Words have sensory connotations to most of us. The word leathery really does feel …well, rather leathery. But to some synaesthetes – people who experience a cross-over of the senses – such analogies are literal and can relate to tastes. That is, certain words cause them to experience a given taste each time they’re encountered. Now Julia Simner and Jamie Ward have shown that this perceptual association seems to be triggered by the meaning of those words – to the concept they represent – rather than by the letters and syllables that they’re formed from.
Simner and Ward demonstrated this by provoking a tip-of-the-tongue state in six synaesthetes. The participants were shown pictures of unusual objects – such as castanets (the Spanish percussion instrument) or a platypus – and in those instances where they indicated they were familiar with the object, but just couldn’t think of the word, they were asked to say whether they were experiencing any kind of taste sensation.
Of 89 such tip-of-the-tongue states that were experienced by the participants, 15 were also accompanied by a taste sensation. For example, one participant tasted tuna when she was presented with a picture of castanets. Later the participants were told the names of the objects, and they confirmed that these words elicited the same taste experience they had reported when in the earlier tip-of-the-tongue state.
When in that earlier state, the participants recognised the picture, but couldn’t currently identify the word for it, or any of the identifying word’s letters or syllables. This strongly suggests it was the concept that was responsible for the taste sensation, and that words normally trigger tastes in the synaesthetes by virtue of the concepts they represent.
The researchers said these perceptual-conceptual associations are likely to be present in everyone but are exaggerated in lexical−gustatory synaesthesia.
Simner, J. & Ward, J. (2006). The taste of words on the tip of the tongue. Nature, 444, 438.
Link to supplementary information on methods (pdf).