Tag Archives: Richard Cytowic

So does that mean everyone is really a synaesthete (but most don’t know it)?

Lawrence D. Rosenblum has written a book and also a recently-published article in Scientific American about a new model of how the brain works, with the senses working together intimately, not running in isolated ways in isolated sections of the brain.

http://www.sciamdigital.com/index.cfm?fa=Products.ViewIssuePreview&ARTICLEID_CHAR=AAC4AB91-237D-9F22-E8E6521DD8788D4C

http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/10914

Rosenblum’s book See What I’m Saying was reviewed by the synaesthesia researcher Richard Cytowic in New Scientist:

See What I’m Saying demonstrates that the five senses do not travel along separate channels, but interact to a degree few scientists would have believed only a decade ago. After reading Rosenblum’s captivating book, you will be surprised at how much your senses are capable of.

Cytowic wrote that this is not a book about synaesthesia. He’s right. There are important and testable differences between synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes, but it is my opinion that Rosenblum’s ideas possibly have implications for synaesthetes. I believe it is time to discard the misleading and silly notion that synaesthetes have “mixed up” or “cross-wired” senses, because every person’s senses work together. The McGurk effect is just one striking example. I believe we should instead be describing synaesthesia as a variation charcterized by hyperconnectivity in the brain, not abnormal connectivity or mistaken connectivity. We are a sizable minority in the human race, so it doesn’t make sense to write us off as freaks or abnormalities.

Extraordinary secrets of our linked-up senses
26 April 2010
http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/04/extraordinary-secrets-of-our-linked-up-senses.html

Why the big deal? Redefining synaesthesia.

You might be wondering why I am so interested in documenting and naming the various types of synaesthesia that I experience which appear to have never been reported scientifically or anecdotally before, experiences such as concept -> scene synaesthesia, fine motor task -> scene synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon. You might also be wondering why I’m so excited to find that there are other people who report experiences that seem to fall into the category of concept -> scene synesthesia. These three types of synaesthesia are, I believe, of scientific importance because they are indeed synaesthesia, but they also violate the third criteria for identifying synaesthesia that was stated years ago by the US neurologist and pioneer of synesthesia science, Richard Cytowic. Cytowic’s list of synaesthesia criteria can be seen at the Wikipedia’s article about synaesthesia. Criteria number three is thus:

3. Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).

My experiences of concept -> scene synaesthesia, fine motor task -> scene synaesthesia and The Strange Phenomenon range from very consistent to fairly consistent, but the visual synaesthesia experiences triggered in these types of synaesthesia are most certainly not “generic” or simple. These are most certainly pictorial experiences, they are visual memories of landscape scenes and of one particular face.

I’m not too alarmed that I have synaesthesia experiences that don’t appear to conform to some rules of synaesthesia definition, because as I’ve seen during the years that I’ve been reading about this fascinating neurological condition, the definition of synaesthesia has been changing a lot over the years, and is still in the process of evolution and scientific development, as is abundantly clear from Dr Julia Simner’s recent journal paper about defining synaesthesia. I hope you find this as interesting as I do!

 

External references

Simner, Julia Defining synaesthesia. British Journal of Psychology. 2010 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 20939943 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20939943

Wikipedia contributors Synesthesia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Synesthesia&oldid=439113699

 

Involuntary Method of Loci Memorization (IMLM) – what the heck is that?

A note of warning – If you are thinking about copying or plagiarizing any of the text, ideas or descriptions in this post and using it is your own work without giving me (C. Wright, author of the blog “Am I a super-recognizer?”) the proper acknowledgement and citations, then think again. If you do that you will be found out and you will regret it. If you want to make reference to this post or any of the ideas in it make sure that you state in your work exactly where you first read about these ideas. If you wish to quote any text from this post be sure to cite this post at this blog properly. There are many established citation methods. If you quote or make reference to material in this blog in your work, it would be a common courtesy to let me know about your work (I’m interested!) in a comment on any of the posts in this blog. Thank you.

I am not sure if this visual-spatial-memory related experience, which I and at least two of my first-degree relatives experience often, has already been described publicly in an anecdote or in a more scientific or formal discourse. I only know that I have never read or heard a description of this experience that wasn’t first prompted by my explaining it to someone else. Maybe it is such a common thing that it isn’t thought worth mentioning. This is the attitude toward this experience that is held by one of my two relatives who has this experience. In light of the fact that these relatives and I are all synaesthetes, and synaesthetes are thought to have unusual memory abilities, and this experience appears to be an involuntary subtype of the method of loci memorization technique, an ancient memory technique that was thought to have been used by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria’s famous case “S”, who was described in Luria’s book The mind of a mnemonist , who was also a synaesthete and had arguably the most amazing memory known to science, I think this experience might be of some scientific interest, and I think it is worth spending some time describing it.

