Strange Phenomena

On Frank Ocean, Channel Orange, and Taste Synesthesia

We bet <i>Channel Orange</i> tastes like sherbet.
We bet Channel Orange tastes like sherbet. Photo: Karl Walter/Getty Images

Last night, Frank Ocean released Channel Orange, his proper debut, a week before it was supposed to hit. (It’s great — go listen.) The title, as every single thing written about Ocean in the last week has told us, has to do with synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon through which two senses get their wires crossed (in the case of Ocean, orange was reportedly the color he saw when he first fell in love). But we wondered, on this very slow summer day, if that particular condition could extend itself to flavor, and food. And it turns out it can, in lots of awesome-sounding ways.

Granted, stories based on “recent studies” are often suspect at best, but a scan of the prevailing wisdom available online indicates that taste synesthesia is a very real thing.

The most surprising way in which it can manifest itself is in something called lexical-gustatory synesthesia: People read or think of words, and they taste them. According to a 2006 story on the subject, the tastes are related to sounds found in words, not the words themselves:

The researchers also found that many of the six synesthetes’ studied associated similar tastes for the same words. “You can predict the nature of the taste if you know how the word sounds,” Simner said. “It seems like it’s not really words that are related to tastes, but certain sounds within words.”
For example, many of the synesthetes reported words with the sounds “eh” or “mmm” tasted of mint, and that those containing the sound “aye” tended to taste of bacon.

More interesting is the way synesthesia can make tasters see colors when they eat certain foods. The same study cited above also offered examples of this:

[Researchers] asked volunteers to sniff various scents and describe the colors and textures they evoked. Many of the responses were unsurprising; the smell of lemons called to mind yellow. Other scents, though, triggered stranger associations. A significant number of volunteers said the odor of mushrooms evoked the color blue. The aroma of lavender was repeatedly described as green and sticky

We’ll just go on record right now saying that we’re jealous that we don’t have that last bit, since we can only imagine how truly bonkers a meal at wd~50 or Alinea would look.

But it sounds like we aren’t the only people who wonder how this experience might play at restaurants. Chefs are experimenting with the aural aspect of synthesis, most notably at the Fat Duck in England, where a seafood dish was famously served with an iPod playing ocean noises. (That means lobster rolls really do taste better on the beach.) What people hear while they eat does indeed appear to affect how food tastes, which is a fact that in and of itself means restaurant playlists are more important than you might think.

And our guess is that you’re going to start hearing a lot more Frank Ocean songs in restaurants in the next few months.

On Frank Ocean, Channel Orange, and Taste Synesthesia