaesthesia. So finding a synaesthete super-recognizer who is also very good at identifying facial expressions could upset this apple cart. In any case, those nice red shiny apples seem to be destined for a bruising because of ideas that are being explored by some synaesthesia researchers who are contrasting rather than linking synaesthesia with poor face recognition and other agnosias (Mitchell 2011) or are finding connections between various types of synaesthesia and various types of enhanced perception (Banissy, Garrido et al 2011; Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009).

The other test of face recognition that was used in the study described in Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama’s 2009 paper about super-recognizers was the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which comes in a short and a long form. Both the short and long form are used in that study. It appears that the long form of this test was created to measure a wider range of face recognition abilities, but as can easily be seen in the paper, the long form was quite a failure in this respect. Non-super-recognizers did not fall a long way behind super-recognizers in the CFMT Long Form that much more than they did in the CFMT Short Form. Basically, super-recognizers got perfect of near-perfect scores in the 72 question CFMT Short Form, which is freely available to do over the internet, but a couple of other study subjects also got close to perfect scores in the CFMT.

So, the only thing that I can recommend to anyone who wants to know if they are a super-recognizer is to have a crack at the CFMT, read about the experiences of super-recognizers, and you might also wish to consider whether you have synaesthesia or have any brain-based special abilities or talents such as perfect pitch or high IQ. The Synesthesia Battery is a test for a number of colour-related types of synaesthesia. And remember, the whole concept of the “super-recognizer” is a thing that some academics only recently came up with. I believe the official view of super-recognizers is that they (we?) are only the extreme end of a bell curve representing natural variation in one area of ability. I personally believe that super-recognizers are probably qualitatively different from others rather than merely being quantitatively different – I believe super-recognizer ability could be an effect of synaesthesia or local hyperconnectivity, but I still wouldn’t like to say at what cut-off point in test scores super-recognizers can be identified.

P.S. December 2011

It appears that the CFMT is no longer available from two of the websites that I have linked to, and the only freely available online access to the CFMT is probably through a research study done by researchers at the MIT:  http://facetoface.mit.edu/   If you live in or near London then you might be able to go along to the superrecognizers study currently being conducted at the Science Museum by researchers from the Uni of East London and do some tests as study subjects:  http://www.superrecognizers.com/

I have tried contacting professional psychologists in WA who have private practices to see if any of them can offer access to any face recognition testing. I found a general lack of comprehension, and it appears that they generally haven’t heard of prosopagnosia, let alone super-recognizers. Apparently there is some face memory or face recognition test that is an element of an IQ test and/or vocational aptitude testing. I have not been given any details about this test or tests, and God only knows if it is of any value. There are a number of old face recognition tests, but it appears that the CFMT and the BTWF tests are the only ones that are cheat-proof and currently used by face recognition researchers. I’ve never heard of either of these tests being used as elements of vocational or IQ testing, but who knows?

The idea that superior face recognition ability could be important in employment is an idea that has been proven to be true in the case of police work, a documented example would be the elite squad of super-recognizer police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police force, which was the subject of an interesting article in the UK’s Sunday Times in November 2011. Despite the proven utility of superrecognizers in at least one important job, the idea that this is a valuable work skill appears to be an idea well ahead of our times here in sleepy Western Australia, where our time zone is two years behind the rest of the Anglophone world (except in mining). There is not only the issue that we are behind the times here, there is also the big issue of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias recognized in psychology “in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes”, to quote from Wikipedia. The Dunning-Kruger effect can also negatively affect capable people, in the opposite way “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” So incompetent people can have unjustified self-confidence while more capable people can under-estimate their relative superiority as a result of being ignorant or deceived about the actual level of ability of others. I would argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very applicable to face recognition ability. I’m sure there are many people with milder developmental prosopagnosia who don’t understand their disability, and I know myself that I never thought of myself as having superior face memory until I tried some online face recognition tests in the pursuit of any clue to the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I believe the full extent of the problem goes beyond not understanding one’s self. I believe that only a super-recognizer is able to understand the possibilities and advantages of this very specific type of superior visual processing. I’ve found that many people who I’ve spoken to about super-recognizers doubt that any human could perform better than current face recognition technology, an assumption that appears to be incorrect, and is probably based on ignorance. It should be clear to anyone that good face recognition ability is an essential requirement in policing and has uses in security and detective work, but I doubt that most people would guess that super-recognizing could have medical applications, can be more useful than current face recognition technology and might also have applications in tasks that involve identifying kinship relationships, possibly to do with tracing lost relatives or family history research. To independently realise all of this, a person would have to see what a super-recognizer sees, an experience that is denied to most people. If most people, including most psychologists, have no idea of the possible utility of super-recognizing, why would anyone bother testing for it or identifying it?