Before attempting to explain what involuntary method of loci memorization is, it makes sense to explain what the method of loci is. I’m happy to outsource this task to the Wikipedia:

“The method of loci…, also called the memory palace, is a general designation for mnemonic techniques that rely on memorised spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorial content…. The method of loci is also commonly called the mental walk. In basic terms, it is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualization to organize and recall information. Many memory contest champions claim to use this technique in order to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. These champions’ successes have little to do with brain structure or intelligence, but more to do with their technique of using regions of their brain that have to do with spatial learning. Those parts of the brain that contribute most significantly to this technique include the medial parietal cortex, retrosplenial cortex, and the right posterior hippocampus.”

I have never deliberately tried to use this technique myself, but I believe it can be applied to the task of memorizing a set sequence of distinct items. I don’t think it is applied to complex concepts. One either imagines visually in the mind’s eye, or one visits and sees, a familiar walking route. One then imagines each item to be memorized, in order, at various landmarks and locations along the walk. If the items are not the type of thing normally visualised, they must be mentally converted into a visual form. For example, a name to be memorized could be converted into a visual image of a thing that the name brings to mind. To recall this list of items one needs to imagine walking along that route, and apparently in the mind’s eye each item will be encountered on the imaginary journey and recalled. I guess this might be the origin of the saying “a walk down memory lane”.

There are a number of ways in which involuntary method of loci memorization (IMLM) is different to method of loci, but I think the similarities are interesting and indicate the use of similar or the same neurological machinery. Rather than thinking of IMLM as an accidental version of method of loci memory technique, perhaps it is more suitable to regard the method of loci technique as a method of “taming” and using the process involved in IMLM. As is a familiar theme to anyone who has been interested enough to read my blog, I believe this is a type of synaesthesia or has central elements in common with synaesthesia.

How does IMLM work? The basis of this memory phenomenon is the long-term incidental/accidental formation of a stable neurological association between the visual image of the scene of the exact location where one is at and information absorbed through interested, attentive reading or through interested, attentive listening at a time when one was present at and looking at that exact location. If one revisits that exact location and looks at exactly the same scene, the memory of the information absorbed at that location is automatically and involuntarily recalled. There does not need to be any logical link between the place or scene and the concept. Recall of the concept can happen years later when the place is revisited. As I have not made any serious attempt to record this phenomenon I do not know exactly how long these associations can last. The form in which the information is recalled is in conceptual form – I do not “hear” in my mind’s ear the sound of the original radio broadcast, and I do not “read” in my mind’s eye information read at that location. I just remember the gist of what was learned at that location. This is one way in which this phenomenon is different from the method of loci. In the method of loci both the trigger (seeing or visualizing the scenery of the walk) and the experiences evoked (visualizing the items memorized) are visual. In the IMLM the trigger is visual (a scene) but the experience evoked is a concept, not visual, at least that has been the way I experience it.

One could simply call this scene->concept synaesthesia, and interestingly, I have described at this blog concept->scene synaesthesia, and unusual variations, which I also experience, and at this blog other people from around the world have described similar concept->scene synaesthesia experiences. Clearly, at least in some brains, there are very active physical connections between the part of the brain that “does” visualisation of memories of scenes (fusiform gyrus?) and the part of the brain that “does” abstract conceptual thinking, whatever that part might be. I have never before read of any such thing being described in the literature on synaesthesia. I choose to not simply call the IMLM phenonenon “scene->concept synaesthesia” because this differs from classic synaesthesia in a number of important ways. Unlike other known types of synaesthesia, the events that formed the synaesthesia-like connections can be remembered by me and they are similar scenarios. Unlike the apparent origins of many well-studied types of synaesthesia (such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, which I and relatives also experience), the events that formed these connection did not happen in early childhood, and new instances of this type of synaesthesia could easily be deliberately created, and possibly exploited as a mnemonic device. To contrast IMLM and my synaesthesias that connect scenes and concepts with the more classic forms of synaesthesia such as number form synaesthesia and grapheme->colour synaesthesia, the classic types could be described as “developmental” because they form in early childhood, most likely as the result of natural but atypical brain maturation processes, and they are permanent, but my IMLM and related synaesthesias can form in adulthood, can be manipulated and created, and while these connections are generally very long-lasting, I’m not completely sure that they are as unchanging as the classic synaesthesias. IMLM is not a type of “developmental” synaesthesia – I would instead describe it as an unusual ability that the synaesthete brain is possibly especially capable at doing at any age. It could very well be useful if one wanted to learn some type of savant memory party trick.

