A knife on a subway pole tastes like licking cake batter off the back of a spoon. This is how I found out I have synesthesia. In a Discord server full of other audiophiles, a member mentioned this strange and unique sound they heard, and I replied with this corresponding flavor, thinking it was normal. I didn’t realize it wasn’t until other members said, “Hi, sorry, literally what does this mean?”
What is synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a little understood “sensation” where you brain processes one sense as another. It’s common for synesthetes to experience sounds as colors and shapes, for instance. I have a print of a painting made by a synesthete based on The Adventure Zone’s theme song up on my wall.
For me, sounds have taste, and often physical sensation somewhere in my mouth, spine, or scalp. My favorite song to taste is “Water Me Down” by Vagabon, which does taste just like cool, clear water—but with notes of bitter, sweet, red raspberry candy. My favorite song to feel is “Bubbles” by Yosi Horikawa, which feels like carbonation in beautiful little bursts across my entire upper body, and like biting down on a thin sheet of ice and letting it shatter crisply.
But my synesthesia isn’t just active for weird fringe bops; it’s there for pop hits too. Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” tastes like inhaling the scent of coconut sunblock mixed with C Howard’s Violet Flavored Gum, and feels like a muscle tightness right behind my ears, and also the blissful joy of being really gay, but that might not really be the synesthesia.
But my synesthesia isn’t just a party trick. It isn’t just a quirky part of my brain I can show off to seem interesting and special—and that’s why it took me so long to realize I had it in the first place. Growing up in the 2000s, synesthesia was even less understood than it is now. I thought there was no way I was interesting enough to be a synesthete, that I must be fishing for attention, and others around me seemed to think I was too.
I was in school orchestra for most of my adolescence. My teacher had noticed that when she played a major 7th—the first note in a scale, followed by the second to last—I would shiver, cringe, and gag. She thought I was performing and being silly to steal the spotlight. I wasn’t. I’d spend the rest of the day feeling like I needed to claw my way out of my own body, the rest of my finals be damned. Synesthesia isn’t always fun and cool. It can be awful. And it can be especially awful when nobody takes the sensation seriously.
As awful as it can be, though, I would never give it up. This extra perception layered onto sound is what made me fall in love with music, and sound design, and so many people. When I hear someone’s voice and my synesthesia kicks in, it feels like like seeing their eyes for the first time after realizing I’d never paid attention to what color they are.
I met my partner on a dating app in August of 2020. Not only were we both quarantining hard, but they lived several hours away on the other side of the state. We hit it off immediately—we actually messaged each other at the exact same time when we matched. As soon as we really clicked after the initial conversations, we wound up messaging each other for hours every day. But I didn’t hear their voice until our first video chat a week later.
Their voice is a lovely mid-tenor, sometimes crackly and sometimes clear, melodic and full. And it pissed me off so bad. As soon as they said “Hi,” I knew I had tasted their voice before, but I could not for the life of me figure out when or where. It was nutty, rich, and toasted, but not very sweet. It was somehow both creamy and crumbly. It was like white chocolate with the sugar only at about 15% opacity. It was Nutella without the chocolate, but it wasn’t quite hazelnut butter, and sure as hell not Biscoff. I would have been more distracted by trying to pin down the flavor if I weren’t so distracted by them being real pretty, thank god.
A year and a half later, my partner now lives with me and my husband. Their Pisces-season birthday recently passed, and while I tried to find a way to recreate the taste of their voice for the occasion, nothing felt right. Everything was too sweet, too bland, or lacking some Maillard reaction of savory nuance. I couldn’t find a way to recreate their voice, but I did make them an angel food cake and crème brulee, so, you know, you win some you lose some.
But that night, after their party, they were snacking on a treat my husband had picked up from Costco. “Have you tried these little guys?” my partner asked. “They’re really good.” They handed me the brown and green bag of Honolulu Cookie Company chocolate chip macadamia nut mini cookies.
I took a bite, and there it was. It was their voice—with some added chocolate, but not enough to mask that nutty, creamy, crumbly, rich, toasted sensation. Biting into the cookie took me right back to that first video call together, hearing their voice and scanning my mind for what it tasted like. Back before we lived together, back before we were anything substantial, back when we had no idea what we were doing or where our relationship would go. Tasting the cookie felt like reuniting with an old friend—which, in a way, it was. I could put aside this frustrating tip-of-my-literal-tongue need to identify the taste and focus on what brought me to it in the first place: my partner.
This little cookie tasted now too like our long, too self-serious 2 a.m. conversations about philosophy and ethics. Like our gasps and reactions watching a goofy anime together. Like them telling me they love me. Like them telling me they understand me. Like them listening to my explanation of synesthesia and immediately asking, “What does my voice taste like?” and never treating it as a party trick. Treating it like a deeper understanding of who I am, an opportunity to know me better, to know our connection better.
The cookies are good, but they aren’t glamorous. They aren’t extraordinary. And neither is synesthesia. But that doesn’t make the flavor, or my sense of senses, any less important to me.