If you suspect that you might be a super-recognizer, and wish to have this tested and certified by a professional psychologist or have it verified by participating in university research done by a recognized expert in the field of face recognition, I hope you live in London. Your only other option appears to be taking a look at the MIT study, and taking a screen-shot print-out of any test results. Good luck!


Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011 http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

Grimston, Jack Eagle-Eye of the Yard can spot rioters by their ears. Sunday Times, The, 20.11.2011, p12,13-12,13, 1; Language: EN Section: News Edition: 01 EBSCOhost Accession number 7EH53940939 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/  This interesting article is behind a paywall, so you might try EBSCOHost from your local piblic library.

Mitchell, Kevin J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization. Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568?dopt=Abstract

Russell, Richard, Yue, Xiaomin, Nakayama, Ken and Tootell, Roger B. H.  Neural differences between developmental prosopagnosics and super-recognizers.Journal of Vision. August 6, 2010 vol. 10 no. 7 article 582 doi: 10.1167/10.7.582http://www.journalofvision.org/content/10/7/582.short

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf

Wikipedia contributors Dunning–Kruger effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect&oldid=466983876


MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org – used to offer the CFMT in the past http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” – used to offer the CFMT in the past, could try the 5 minute “Famous Faces” test http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test – this test no substitute for the CFMT http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/

The Synesthesia Battery http://www.synesthete.org/

Further reading about my dealings with psychology researchers:

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year   https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/science-week-2011-%E2%80%93-the-world-of-science-and-me-in-the-past-year/

Prevalence rates of some interesting neurological conditions and disorders

Number form synaesthesia   ~12% (Ward, Sagiv & Butterworth 2009)

Dyslexia   5-10% English-speakers (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Dyscalculia   5-6% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital amusia (tone deafness)   4% (Mitchell Jan 2011) (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Day of the week -> colour synaesthesia   2.8% (Banissy et al 2009)

Prosopagnosia   1-2% (Mitchell Feb 2011)

Congenital prosopagnosia 2.5% (Mitchell Jan 2100) (This figure is inconsistent with the above figure as people with congenital prosopagnosia should be a sub-set of all people who have prosopagnosia)

Mirror-touch synaesthesia   1.6% (Banissy et al 2009)

Grapheme -> colour synaesthesia   1.4% (Banissy et al 2009)

ASD including autism   ~0.6% (Wikipedia)

So this means that, if the disorders besides autism listed above do not overlap in the people they affect, possibly almost a quarter of the population either can’t read, can’t do maths, can’t comprehend music normally, or can’t recognize faces adequately, while diagnosable autism is thought to only be found in less than a percent of people. So why so much hysteria and research funding about autism and so little funding for research into all the other issues?

The total number of synaesthetes in the population cannot be calculated by simply adding up the different types of synaesthesia listed above, because we know that individual synaesthetes often have a number of different types. Regardless, it is clear that synaesthetes make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and synaesthesia isn’t rare at all. So why is it that most teachers that I have spoken to have never heard of synaesthesia, a neurological condition (not disorder) that can directly affect learning (positively and on occassion negatively) and can affect the student’s sensory experience in the classroom?


Banissy, Michael J, Kadosh, Roi Cohen, Maus, Gerrit W, Walsh, Vincent, Ward, Jamie Prevalence, characteristics and a neurocognitive model of mirror-touch synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. (2009) 198:261–272. Published online: 3 May 2009. DOI 10.1007/s00221-009-1810-9 http://www.springerlink.com/content/26mh37152110617x/fulltext.pdf

Mitchell, Kevin The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The strange connection between people who can’t sing a tune and people who are “face blind”. Scientific American. January 18th 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-neuroscience-of-tone

Mitchell, K. J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization.Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568

Ward, Jamie, Sagiv, Noam and Butterworth, Brian The impact of visuo-spatial number forms on simple arithmetic. Cortex. Volume 45 Issue 10 Pages 1261-1265 (November 2009). http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00213-5/abstract

New journal paper about face perception and mirror-touch synaesthesia

I am hoping to find the time to read this new neuroscience journal paper. I’m not sure how relevant this paper will be to my experiences, because I do not have mirror-touch synaesthesia (but I do have many other types of synesthesia).

Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.

Michael J. Banissy, Lúcia Garrido, Flor Kusnir, Bradley Duchaine, Vincent Walsh, and Jamie Ward

Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011



A type of synaesthesia which I experience in which non-food words or names automatically evoke the concepts of particular foods: is lexical-gustatory synaesthesia an evolutionary adaptation?