I can’t be completely sure that my experiences are identical to those of my synaesthete close relatives. I am trying to clarify with one of my close relatives whether the evoked experience is for them always conceptual. This relative has described an instance of this phenomenon in which a specific scene of some very large, shady trees at Liddell Park at Girrawheen on Wanneroo Road involuntarily evokes the memory of the song “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. We are not sure if it is the sound or the concept of this song that is evoked. A characteristic of this phenomenon is that, unless one thinks about specific instances a lot, it happens unexpectedly and is easily forgotten. It is like a thought that flashes through the mind and vanishes as fast as it appeared. This is why it can be tricky to record and easy to overlook.

I believe that IMLM and my other synaesthesia and synaesthesia-like experiences that involve concepts, faces and scenes, experiences such as my concept->scene synaesthesia, fine motor task->scene synaesthesia, The Strange Phenomenon and IMLM, are especially interesting because they are essentially synaesthesia, but they also appear to violate one of the basic criteria for identifying synaesthesia in a set of criteria that has had a lot of scientific influence for many years. The pioneer of 20th century synaesthesia research in the US, Dr Richard Cytowic, formulated a set of criteria for synaesthesia during his pioneering investigations into the neurological phenomenon. I believe that a driving motivation of Cytowic’s at the time might have been to outline the many differences between synaesthesia and psychosis-type experiences. Cytowic’s criteria number three for synaesthesia is thus: “Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).” The faces, scenes and abstract concepts that I experience during some types of synaesthesia are most definitely not generic and simple rather than pictorial. I believe it was years after Cytowic’s work that the UK synaesthesia researcher Dr Julia Simner wrote a paper or papers arguing for the conceptual nature of some types of synaesthesia, and arguing against the notion that synaesthesia is a purely simple and sensory experience (“mixed-up senses”). She was focusing on types of synaesthesia that involve simple learned concepts, such as numbers and letters and months of the year, in types of synaesthesia such as grapheme->colour synaesthesia, number form synaesthesia and sequence-space synaesthesia. The history of synaesthesia research goes back centuries, and the definition of synaesthesia is still evolving. I believe that my experiences, and those of oher people that are described at this blog, should be taken into account in the ongoing scientific exploration of synaesthesia.

Back to the subject at hand! How does the IMLM phenomenon typically happen? A common scenario that brings about this phenomenon is me sitting in a parked car while listening to an informational radio show, news radio broadcasts and Radio National being favourite listening of mine. Sometimes this happens when I am waiting for others to run some errand, and sometimes I’m sitting in the car listening to the end of some radio item that has caught my interest, before getting out and going shopping or whatever. I have considered naming this phenomenon car-park -> Radio National synaesthesia, but I think to call it just another type of synaesthesia is an oversimplification, and it also happens in slightly different scenarios. As with all types of synesthesia, the trigger and the evoked experience are both very specific. It is so specific that it can be localised to within just a couple of car-park spaces. In the car-park of one shopping centre that I often visit, many different areas of that car-park evoke their own specific memories of the thing that I learned about while parked at that space.  This same car-park phenomenon can happen when I sit in a parked car reading a book while stopping to gaze at the surrounds. I will recall what I read about in the book when I was parked there if I return to that parking space, or a space no more than a few spaces away, again years later and look at the scene.

Scenes can change, and I guess this would nullify this phenomenon, but I’m not sure. Perhaps the sense of one’s geographical place rather than vision of scenery can act as a trigger. I’m not sure. This phenomenon can form while one is travelling as a passenger gazing out the window of a vehicle that has stopped temporarily at lights or a traffic jam, while listening to the radio. The concept memorized needs to be reasonably interesting to the listener. It can be something shocking like a fictional description of sexual abuse, or news of a deadly natural disaster happening, but it doesn’t have to evoke extreme emotions. Odd, obscure ideas and facts can be memorized, but it must hold some interest to the person.

I am sure that weak, fuzzy and common forms of this phenomenon are commonplace. We all recall memories of times past when we revisit places where scenes of our lives have taken place, don’t we? I often like to revisit places that hold happy memories from my past, so that in going there I can gain good access to those memories. I guess other people do the same? We all habitually return to places that we have previously enjoyed being at, and avoid places that were the setting of unpleasant times. This makes sense psychologically, and this type of behaviour makes sense within the context of evolutionary adaptations.

