Cords of neon blue and white lights in front of a black backdrop

Synaesthesia: What is the taste of the color blue?

This fall, the International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists (IASAS) is collaborating with the Art|Sci Center of UCLA to bring a series of events to Los Angeles to teach the general public about synaesthesia and bring together the international community of synesthetes. Through art exhibitions, the first IASAS Synaesthesia Symposium, and multiple live performances, the worlds of science, art, and synaesthesia are beautifully brought together.

But first: What is synaesthesia?

When I told my coworkers about these events, this was the first question they had for me. In short, synaesthesia means “a union of the senses.” It is a neurological condition in which a person experiences crossed responses to a stimulus. Someone may hear a certain word or name and experience a taste sensation. Sounds can produce certain colors, or even be coupled with a certain scent.

To date, there are at least 80 different types of synaesthesia that have been identified among synesthetes (individuals who have synaesthesia). And according to existing data, about 3.7% of the population who has some form of synaesthesia (though the absolute accuracy of this number is uncertain).

Building Bridges Art Exchange Gallery Exhibit

The series of events began with the opening reception for Synaesthesia: What is the taste of the color blue? at the Building Bridges Art Exchange. The gallery space was crowded as we experienced the interactive works of art. Along the way, I got to have some interesting conversations with other gallery visitors about how we process the world, the possibility of having a type of synaesthesia without having the language to identify it, and how Chris (and Daniel, and Lisa, and myself) tasted to a synesthete who processed words and flavors together. I taste like a pizza-flavored Combo, by the way.

My favorite non-interactive piece was looking at the Taste Map of the London Underground, where an artist assigned a certain taste to every stop on the tube. Some of the flavors included rubber, licorice, and baked beans. I’d love to say more the individual works, but I don’t want to spoil everything for you!

Synaesthesia Dance Experience!

At the opening reception, there was an advertisement for a Synaesthesia Dance Experience happening at the beginning of October. Work interfered with my other plans that weekend, so I decided to check it out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the theater, but I was extremely pleased by the time I left. The evening started  with a music performance in which we drank cherry Kool Aid, YooHoo, and grapefruit LaCroix to experience the sounds that one synesthete experienced/felt when she sipped these beverages.

The acts following that showcased a variety of talents – burlesque, ballet, aerial arts, group performance, and more! My favorite was done by a tap dancer. She rigged her outfit so that when she moved different parts of her body, not only did it produce a sound of some sort (words, dog bark, ocean sounds), it changed the color of her outfit. At times it was fun and easy to follow, but when layers upon layers of sound and color and movement merged with each other it created a chaos that was overwhelming on the senses.

Watching this performance made me realize something. While seeing the world in this different way can create beauty and a new way of interpreting the world, synaesthesia can make the world chaotic to process. After attending this event, I felt like I understood my friend with synaesthesia a little bit better. I felt more in touch with my own sensory perceptions and reflected on how I perceived the world. These events made me want to learn more about synaesthesia and other ways we differ in neurological processing.

The exhibit at the Building Bridges Art Exchange in Santa Monica is open to the public until November 15, 2017. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the area!