You are currently viewing Sherrill Joseph asks, “Are You a Synesthete?” 

Sherrill Joseph asks, “Are You a Synesthete?” 

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,, 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.

An example of how a synesthetic person might associate a color with a letter or number.

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. 

Post on Synesthesia, image from by Tina Nord

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.

Sherrill Joseph

Sherrill Joseph is the award-winning author of the Botanic Hill Detectives series for middle graders. You can find out more about her on her website,, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, or Instagram.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I love the approach that synesthesia is an ability rather than a disability. You and Rani are not only gifted, but you enrich all of your readers and friends with your tasty, tasteful, taste-laden insights.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Saralyn. It’s an ability if you don’t let it drive you crazy! My goal as a writer is “everything for kids.”

  2. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Fascinating, Sherrill! It’s an extra talent you have and I love how it helps you relate to your young readers.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Christine. As the kids would say, it’s my “super power”! Synesthesia is always a topic of conversation before, during, and after school visits.

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Sherrill — What an interesting post!

    From an outsider’s perspective, I agree that synesthesia seems to be an ABILITY instead of a disability.

    As a reader and huge fan of your series, I can attest that synesthesia enhances your creativity because it’s top-notch.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks so much, Laurie, aka “the scent of clean laundry.”

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    I’ve been fascinated with synesthesia ever since I saw the handwriting of a couple of people who had it–not that handwriting can tell. I’d love to see yours, Sherrill. That Fitzgerald passage is a wonderful illustration and makes me wish I could experience it–for a little while, anyway 🙂

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Sheila. My handwriting looks almost like a student’s cursive practice book since I used to teach it! That might skew any “results” (?). I love Fitzgerald’s writing. When I was in college reading The Great Gatsby, I had so many passages marked as exceptional examples of powerful description. Now, I know why.

  5. gpgottlieb

    This is sooo interesting. I’d love to go grocery shopping with Sherrill Joseph, and ask her what every fruit and vegetable evokes for her, but I’d be a little nervous about inviting her over for dinner!

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      No worries, Galit. You can invite me over. Sometimes, actual food I’m buying or eating interferes with my synesthesia. I guess I need “a clean palate”! Also, most synesthetes, including me, can’t usually “go in reverse” and think of a name or word when they see a food.

  6. Avatar
    Laurie's Story

    I’d never heard of this. Thank you for enlightening us. It’s clever you weave the phenomenon into your writing. I’ll bet it helps you understand it even more. Signed, Fresh Laundry.

  7. Avatar
    Avanit Centrae

    Wow, that’s pretty cool, and one I’ll make a note of for my own characters! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Hi, Avanti. Thanks! I look forward to meeting your future synesthetic characters.

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Dear Fresh Laundry, thanks! Once a teacher, always a teacher. I gave the ability to one of my characters to make her unique. We writers are endlessly looking for interesting character traits. I do think being a synesthete sparks my creativity.

  9. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    When I read Saffron Street I was intrigued by Rani’s ability but had no idea that you had it too! I find the idea absolutely enchanting, although a boyfriend’s name that tasted like snot is not good. Thank you so much for this fascinating post!

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      You’re welcome, Sharon. Most tastes and aromas are pleasant.
      The guy had other issue besides the “snot factor,” so it was a wise adios.

  10. Avatar
    Nan McCann

    I have spacial-sequence synesthesia as well as color grapheme synesthesia. I never realized others didn’t see numbers or months as I did until I was 40.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Hi, Nan. I, too, thought everyone had my type of synesthesia without knowing it was synesthesia! I just realized this five years ago. Thanks for sharing about your two types! It’s great meeting another synesthete.

  11. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Fascinating, Sherrill. Thanks for sharing your special ability with us! Did the boyfriend’s personality issues influence the flavor of his name? If a female had the name Billie, would her name taste the same as a male named Billy? Inquiring minds want to know. 🙂

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks for your great questions, Margaret. The boyfriend’s personality issues didn’t influence the flavor of his name, but they certainly contributed to the split! Synesthetic results come from some mysterious place in the brain over which a synesthete has no control. And Billy/Billie would have the same flavor of too much hot milk for me no matter how it was spelled. I try not to cry over spilt/spelt milk!

  12. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Sherrill, I love how you share your knowledge and extensive research with your kid readers! ( And with us.) I have mild synesthesia too, when I hear certain notes and chords, I think of them in color. But I wonder if it’s because when I was 3, I learned the notes on the staff in color. A was orange, for example. And it still is. So, can Synesthesia be taught to very young people?

  13. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Tracey. It’s the forever teacher in me. That’s cool that you have synesthesia, too, no matter what its degree. I’ve read that some scientists think many synesthetes’ results stem from (are influenced by) some random childhood associations. But the key is that a person has to be born with synesthesia to have it. Associations, however, can be taught, making those different from actual synesthetic results. Many non-synesthetes have associations, e.g., Grandma baked oatmeal cookies, so the grandchild will forever associate those cookies with her.

  14. joyribar

    Sherrill, like everyone else here, I am now a student of your special gift. I celebrate it and though I’m envious and think you possess the coolest of cool factors, can you share a down side? It is being misunderstood?

  15. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Joy! There are a few down sides for me. One is that some people are quick to label me/synesthetes “weird” perhaps because they don’t understand it. Another is that sometimes, I can’t describe the taste or aroma produced, which for me is like unfinished business. A third down side is that occasionally, the taste makes me crave the food! Then, I have to turn on my will power if it’s a decadent item like chocolate or a sugar-laden treat. Last, it makes me feel lonely sometimes since I don’t personally know anyone else with my type. I think that’s another reason I created Rani. Writing to the rescue! Thanks for asking.

    1. joyribar

      Thanks for opening up and sharing this.

  16. Avatar
    Danielle Hammelef

    Thank you for the detailed article. So many creative people with synesthesia. I love that my name tastes like banana smoothie or banana vanilla shake.

  17. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    You’re welcome, Danielle! Thank goodness for the arts and creativity as outlets.

Leave a Reply