I guess there are some people who have little opportunity to experience IMLM. If a person doesn’t ever listen to talk radio while in a vehicle or never reads information in places where they can also see scenery, they may never have the chance to experience it. Perhaps IMLM is a very common experience for people who habitually listen to talk radio or spoken books on long road or rail journeys, or while working as a long distance truck driver. In fact I know a long-distance truck driver who has described to me privately an experience that sounds a lot like IMLM.

Many questions are raised during consideration of IMLM and the method of loci. An obvious one is whether people who have agnosia for scenes completely miss out on this phenomenon. Perhaps it depends on the exact nature of the cause of their agnosia (damage or disconnection?) What is the relationship between synaesthesia and method of loci? Do synaesthetes have some type of natural advantage in using it? Any particular type of synaesthetes? Luria’s “S”, a multi-synaesthete and a grapheme -> colour synaesthete, reportedly used the method of loci (Wilding & Valentine 1997), and three grapheme -> colour synaesthetes (my family members and I) experience IMLM, a phenomenon which appears to be closely related to the method of loci.

Which parts of the brain are involved in IMLM? Visual memories of scenes are an essential element of both the method of loci and IMLM. Visual memories of scenes are also a recurring theme within the descriptions of my unusual neurological experiences that I have written at my blog. I believe the fusiform gyrus is the part of the brain that processes this type of information. I have given many arguments in my blog, regarding different types of synaesthesia that I experience, asserting that my fusiform gyrus is unusual and in some ways superior in function. This all appears to suggest that the fusiform gyrus is involved in the method of loci.

How can knowledge of these memory phenomena and techniques be applied to improving learning and the use of memory? Could a regime of listening to sound recordings of information to be absorbed while travelling along a route be an effective learning technique? How could this memorized information be later recalled? Could there an advantage to travelling to school, university or work in a long journey with lots of opportunities for viewing scenes? There is no end to the neurological phenomena that I hope to find the time to describe, and one of those phenomena is the one in which driving or travelling in a vehicle appears to unlock my memory, my ability to link concepts and to generate new ideas like nothing else can.

What are the limitations and the advantages of the use of the method of loci and IMLM memory phenomena? The method of loci has the disadvantage that the retrieval of information encoded using the method is inflexible. It relies on being at a specific geographical location or imagining a specific location for it to work. IMLM is just as specific and inflexible, and is also very fast and fickle, but it can be “tamed” by consciously reflecting on it, in a similar way as the application of the method of loci technique. I have found that once one is aware of the associations between scenes and concepts, one can think of the scene and then recall the concept. I have found that there are instances in which this works in reverse – thinking about a concept evokes a memory of a scene. It is far from clear how the conscious manipulation of IMLM might provide any advantage over simply reading stuff and thinking about stuff. Figuring out how to exploit this thing is probably a job for someone else. The first step is describing the phenomenon, which is what I’ve done here.

Some examples of spontaneous IMLM experiences that have happened:

-being at a specific place in a carpark at Warwick Shopping Centre evoking a memory of a rather hard-to-believe description of a sexually exploitative situation in the book Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, which I read months before when waiting in a parked car in that specific area

-the example given in the text of this article experienced by a close relative of mine involving a park in Girrawheen

-the concept of The Book Depository and the decline of non-internet book retailers evoked when parking at a particular spot at the Dog Swamp Shopping Centre, where I was parked months before when I listened to a story on The Book Show on Radio National about The Book Depository, and it was the first time I’d heard of the business.

-the concept of raising a transgender child in a genuinely sympathetic manner in spite of ignorant people evoked by parking in a particular spot next to a kindergarten, where months before I’d listened to an interesting story on this subject on the car radio after droppng young child off.

-there are many more examples, most involving carpark spaces and talk radio shows

References

Cytowic, Richard E. Synesthesia: a union of the senses. Springer-Verlag, 1989.

Luria, Alexander The mind of a mnemonist: a little book about a vast memory. Penguin, 1975. http://www.scribd.com/doc/12983496/Alexander-Luria-The-Mind-of-a-Mnemonist

Simner, Julia Beyond perception: synaesthesia as a psycholinguistic phenomenon. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(1), 23-29.

Wikipedia contributors Method of loci. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Method_of_loci&oldid=416232189

Wilding, John M. and Valentine, Elizabeth R. Superior memory. Psychology Press, 1997. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=lBHYHgpxDEkC&dq=wilding+valentine+1997&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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/