“My synesthesia nearly killed me, but I wouldn’t change it”

55-year-old James Wannerton from Blackpool can taste words. He has a rare neurological condition, known as lexical-gustatory synesthesia. James tells Katie Strick what it’s like to be eating 24 hours a day. 

When I was four I used to go to school on the London Underground, and one of my earliest memories is the taste of the station names. Baker Street tasted like jam roly-poly but slightly burnt. St Paul’s tasted of sprouts. It was natural; automatic. I just assumed, being a child, that’s what everybody had.

I first went to a doctor about this when I was 10 – at least my parents did. It never used to cause me problems until exam time, where I found it very difficult to concentrate because of all the sounds and tastes around me. The doctor said it was just a part of growing up, that it was an overactive imagination. It was all dropped then.

It was when I was 18 that I went to a psychiatrist, and it took me two years to convince them it was real. Because I was the first to come forward with it, people used to think I was making it up. They thought it was just a memory-trick.

Image: The Telegraph
Image: The Telegraph

In 1999 I was referred to the Maudsley Hospital Head Trauma unit in London, where I underwent a series of consistency tests. It all seemed like one big test to try and catch me out. They just thought it was some sort of memory trick – even I began to think that after a while.  I was the first to be examined properly in the UK. After that I found out there was a word for my condition: synesthesia.

My own synesthesia – sound and colour to taste – is quite a rare and intense variety. I’m not a nutter. I realise I’m not eating this stuff, but it does feel like it. I can feel the texture; I can feel the temperature. It’s like an eyedropper – dink-dink-dink. Every single sound, every single word, one taste after another. It’s like eating all day, even when I dream.

People notice that I get overwhelmed. The only analogy I can draw is when you’re trying to read something or have a conversation, and somebody is flashing a bright light in front of your face. It’s very off-putting. So I avoid social situations where there are a lot of people; there’s no point. Eating out is a nightmare.

I work in IT, as a systems analyst. I chose a profession that kept me in isolation, because I find it quite difficult to concentrate in social environments. I don’t like reading – I like knowledge, but I don’t like having to sit there chewing through a book.

It does badly and irrationally affect personal relationships. If I meet somebody with a nasty tasting name, I don’t like them, full stop. It’s a bit like meeting somebody who has a really horrible smell. It causes problems at work, too. There was someone called Jacqueline once, who had a really horrible taste of washing up liquid. I had to override that by calling her Jack or Jacquie, which turned her taste to licorice.

My girlfriends have always had nice-tasting names, as have all my friends. There have been a lot of J’s in there, which tastes of wine gums. My first girlfriend tasted of bread dough. My current girlfriend Janette tastes of bacon.

Like everyone else, my memory is rubbish – I lose my keys; I forget what day it is. But I can remember all the kings and queens from a thousand years ago all the way up to today. I just taste the sequence. Ask me to get from Heathrow Airport to Canary Wharf, and I’ll be able to tell you by taste. Ask me to do it by train station and I wouldn’t have a clue.

My relationship with food is terrible. I wouldn’t know what a hunger pang was if it slapped me round the face. The only time I know I need food is if I feel weak or my stomach makes a noise, so I don’t give a damn about the actual taste of food. I could eat chocolate with a fish finger.

Is it harmful? Well, it’s nearly killed me a couple of times. In 2004 I was riding a motorbike along a country lane and a bright yellow car came over the horizon. All I can remember was getting a very strong taste of what I can only describe as a melting Starburst. It totally and utterly distracted me, so the bike hit the curb. I ended up in a ditch with a Harley Davidson on top of me.

I’ve developed ways of getting round the distraction – coping mechanisms. I can split my brain into thirds, so one third deals with all these tastes, and two thirds take in what you’re saying. I also eat wine gums. If I could buy shares in green wine gums I would! Coffee is another one; the caffeine tends to flatten out the tastes.

My case of synesthesia is not typical; it’s extreme. I can’t turn it off. But I’ll tell you why I love it – because it adds something. It doesn’t make me special; it’s not a God-given gift; but I can look at a cup and get something extra out of it, because I get a taste as well. So I’m getting more than anybody else. And that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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