Synesthesia, or when you eat with your eyes

One of my goals this summer was to make headway on my dislike of cooking by going about the whole process a different way: instead of worrying about how it tastes, which is an area of complete ambivalence for me, I was going to occupy myself with how it looks.

For whatever reason, I don’t love food. Sitting down to meals makes me anxious, although I do secretly binge eat like a vampire in a blood bank. I take no delight in cooking. While I have yet to figure out how to be someone who does, I have discovered something very important about myself: I am an extraordinarily and unabashedly visual person.

So while flavors might leave me neither hot nor cold, a colorful plate gives me all the feels. I genuinely don’t care what it tastes like, as long as it looks pretty on the plate I will eat it with pleasure.

When the senses get entangled

There is a type of sensory processing disorder called synesthesia. The essence of this neurological condition is that a stimulus which generally is intended to titillate one of the five senses actually will stimulate a different one–sometimes multiple other senses.

The first time I heard a name given to this condition was on an early episode of Invisibilia, wherein a woman could physically feel the sensations others were experiencing by simply observing them. What was surprising to me was to learn that this was not normal.

Simply the act of listening to her describe the sensations caused my body to feel the to sensations. My ears turned her words into sensation in my body. This condition literally causes us to feel other people’s pain.

Remember when I talked about the antennae that cause my youngest scalawag and myself so much problem in relationships? Well, this strange neurological hiccup is, and in no small way, responsible for those antennae. There is an actual, biological, neurological explanation for some components of my social anxiety. The day I heard that episode of Invisibilia marked the day I began to understand that the antennae were not normal and could, possibly, be tamed.

I suspect that all of us have felt this to a certain degree at times. Seeing a child wiggle his tooth can give lots of people the willies (believe me. I’ve got one of those at home and even my non-synesthete husband has trouble with that one.) Watching the recent Tour de France crash would leave all but the most insulated soul unmoved. Or hearing the sound of someone doing a a belly flop in a pool. I can think of others, but I am too polite to put them into words. Just think of any number of America’s Funniest Home Videos and you’ll get the idea.

Playing with the senses

Another example is this strange YouTube rabbit-hole of ASMR Videos: these are videos in which people use sound to procure physical sensation in the body of the listener. This can be very relaxing for some people. For example, the sound of being at a hair salon: scissor sounds, brushing sounds. If this sounds absolutely absurd to you, then you probably are not a synesthete.

Me, on the other hand, I get all the tingles when I so much as see another person touch their own hair, let alone hear the sounds of brushing or snipping. It is like my visual and auditory cues light up places in my own touch receptors. My littlest scalawag is like this, too. We are very kinesthetic people, and our bodies can trick us into believing that what we are seeing or hearing is happening to us.

Sensation processing and being a control freak

I tend to think that this is why the littlest scalawag and I hate surprises, and is part of the reason we both need routine and order and habits. We spend so much time processing what is happening to others as if it is happening to us, that being out of control of what happens to us, or not knowing what to expect feels horribly unpleasant.

It’s liberating to understand that we aren’t just control freaks. Our bodies process the world differently from other people. We need to be willing to live in our truth.

When food and music are colors

There is also the absolutely fascinating phenomenon of people who, when they experience something in one sense, they immediately associate it with a color. This is not as simple as a lemon tasting like the color yellow. To some people, bitter can be a shade of green and tannins are purple.

This can also be about sounds. For example, the note F# that reliably sounds like the color tangerine. Or a middle C that sounds like royal blue. People like this can be amazing musicians, with a phenomenal ability to memorize pages and pages of music, because they can “see” the notes as if they were on a canvas of colors, each auditory motif stimulating a visual experience for them.

This doesn’t mean that a person who tastes color or hears color does not also taste the flavor or hear the music; but it does mean that they have a different relationship with these sensations than a normal person.

How understanding synesthesia made me less angry about food

As I have made a goal out of simply making “pretty” food (which again, to me, is about colorful food), I have started to find the thought of food and eating a little bit less hateful. Remember, this was something that could previously throw me into a rage. While I do have a ton of emotional junk to comb through still about food, I have managed to take the edge off of my emotional sensitivity by shifting my focus.

Cutting colorful foods, figuring out how to get white rice to be vibrant yellow, using cookie cutters to make pretty shapes…these small tricks have made the process of cooking less painful to me. I even got a little bit excited this week when my boys liked my pretty yellow curried rice.

And here is something funny: by cooking in a way that makes me not hate it, I have twice been surprised by the positive feedback from my brood. One came from the eldest scalawag, who walked in while I was making dinner and said, “Boy, it smells good in here!” The other came from the youngest scalawag, who, when upset that there wasn’t the ice cream he wanted, was willing to–not just settle for–willing to enjoy the watermelon and pineapple I had cut into little flower shapes for dessert.

Yes, it takes more time to make it pretty. But I find that it also scratches an itch for beauty and color that is so critical for me to find enjoyment and satisfaction in something.

For once in my life, I don’t hate cooking so much.

In my Ideal Life, I am a person who has a healthy relationship with food.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

5 thoughts on “Synesthesia, or when you eat with your eyes

  1. Wow! That’s so cool!! Or, is it a burden for you? All of that food is gorgeous!! So glad you figured out a way to enjoy cooking more. I don’t think this trick would work for me. But if I try, I might be surprised! What are those white berries shaped like blackberries?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could remember what those are called! I will try to find them again and let you know. It’s more a frustration than a burden…I wish I could explain that…it’s especially strong when, like, I see someone getting a hug. My whole body gets frustrated and jealous!

      Liked by 1 person

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