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An Impeccable Sense of Taste

This is what it's like to live in a world where light tastes of smoke and the number nine is cheeky and a bit shy.

Synaesthesia is a very niche superpower – I taste words and colours, see and feel some sounds, and feel emotions as colours. Other people with synaesthesia might view time as a spatial map, perceive numbers as having personalities, or experience others’ pain. Most synaesthetes are born with it; mine developed as a symptom of migraine. It’s always there now – thundering or glimmering, depending on where I am in the migraine cycle.

I was lost in some paintings the first time I tasted colour and saw sound: Rothko’s Seagram Murals – big, bold canvases drenched in rich reds and dazzling darks. A migraine was brewing, but before I could escape, the grey walls of the gallery closed in like a storm. The red paint vibrated in long, low notes as my mouth filled with metal. I was tasting red – gritty, bloody, bright. The hum of the video installation next door manifested as a long rectangle, like a train of sound hurtling through my mind’s eye. It was bizarre and dizzying and terrifying. The whole thing lasted minutes but felt like hours.

Some time and much googling later, a neurologist mentioned synaesthesia: a perceptual phenomenon, not an illness or disease, whereby stimulating one sense brings a sensation in another. I think of it as sense blending or sensory crosstalk. There are thought to be many different kinds of it, involving anything from seeing the sound of flutes as yellow puffs to knowing that the number nine is cheeky but shy.

Developing synaesthesia has been formative in many ways. It’s proven a rich vein to tap for writing inspiration and can make reading downright delicious. When I first read Sappho's seventh-century BC Greek poetry seasoned with the salt of the Aegean Sea, sweet voices, and glittering laughter, I was in sensory ecstasy.

Art can still have the same effect for me as it did that first time at the Tate. I even started painting, an art form that I have very little aptitude for but which helps organise the colours in my head. When I paint, it’s often of blue brains shot through with red or orange, or being washed out in baths. Make of that what you will.

I often visit the Rothko paintings, though they’re hung in a different room now. Their sensation is familiar and comforting these days, not least because they’re displayed in low lighting. This is important because one of the more intrusive aspects of my synaesthesia is tasting white light. (Such is my aversion to it that a flatmate once gave me a small statue of a mushroom as an ode to my fungus-like predilection for dark spaces.)

This type of synaesthesia came on as suddenly as the others. Before I started writing full-time, I was a senior comms manager for a large international firm. One day I was in a meeting with my boss and a board member – not the kind of gathering you want to behave strangely in. About 10 minutes into the conversation, the white from the light – those aggressively fluorescent, flickering ones so often found in offices and airports – began to smell and taste of smoke. My mouth was filled with it. Dry, acrid, powdery, as if someone had detonated a smoke bomb on my tongue.

A while later, the kind folk from occupational health removed the bulbs over my desk and fixed a non-reflective black mat to it so I didn’t have to taste white light and eat smoke all day.

Around the time that I started tasting white light, I started having strange sensory reactions to sounds too. Turns out there's something called misophonia where some people’s brains are wired to have excessive reactions to certain noises.

Someone eating a yoghurt is particularly unbearable now – the noise of a spoon being raked over the pot’s silvery lid then scraped around its plastic insides to gouge out every last dreg of fermented ungulate juice feels like an unprovoked campaign of persecution. The same happens with some other noises, like smoke alarms or electronic games, and a few smells – I’ve left restaurants and almost lost my mind at a Japanese shrine because of the smell of incense. Loud eating is by far the worst. This isn’t an "Oh, that’s unpleasant, please stop, I’m a bit sensitive to sounds" reaction. This is, "You’re attacking me and I’m ready to go to war over this aural abomination."

It’s not uncommon for synaesthetes to have an unusual relationship with sound. Chromesthesia, for example, means sound is experienced as colour. It’s been documented among musicians and artists from Kanye to Kandinsky. This isn’t a major one for me, though I do have a few associations – the noise of trains forms a series of low, glowing triangles in my mind’s eye, while police sirens are purple spirals that burst and evaporate like fireworks.