(last addition April 2015)

pilgrim (word) – fatty roast chicken with nice greasy gravy made from the roasting pan juices with plenty of chicken fat

Crombie (surname) – crumble in a fruit crumble dessert

Abercrombie (surname) – apple crumble

Muriel (name) – bland breakfast cereal with milk

Date (word for unit of time) – date that you eat

Date (slang word for anus) – as above

Dateline (TV program) – date that you eat

testosterone – (word) – Toblerone (brand of very nice chocolate bar)

Blake (name) – Flake bar (a brand of chocolate bar with a distinctive structure)

Debbie, Deb (name) – “Deb” brand instant mashed potato reconstituted, something I’ve only tried very few times, mostly in childhood

Deborah (name) – no associations

vegie (colloquial word) – potato chips or some fried food, the suffix “ie” or “y” turns the word into greasy junk food like a hot potato chip because it transforms the word into slang. I hate the word “vegie” because the food association seems inappropriate or misleading.

vegetable (word) – weak association, mixed steamed vegetables

China (name of a nation, spoken in a cheerful, excited tone by a woman) – glace ginger, a treat I haven’t eaten for years.

Jam (word describing informal musical collaboration) – jam (delicious fruit spread)

Gurkha – gherkin

serial – breakfast cereal

salary – stick of raw celery (I have never liked the taste of raw celery, but don’t mind it cooked in soups)

parsimonious – parsnip (never liked it, only ever ate it as a part of roast dinners made by my mother when I was a kid)

Swede (nationality) – swede, the dullest vegetable of them all, rather like a parsnip but not quite as horrid

macro (word, word prefix) – macaroni cheese

Marconi (surname) – macaroni cheese

Macri (surname) – macaroni cheese

Tonkin (surname, street name) – pumpkin

Duncan (surname, first name) – pumpkin

Barlow, Barwick (surnames) – barley sugar lollies

Bickley (place name) – blackcurrant jam (this concept evokes a visual image in my mind’s eye of a person eating this jam revoltingly while speaking)

Imperatrice (surname) – vanilla rice custard, liquid and sloshy-sounding

Shorten (surname) – Shortbread (Reminds me of that awful “negro” folk song they made us sing in primary school – “Mammies Lil babies love shortnen shortnen bread” When I think about this song it evokes a vision of the scene of one shady part of the school playground near the girls’ toilet block, in an example of my concept – visual memory of a scene synaesthesia.)

Maggie – fried egg

Eric – egg

Clegg (surname) – egg

Parsons (surname) – Parsons Ricecream (vanilla, tinned rice dessert)

Crean (surname) – cream

Kershaw (surname) – cashew

Grille (word) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

Grylls (surname) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

multi (prefix) – malt, malty

Berkshire Hathaway Inc – Yorkshire pudding

Yorkshire – Yorkshire pudding

out to tender, it feels tender -> tender and moist cooked beef

Lamb, Lambe (surname) -> tender and fatty roast lamb (yum!)

minstrel -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mince (sissy mode of walking) -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mints -> mince (cooked ground beef)

fondle -> fondant

jubilation, jubilant -> jube (jelly confectionary)

jubilee -> jube (jelly confectionary)

abscond -> scone

studio -> stew

custody -> custard

customer -> custard

customs -> custard (not as strong an effect evoked by this word as the effect evoked by the word “custody”)

accustomed -> custard, custard cream biscuits

appraise -> braise

praise -> braise

pastor -> pasta

scheme -> ice cream

kidney-shaped dish, pool -> kidney, steak and kidney pie

Kennedy -> kidney

Pye (surname) -> pie

Pi -> pie

Murray -> meat pie

Yokine -> yoghurt

“100 megs” -> nutmeg

Meg -> nutmeg (a spice used in traditional British/Australian cookery, such as sprinkled on top of egg custards or custard tarts)

Charmain -> chow mein

Carmody (surname) -> cardamom (a spice with a strong smell)

Tegan -> Tegel’s Turkeys

Fiona -> Passiona (a brand of soft drink that used to have a little bit of passionfruit juice in it many years ago, but no longer does, and isn’t much good at all)

Prue, Prudence -> prune

Prude -> prune

Kate, Cate -> cake

Charlotte -> chocolate or pudding of some kind

Sophie -> Copha (artery-clogging gunk that is best known as an ingredient of chocolate crackles, a traditional treat for childrens’ parties)

