Do You Have Synesthesia?

A while ago, I blogged about tetrachromats – people who can see 100 times more colors than others, because they have an extra optical cone in each eye.  There is another sensory phenomenon that is more prevalent but less understood.

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived by a different sense (for example, sight).  In its most common form, people see a specific color in response to a certain letter or number.  However, any combination of senses is possible.

Synesthesia has a personal connection for me.  I am a musician who can hear colors.  The key of A is red, B is green, C is white, D is yellow, E is blue, and so on.  When I hear a song, I can tell what key it is played in without looking at the music.  Remarkably, I once met another musician who “heard” these exact same colors.

While synthesthia is still debated by scientists – is it real or imagined? – it actually has practical scientific applications.

For the past several years, the food industry has been trying to reduce the amount of salt in processed foods.  Unfortunately, reducing the salt also reduces the flavor.

Scientists in the Netherlands discovered that by using aromatic compounds associated with saltiness, consumers were fooled into thinking their foods were still salty.  This is because of synesthesia between the senses of taste and smell.

The study found that using aromas to trick taste buds could “compensate approximately 30% sodium reduction without significant change of the flavor profile.”

The scientists used an Agilent gas chromatograph, mass spectrometric detector and column to quantify and analyze the aromatic compounds.


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