More pronounced for me is emotion-colour synaesthesia. If I’m in a blue mood, I’m either feeling steady (navy), intelligent (International Klein Blue), or frantic (emergency lights), depending on the shade. Energised is green – the paler the shade of green, the calmer the energy – while curiosity is yellow (also the colour of Sundays to me). Alarmed and threatened are bright orange, dangerous or arrogant are purple. Other moods are colourless.

I mean this in the least hippie way possible, but people have an aura if their mood is obvious. I can’t resist a green man, while lots of my close friends are yellow. And though I don’t find the actual colour aesthetically pleasing and it doesn’t particularly suit me, I have a yellow necklace that I wear often because I like carrying curiosity.

Sometimes I hear or read something jarring. The idiom about the green monster rearing its ugly head is an oxymoron to me (envy is brown; green can only be beautiful and positive). The word "jaded" is also wrong because jade is green and green is energised, not exhausted. Tired yet? I am.

In the light of all this, there is part of my brain that doesn’t trust the rest of it. Extensive medical tests have ruled out anything more sinister than migraine, but my brain still remembers that colours and words didn’t always do this. While some words are more palatable than others, no matter the flavour, I always try to connect the dots and rationalise the association.

“Bus”, for example, tastes particularly revolting – like chewed-up pencil erasers. In its attempt to force logic on to an illogical phenomenon, my brain has decided that this makes sense because buses have big rubber tires. Tenuous, but I’m going with it. Reason might also dictate that “Sweden” would taste of swede, but rather than root vegetable it is a zingy, tangy mouthful. Obviously this is because there is lemon yellow in the flag, my brain asserts.

This tasting of words is called lexical-gustatory synaesthesia and is a great example of why I’m disinclined to learn the terms for all the different types.

It’s a minority of words that have an unusual taste for me, but once they do, the flavour doesn’t change. We can talk citrusy Scandinavia all day, but don’t expect me to give a speech on public transport any time soon.

I’ve always spent a lot of time in my head. With synaesthesia, I am even more inclined to introversion. No doubt there are times when I’ve come off as vapid or aloof because of it. One of my favourite euphemisms to describe a conversation with me when my brain and senses are off on one is “nonlinear”. It’s hard to follow a dialogue when you’re scrabbling for gum to get a taste out of your mouth (I have a two-packs-a-day habit) or visualising punctuation.

Sometimes all this is overwhelming but I’ve figured out some tricks to help manage it: menthol rubbed on fingers and discreetly sniffed to block out the smoke smell of bright lights, popping to the loo and running the tap to neutralise anger-inducing sounds (pouring water summons cool blue and the feel of pulling a silky ribbon through fingers), wrapping myself in a cotton sheet when touching wool fills my mouth with the taste of metal washing-up scourers. Believe it or not, a little alcohol helps to depress the sensory drama too.

Sometimes I give myself away. A comment about a colour or a word slips out and people have questions. I don’t always have the energy or the inclination to articulate my synaesthesia – it’s concrete in my head but my explanations come out indistinct and abstract, and I worry it will become the most interesting thing about me. Rare is the chance to write and revise a couple of thousand words to try to bring clarity to it. I never bring it up. Often, if someone asks if I’m a synaesthete, I’ll play dumb and say, “I don’t know, what’s that?”

I’ve only recently arrived at an explanation for what developing synaesthesia is like. A while ago I moved to Spain for a year to learn Spanish. With the acquisition of a new tongue came a fresh set of emotions and an uncharted way of interacting. Spanish-talking Lydia is much bolder and more direct than English-speaking Lydia – it’s the nature of the language. I’ve started spouting a Charlemagne quote: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” I believe that, and I apply it to synaesthesia. Nonsynaesthete Lydia was, in many ex-boyfriends’ words, “emotionally unavailable”. Synaesthete Lydia cries at paintings. I am more alive than I was because of synaesthesia.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’d be rid of the migraine that causes my synaesthesia in a shot if I could (I can’t because there isn’t a cure yet), but that would mean the colours would go too. I think about that sometimes. I wonder if I’d feel bleached inside without synaesthesia. What would I think about if colours were just colours again? This small rainbow corner of migraine is magical and would be hard to say goodbye to.

Lydia Ruffles is the author of The Taste of Blue Light, out now.

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