Jessica -> dessicated coconut, as sprinkled on top of my mother’s home-made warm chocolate milk custard, like she made it over 30 years ago

Candy -> rod-shaped mint-flavoured rock candy coloured white and pink

Carmel -> caramel, caramel butters (my favourite type of confectionery as a child)

Hamilton (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Hamil (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Cheryl , Sheryl -> glace cherry, Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

Renee -> Mornay (salmon mornay is a food that I mostly ate as a child, cooked by my Mum)

Rosemary -> the herb Rosemary

Sherwood -> sherbet (can almost taste the fizz)

Sherbet (1970s pop group) -> sherbet (fizzy contectionery)

Fried (surname or part of surname) -> Fried (cooked in fat or oil)

Ceduna (place name) -> tuna

Tunisia (country) -> tuna

Salman (foreign first name) -> salmon

salmon (the colour) – salmon, the fish that can be a food

Breen (surname) -> fishy brine (as in a tin of tuna or salmon)

Jesus -> cheese, cheeses

Cheddle (surname) -> cheddar cheese

Chesney (surname) -> sounds pretty cheesy to me

Bega (place name, cheese brand name) -> cheese

Grattan (surname) -> gratin (french word associated with cheese toppings) -> cheese

Curry (surname and place name) -> classic Australian version of an Indian-style curry, yellow, fairly hot and including ground fenugreek

Mueller (place name, surname) -> museli

Polonium (element in chemistry) – polony

Polonius (name form Shakespeare) -polony

Polonaise (a kind of music) – polony

Bolognese (from Bologa) – spaghetti bolognese

Sardinian (from Sardinia) – sardines

Hutton (street name and surname) -> some kind of nasty fatty smallgood meat product, something like polony with grainy white fat residue on the outside (There is a smallgoods company with this name, and it also sounds like “mutton”)

Murcott (surname) -> apricot (dried, the only type of apricot that I was given as a child) The idea that there is a variety of mandarin that is called a Murcott mandarin is a bit of a mindf…. to me, quite frankly, because the name “Murcott” and the word “mandarin” both automatically make me think of different foods, neither of them being exactly the same as the taste of a Murcott mandarin.

Walcott -> walnut

Waldorf -> walnut

McCusker -> bread crust, cereal rusk

Ryan -> bacon rind, cooked bacon fatty bits

Ayn Rand – -> bacon rind

Marmion -> marmalade (I can almost taste it)

Marmaduke -> marmalade (ditto)

Marshall (surname) -> marshmallow

marshal (word) -> marshmallow

Mandarin (language) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (the Imperial type that is not a hybrid)

mandarin (word) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (I can almost smell it)

lime (as in the white calcium stuff that is very alkaline) -> lime (citrus fruit, lime flavouring)

Frankfurt -> Frankfurt sausage

Maroochydore -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

rifle -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar (these were heavily advertised when I was a kid)

scholarship -> a crispy batter on a piece of fish in fish and chips

scholar -> as above

Heinz (name) -> Heinz tinned food for preschoolers (a tinned product that was on the market when I was a child consisting of chunks of beef and vegetables)

Campbell (surname) – some kind of thickened canned stew or soup with chunks of beef and potato and carrot and stuff

Kojonup (place name) -> coconut

Punnet (word) -> whipping cream in a carton (did I once confuse the words “punnet” and “pint”?)

Notes, Ideas and Questions

So, now you know why I didn’t name any of our kids Tegan or Prue or Carmel. There is actually a synaesthesia-related pattern in the names that I chose for the kids, but that is a subject for another post.

By far most of the foods and drinks that are evoked by this type of syanesthesia are things that I ate during my early childhood, and many of them are food or drinks that I only ate as a child, but not as an adult. At the risk of stating the obvious, the foods and drinks evoked are very delicious. They are things that I very much enjoyed when I was a kid.

There is a definite but subtle distinction to be made between this synaesthesia and learned cultural associations. The name of the city Frankfurt automatically makes me think of those dreadful pinkish-red coloured mini-sausages that have traditionally been cooked in a large pan of hot water for kids’ parties, but the city of Hamburg does not automatically make me think of hamburgers, except in a silly joking sense. There is a definite difference between the way that these names of German cities make me think of specific foods. My association between the place name Bega and cheese is similar to my association between the city Frankfurt and sausages. It is more vivid and automatic than a mere asociation created by the advertising of a brand of cheese. I don’t automatically think of cheese when confronted with the word “coon”, even though Coon is also a well-known brand of cheese. It’s a similar thing with the name Heinz. The association between the name and the food is not merely knowledge of a brand name – the concept of a specific food product is automatically evoked. Bega isn’t a brand-name of cheese that I recall being around in my childhood, so this shows that this type of synaesthesia appears to not be exclusively formed in early childhood. There are quite a few cheese-related associations listed here, so I’d say cheese is a food that has had quite an impact on my mind, probably because it is so very delicious to eat.

