Singing James Charles The voice tastes like five dollar vodka in a plastic bottle. It’s not a metaphor, it’s literally what tik tak user @tessfstevens tastes when she listens to the tune of an Internet personality. Harvey’s name, according to TikToker @henpuffs, tastes like barbecue sauce cooked on the grill, and Daisy tastes “like butter left in the sun.” What does Miley Cyrus’ voice look like? Last year, @sarahkraning said it was dark green with a hint of sky blue.
All of these TikTokers — and many others — have synesthesia, a perceptual state in which two senses intersect, meaning that synesthetes can smell flowers, see music, or taste sounds. Content about this phenomenon is popular in the app: Tagged Videos #synesthesia have racked up some 289 million views, and synesthetes are getting countless comments from people begging them to try their names or describe the color of their favorite song (at least one TikToker solicits PayPal donations in response to these requests).
But wait: synesthesia is rare, right? Lexico-gustatory synesthesia, a type in which someone can taste words, is estimated to occur in less than 0.2 percent of the population – what are the chances that many of these unique synesthetes have picked up TikTok? And why do unloved celebrities so conveniently taste bad, while beloved does it taste like “warm cornbread and snowflakes”? Former TikTokers with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) were accused of falsify their diagnosis for the sake of fame. Something suspicious is going on #synesthesiatists?
This line of thought is part of a long history of skepticism about synesthesia. While in 1993 the neurologist Richard E. Cytovik estimated for the first time that total one in 100,000 people had synesthesia, more recent research from the University of Sussex Multisense Synesthesia Laboratory puts prevalence on 4.4 percent of the population. “The suspicion is that it’s actually pretty banal,” says neuroscientist John Harrison, author Synesthesia: The Strangest Thing.
Harrison says that when he first began studying synesthesia with psychologist Simon Baren-Cohen in the 1980s, he was “virtually ridiculed” at the neuro-ophthalmology club in London. “A few years later, I came back with beautiful pictures of the brain and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I thought there was something to it,’” says Harrison.
In 1995, Harrison and Baron-Cohen gave six synesthesia pet when reproducing words and tones. When listening to sounds, the visual cortex of synesthetes “lit up” on the scans. The results, according to Harrison, were “quite striking” – subjective sensory experience was mapped. Since then more and more brain research have been undertaken, and Harrison says that the phenomenon “has moved from romantic neuroscience to the mainstream.”
However, when it comes to the average person on the street (or TikTok), Harrison points out, “If someone says they’re synesthete, if you don’t have bags of money and plenty of time, you just have to take their word for it. The subjectivity of experience means that even synesthetes experience self-doubt — there are plenty of posts on the r/synesthesia subreddit with titles like “I think my synesthesia is fake“I don’t know if I’m fake or not,” and “am I pretending?Some of these Redditors to express worry that they just wanted to feel “special” or “cool”.
So what’s up with synesthesia on TikTok? Harrison says that when he first met the synesthetes four decades ago, they didn’t want to talk about their condition because they were afraid of ridicule. “Something seems to have changed,” he says. “Now it’s very sexy to be a synesthete.”
Sure, it might tempt influence hunters to lie, but SynesthesiaTok might just be self-reinforcing: The hashtag raises awareness of the condition, which in turn lets more people know they have them. Sarah Kreining, a 29-year-old artist and auditory-visual synesthete from Minneapolis, only discovered the name through her experience in college psychology classes. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” she says.
When she was a child, Craning stopped discussing her feelings after friends and family laughed or seemed confused. Craning sees colors, textures and patterns when she hears sounds, and earlier in school she had a hard time when teachers played music during tests. Today she sells works of art based on what she regularly hears and talks about her synesthesia on TikTok, where she has 512,000 followers. (She was the one who said that Miley Cyrus’s voice was dark green with hints of blue.)
Craning passed a series of tests called “Synesthesia Battery“, which was developed University of Texas by scientists in 2007 — tests proved that her auditory-visual synesthesia was permanent. “I understand that,” she says of the skepticism, “I understand that it’s very strange if you weren’t aware of it.”
Overall, though, TikTok has been kind. “It was nice to see the recognition and positive response,” Kraning says. For her, the app is a way to educate people about synesthesia and raise awareness. “As a child, I felt very alone,” she says. “When people leave comments and say they feel really noticed, that’s when social media is at its most powerful.”
However, this does not mean that everything is always as it seems (or smells or tastes). Henry Grey, a 23-year-old bar worker from Newcastle, England, has 12,000 followers on his @henpuffs account; here he tells people that their names remind him and they can donate it to PayPal in return. One of his videos, in which he says that the name “Kirsty” smells like urine, seems fishy – there’s a comedy in the video, as Gray responds to the comment, “My girlfriend’s parents just got divorced and she’s really sad. Can you play Kirsty?
Now Gray admits that he asked a friend to leave a comment – Kirsty with divorced parents is not. But he is, he says, a synesthete: ever since he was a little boy, certain words have always evoked tastes, sensations, and images. He recalls sitting at a table eating strawberry pudding with his cousin Emily as a child and remarking, “You must love this!” — after all, that was her name to taste. His own name is a soft ham and cheese sandwich slightly crushed in a lunch box.
“It sounds rude, but ‘Kirsty’ has really always been the smell of urine,” Gray says via email — although the comment was a fake friend, his TikTok response was real. Why did he do it? “My account is primarily about making people laugh and get people interested,” he says, “and he also hopes to get a presence on the app. It worked: Kirsty’s video got nearly 700,000 views.
Gray describes himself as a “natural creator” and hopes his humorous approach will educate people about synesthesia. But he admits that some names don’t mean anything, and occasionally “makes up something” for commercials about those names (he doesn’t come up with answers when he’s paid). Gray also sometimes exaggerates for comedic purposes: “So, for example, Bethany is a waffle cookie, but I added ‘thick’ and ‘chunky’ to make it sound more funny, like I’m insulting all Bethanies,” he says, noting that this encourages people to share videos with friends named Bethany. “But in general,” says Gray, “I say what really comes to mind.”
Viewers may need to treat stories that are humorous or too good to be true with a grain of salt, but be careful not to reinforce skepticism about synesthesia in general. Julia Simner, professor of neuropsychology who runs the Synesthesia Lab in Sussex, says: “I wouldn’t question someone who claims to be a synesthete because synesthetes often spend their young lives not believing that it’s hard for them “.
Questions still remain in synesthesia research—much remains to be learned about exact explanation of the phenomenon. But for synesthetes around the world, TikTok can be a comforting, educational (and fun) place.
Credit: www.wired.com /