Sherrill Joseph is the author of the Botanic Hill Detectives mystery series for middle schoolers. You can find out more about her on her website, www.sherrilljoseph.com, or by clicking here, see her last post here, and buy her books here.
“Ms. J, what does my name make you taste?”
A fair question, the kind I am always asked by school students when I attend an author visit.
My kid-lit fans know I’m a synesthete. That’s a person with synesthesia. So is Rani Kumar, one of my detective characters. No worries. It’s not a fatal disease. She and I were born as synesthetes. We didn’t know the term until I stumbled across an article about the condition five years ago.
What exactly is synesthesia?
The word synesthesia derives from two Greek roots: syn = union; aesthesis = sensation: a union of two or more senses. About four percent of the world’s population (roughly 320 million as of 2023) was born with this interesting neurological condition, resulting in unusual cross connections in the brain. Those cause one sense to trigger another, allowing synesthetes to apply two or more senses simultaneously. This “sensory fusion” is considered by many to be a mental ability, not a disability.
The term synesthesia was coined by English polymath Sir Francis Galton in the nineteenth century. So far, scientists have identified about fifty types of synesthesia.
One of the most common is letter/number/shape to color synesthesia, sometimes called chromesthesia. Perhaps you or someone you know has this type. Do you see letters, words, numbers, or shapes in color? For example, is A pink and 8 blue? Perhaps you hear musical notes or see shapes in color. Synesthetes would likely argue over the colors: “No, A is green, not pink! Squares are purple, not red!” Monday is orange!” etc. Synesthetic results tend to be mostly consistent over time and unique to each synesthete—Rani excepted since she’s my synesthetic twin/fictional creation.
Rani and I have lexical-gustatory synesthesia. This type is very rare with less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population having it (roughly 16 million as of 2023). We taste words! Sometimes, we can smell and feel them, too. Rani’s name makes us taste crunchy, raw green beans. My first name Sherrill is a sticky tart-cherry lollipop. My last name Joseph is a grainy Mounds candy bar. Sweet! Dave is barbecued steak, but David is fudge. Laurie is the scent of fresh laundry. Becky is gritty Grape Nuts cereal. The words mask and masquerade are mac and cheese. Etc., etc., etc.
Sometimes, synesthetic episodes aren’t so delicious for Rani and me. The name Riley makes us smell pipe tobacco. A cousin’s name makes us taste earwax, whatever that tastes like. And I stopped dating a guy because his name made me taste snot! Fortunately, Rani is too young to date.
Occasionally, we can’t describe what the taste or smell is. Those must come from another planet.
It’s rare for a synesthete to be able to work “in reverse”; in other words, when Rani and I see or taste a cherry lollipop, we don’t necessarily think of my first name. And it’s a mystery to both of us why or how our synesthetic episodes yield the results they do. What we do know is that we can’t control or stop them. So, please don’t be angry with us if you don’t like our synesthetic responses.
Synesthesia tends to be hereditary at the rate of forty percent. I, however, haven’t been able to find any other family members including my fraternal twin sister who was or is a synesthete. Lonely.
Some famous people have or had synesthesia (mainly chromesthesia). What do you notice about them? Leonard Bernstein, Mary J. Blige, Billie Eilish, Lorde, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Franz Liszt, Plato, Socrates, Itzhak Perlman, Van Goth, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Wonder, Vladimir Nabokov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimaud, Geoffrey Rush, Marilyn Monroe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name just a few. Yes, all creatives. Some nineteenth-century Romantics were especially enamored with the concept, particularly, color symbolism.
Here are two of my favorite synesthetic metaphors (a recognized figure of speech). They are from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Notice how he used his synesthetic gift to enhance his descriptions of the music played at Jay Gatsby’s party:
The moon had risen a little higher, and floating in the [Long Island] Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn. . . . (a couple paragraphs later) The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music . . .
Does synesthesia contribute to my own creativity? I believe so because I feel and experience the world on a deeper level than a non-synesthete might. I also use synesthesia in my Botanic Hill Detectives Mysteries, mostly via Rani. One of the other detectives, Moki Kalani, is convinced that Rani can use her synesthesia to help the squad solve their cases. What fun possibilities. And I could be teaching kids a new term or helping them recognize the gift they possess. If my readers know they are synesthetes, they might see themselves in my books, which can help normalize an anomaly.
Synesthesia is quirky, mysterious, and it plays with our sense of perception. For me, it’s a gift that makes my world and, hopefully, the world of my readers more delicious. And those tastes are calorie free.