My attitude towards this synaesthesia isn’t completely neutral. Food-related surnames seem ridiculous to me and I find it hard to avoid thinking of food when hearing them. Some examples: Mr Peach, Mrs Cherry, Miss Sultana. Yes, I know this seems childish. I am mildly annoyed by the childishness of this synaesthesia. It’s as though part of my brain never grew up.

I consider this type of synaesthesia to be very close to flavoured word synaesthesia or “lexical-gustatory synaesthesia” that has already been described by synesthesia researchers. I don’t quite have this type of synaesthesia. I suspect that this type of synaesthesia might even fall under the definition of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but my synaesthesia always involves words or names that sound similar to food words-none of the words involved in my food-related synaesthesia look like random pairings. This is a feature that has been mentioned in some published descriptions of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but is apparently not a universal feature. On page 149 of the book Wednesday is indigo blue by US synesthesia experts Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman there is a discussion of examples of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia that operate in the same way as mine. Some examples given are:
dogma -> hot dogs
Jackson -> cracker jacks and
Cincinnati -> cinnamon rolls
which looks like exactly the same type of phenomenon as my gustatory synaesthesia. There is something about this synaesthesia that possibly hasn’t been noted by any of the syanesthesia experts – when my mind is hijacked by synaesthesia to involuntarily think about a food when I hear or think of a word that sounds the same or similar to a word for that food, it is as though my synaesthesia nudges an ambiguity in the interpretation of the meaning of words towards the direction of interpreting the word as a food word.

Many of these food concepts and words that evoke food concepts appear to be associated with my early childhood, which is I believe consistent with reports by synaesthesia researchers about flavoured-word synaesthesia, and it is also consistent with the early childhood origins of grapheme-colour synaesthesia (a type of synaesthesia that I also have). Words such as “jubilation” and “praise” and the name “Jesus” are words that haven’t been much a part of my life since my mother dragged us kids to church on Sundays a very long time ago. I remember thinking about cheeses in church when I was a kid when the minister was raving on about Jesus. Perhaps this neurological subversion of The Word of God could explain why the religion meme never flourished in my mind. Foods such as braise, stew, steak and kidney pie, chocolate custard with coconut sprinkled on top, sherbet, Copha, Passiona drink and Frankfurt sausages are also much more a part of my distant childhood past than my present. A range of lollies, all of which are ones I enjoyed as a child, are represented among the concepts evoked by this type of synaesthesia (oh, sweet memories!).

There are only three vegetables represented in this phenomenon, and they are vegetables that I never liked, and which are memorable to me for being unpalatable, but there are lots of lollies represented, desserts, children’s party foods, some spices, a herb, heaps of meat and fish-type foods and even a bit of offal. How strange. Did I actually eat any vegetables during my childhood? Was I a salad-dodger, or were there simply no salads served in our family when I was young? Did vegetables have such little appeal to me when I was young that the thought of them didn’t fire off enough neurons to create a synaesthesia association in my brain, and only the ones that evoked negative feelings had enough impact to become permanently a part of this neuropsycholocial phenomenon? If I had been raised in a non-white-Anglo family, a vegetarian family or a twenty-first century family my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia would have been very different.

Is this type of synaesthesia just a case of mistaken brain connections or is it some archaic type of evolutionary adaptation? Generally what is happening here is that my brain is operating on a hardwired bias towards interpreting words and names that sound a bit like words for foods as words for foods. It is as though my brain is set up to never, ever, ever miss out on noticing any discussion that is relevant to food. You can’t tell me that this wouldn’t be a useful feature to have in the ruthless game of life for our distant human ancestors, who would have lived from hand to mouth, and would have had to hunt, gather, steal or scavenge food to survive. Did I hear someone say “roasted antelope”? Did someone mention peaches? You can call me anything you like except late for breakfast!

Two popular books about synaesthesia that include discussion of the lexical-gustatory synaesthete James Wannerton

Cytowic, Richard E. and Eagleman, David M. Wednesday is indigo blue: discovering the brain of synesthesia. MIT Press, 2009.

Ward, Jamie The frog who croaked blue: synesthesia and the mixing of the senses. Routledge, 2008.

James Wannerton’s web site:

Welcome to the World of Synaesthesia  http://www.jwannerton.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/