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The Melding of Senses

I.W.'s picture

The Melding of Senses:

A Review of The Man Who Tasted Shapes

Synesthesia is aneurological condition in which perception by one sense causes automatic andinvoluntary perception by one or more of the other senses.  For example when a person hears a worldthey might see a corresponding color. Since at least the 17th century scientists who havediscovered genuine cases of synesthesia have been fascinated by the uniqueexperiences of those affected by it. Despite this fascination, the scientific study of synesthesia remainlargely untouched until Dr. Richard Cytowic met his new neighbor Michael andset out on a scientific adventure that would make him reconsider his entireview of medicine.  Dr. Cytowicdetails his research into synesthesia in the book The Man Who Tasted Shapes.  Heoutlines his scientific process in exploring synesthesia, but more interestingis his own investigation of how so amazing a condition could be ignored for solong by modern medicine.  Heultimately leads one to question the reality of one’s own experiences in theworld, and our inability to accept chaos that has caused doctors to cruellyignore an entire class of neurological diseases. 

            Dr.Cytowic lucked into his synesthesia research.  Despite the conditions rarity and the stigmatism whichprevented suffers from coming forward to the medical community, Cytowic managedin less then a month to meet two people who had lived their whole lives withsynesthesia.  The first he met at adinner party.  His new neighbor, Michael,was having a party to introduce himself to the neighborhood.  Cytowic happened to wander unnoticedinto the kitchen to hear Michael, who was cooking dinner, exclaim, “Oh dear,there aren’t enough points on the chicken.” Michael had lived his whole lifetasting the world as shaped he felt upon his entire body.  To him the taste of a meal had physicalform.  He liked French food thebest because it had the most interesting but not overwhelming shapes toexperience.  Yet despite this beingso integral a part of his life, Michael had never discussed his experienceswith a doctor.  He was soembarrassed and confused by his own brain, that he was unable to expose hissecret to the world.  The relief athearing Dr. Cytowic explain that his ability to taste in shapes had a name wasoverwhelming. 

Later that weekstanding outside his bosses door Cytowic discovered that one of the doctors heworked with, Victoria, saw certain noises as colored shapes flashing throughher vision.  She too had hidden hercondition from those around her, although for a slightly different reason.  She knew that she had synesthesia, butchose not to reveal it too her fellow doctors because she knew that they wouldassume she was mentally unfit to practice medicine.  She wasn’t being paranoid either.  When Dr. Cytowic first discussed the existence ofsynesthesia with his fellow neurological residents, they disregarded thecondition as simply a type of insanity. One of his fellow doctor exclaimed, “All right, they’re psycho, then.It’s a hallucination, like hearing voices.  I just can’t believe that a normal person is going to seethings that aren’t there” (pp. 34). Many of the doctors decided that such problems could not exist becausethey had never had a patient complain of these types of symptoms, but inreality the doctor had been ignoring the gentle pleas for help from theirpatients with such unexplainable neurological disorders. 

Dr. Cytowic goesinto great detail about how he defined and categorized the condition ofsynesthesia, but what is much more interesting are the questions that hisresearch raises into the experiences of the average human.  The most puzzling problem in testingsynesthesia symptoms is how each individual experiences an object, sound, ortaste in a unique manner as compared to others who possess the same form ofsynesthesia.  For example peoplewith hearing to vision synesthesia (they see sounds) will each have a uniqueway in which they see the same sound. Scientifically this is a difficult obstacle to overcome, as logicallythey should all have the same response to the stimulus if they have the sameneurological abnormality. 

To me this raisedthe question of whether in fact we do all see the world in the same colors andhear it in the same tones.  The factthat they do not see the words as the same color may suggest that we allexperience the world in different ways, but by being raised as a member ofsociety we have all been taught to use language in way that hides thesedifferences.  We have no way to explainour own experiences of the color blue in a way that gives any real informationbesides its shade and hue.  Thereis no way to explain what blue truly looks like if we disregard the assumptionthat we all see the same color. Even nature itself forms walls around our own expression by reinforcingwithin ourselves a simplistic view of color.  The sky is blue, roses are red, and bananas are yellow.  These superficial facts protect us fromhaving to ask the question “What is blue, red, or yellow?” Maybe the reasonthose with colored hearing all have their own experiences of a word is becausethey have never been told how to experience it.  With no one else around to tell Michael how chicken tastes,he is allowed to explore his own understanding of the sensation with a freedom“normal” people will never be able to experience.

Considering howterrifying the average person finds such unanswerable questions about their ownexperiences, it is understandable that doctors had ignored their patientssymptoms for so long.  In allhonestly they probably weren’t even “ignoring” the complaints so much as theirinability to comprehend the symptoms allowed them to tune out the problem.  Breaking down the wall betweensynesthesia and insanity opens up endless questions about whether there is a“right” way to experience the world, but with these fascinating questions comestroubling ones.  Questions ofaccountability become foggy and truth becomes even more of a myth.  If we are to acknowledge multiplerealities within our own world, how can we create a common code of law?  Does majority rule, or is synesthesiarevealing a level of precision that we can’t comprehend. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

Synesthesia and a "common code of law"

"If we are to acknowledge multiple realities within our own world, how can we create a common code of law?"

Interesting question indeed. By establishing a code of law based not primarily on a presumption of sameness but rather on recognition of the value for everyone of difference?