Nautilus

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

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