The Girl Who Smelled Pink

My tongue is orange!” my 2-year-old daughter shrieked after licking a dollop of clear hand sanitizer. More orange experiences followed. “Mommy, my ear feels orange,” she moaned when an earache struck. “Mitten off! It’s orange,” she whined from inside her snowsuit when a scratchy tag in her new white glove rubbed uncomfortably against her wrist. As her vocabulary blossomed, she started to associate colors with scents. “What’s that brown smell?” (A local coffee roaster.) “What smells pink?” (Dryer exhaust puffing out of a neighbor’s basement vent.)

Anyone who has spent time around toddlers knows they say some strange things. But my daughter’s curious way of talking about colors was so emphatic, and so consistent, that I began to wonder if she might be experiencing synesthesia—a kind of cross-wiring of the senses that can evoke flavors from sounds, tastes from words, or colors from smells.

Since 1812, when an Austrian doctor first described his own propensity to see numbers and letters in their own distinct hues, researchers have documented more than 50 forms of synesthesia.1 The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote that the letter F assumed the green of an alder leaf, while the letter Z took on the dark blue of a thundercloud. The neurologist Richard Cytowic once met a synesthete who could feel with his hands cold, glass columns every time he inhaled spearmint. Another of Cytowic’s subjects reported tasting poached eggs when he heard the name Steve.

Because the brains of babies and synesthetes share common features, it’s possible that an infant’s perception may look a lot like an extreme case of synesthesia.

Yet despite its extraordinary nature, synesthesia is remarkably common

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
Why I Traveled the World Hunting for Mutant Bugs: A researcher who works through painting tells her story.
When Chernobyl happened, I knew it was time for me to act. Nineteen years earlier, I had first drawn malformed and mutated flies while working in the zoological department at the University of Zurich as a scientific illustrator. Zoologists had fed po
Nautilus5 min read
Why Working-Class New Yorkers Drop Their “R’s”
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, professor Henry Higgins says: “You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” British
Nautilus9 min read
Let’s Play War: Could war games replace the real thing?
In the spring of 1964, as fighting escalated in Vietnam, several dozen Americans gathered to play a game. They were some of the most powerful men in Washington: the director of Central Intelligence, the Army chief of staff, the national security advi