People who get to talk about books for a living – literary critics – love to discuss ‘sensual’ writing. Sometimes you pick up a book that you can’t put down. It weaves a narrative spell around you, immersing you completely in the world of its author. Good writing like this evokes our sense of sight, sound, touch and smell so that we feel emotionally involved in the world that is being created. Onomatopoeia, visual imagery, semantic fields are all examples of tactile language that writers and literary critics alike employ and love.
For example, take this passage of particularly evocative writing. Notice how Arundhati Roy draws upon all the senses to make you experience the place she writes about.
“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air.” — The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Fascinatingly there are people who have an even more intense relationship with words than the most evocative writer. There are people who can hear colours and taste words. These people have a condition known as Gustatory Auditory Synaesthesia.
In everyday language this means that the neurons, or wires, in the brain are tangled up. Consequently their senses are tangled up too. This merging of the senses has intriguing results: synesthetes’ brains are wired differently. Sensations in one part of the brain trigger responses in other parts that the rest of us do not experience.
Historically synesthetes were regarded as insane. Researchers now suspect that as babies we go through a multisensory phase, when we see and smell our mother’s voice as well as hearing it.
But Gustatory Synaesthesia is both immediate and involuntary – the effects of which can be quite unpleasant. ‘Gramophone’ could taste faintly of chocolate or like potent anchovies. Take James Wannerton in this article from the Daily Mail. To him, the Lord’s Prayer tastes like bacon, the colour blue like a sweet and Gordon Brown’s name of mud and Marmite.
Yet there are also arguments that synaesthesia enhances peoples’ lives and enables creative thinking (see this article in National Geographic). Apparently synaesthesia is seven times more common in poets, novelists and artists than it is in non-creative folk. Maybe it helps with that all important outside the box thinking, wordplay and metaphor generation. Some famous synesthetes include: the writer Vladimir Nabokov, actor Geoffrey Rush and musician Stevie Wonder. There is even evidence that Marilyn Monroe experienced this displacement of the senses.
Here’s a painting by the artist Carol Steen. It captures the ‘colour images’ that were produced during an acupuncture session.
In an interview, she describes what she saw:
“Lying there, I watched the black background become pierced by a bright red colour that began to form in the middle of the rich velvet blackness. The red began as a small dot of colour and grew quite large rather quickly, chasing much of the blackness away. I saw green shapes appear in the midst of the red color and move around the red and black fields.”
Do any of these random words leave a taste in your mouth?
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