The Man Who Tasted Shapes

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The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery offers Revolutionary Insights into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness 2003: Revised MIT Press edition with new afterword


The Man Who Tasted Shapes is a book by neurologist Richard Cytowic about synesthesia [1].


Imagine a world of salty visions and square tastes. Although a minority of people experience the world this way, neurologist Richard Cytowic shows how the phenomenon of synesthesia sheds light on how all human brains function. For over 200 years synesthesia confounded science. Now Dr. Cytowic tells the stories of extraordinary individuals and relates how a decade of experiments led him to conclude that all of us perceive synesthetically. but the ability is usually hidden from conscious awareness.

Cytowic argues that humans are irrational by design: our emotions are more in charge than logical reasoning is. His investigations deliver a fresh perspective on memory, the roots of creativity, the feasibility of artificial intelligence, and the importance of subjectivity.

Cytowic solves a mystery that turns conventional notions of reason and emotion inside out [2].

About the Author

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., founded Capitol Neurology, a private clinic in Washington, D.C., and teaches at George Washington University Medical Center. He is the author of Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses and The Man Who Tasted Shapes, both published by the MIT Press.

Table of Contents

Foreword to the MIT Press Edition by Jonathan Cole, MD

Part One: A Medical Mystery Tale

1. February 10, 1980: Not Enough Points on the Chicken

2. The World Turned Inside Out

3. 1957—Down in the Basement: The Making of a Neurologist

4. How the Brain Works: The Standard View

5. Winters 1977 and 1978: “There is Nothing Wrong With Your Eyes.”

6. Direct Experience, Technology, and Inner Knowledge

7. March 25, 1980: Blinding Red Jaggers

8. Down in the Basement: The History of Synesthesia

9. April 10, 1980: “Taste This!”

10. Diagnosing Synesthesia

11. April 25: 1980: Where is the Link?

12. Painting the Ceiling

13. Summer 1980: Bringing Things to a Close

14. September 1983: “Bizarre Medical Oddity Affects Millions!”

15. Form Constants and Explaining Ineffable Experiences

16. Altered States of Consciousness

17. May 21, 1981: Taking Drugs

18. June 29, 1981: Bride of Frankenstein, Revisited

19. How the Brain Works: The New View

20. The Implications of Synesthesia

21. October 5, 1982: The Revered and Martinis

Part Two: Essays on the Primacy of Emotion

1. The Anthropic Principle

2. Free Lunch and Imagination

3. Consciousness is a Type of Emotion

4. The Limits of Artificial Intelligence

5. Different Kinds of Knowledge

6. The Experience of Metaphor

7. Emotion Has a Logic of Its Own

8. Other People’s Experience

9. The Depth at Which We Really Live

10.Reason is the Endless Paperwork of The Mind

11.Science and Spirituality



Suggested Reading


Chapter 1

“February 10, 1980 — Not Enough Points on The Chicken”

"Keep me company while I finish the sauce," Michael beckoned, pulling me away from the other guests.

I followed, scrutinizing the curious layout of his home. Both it and my new neighbor were pretty hip for suburban North Carolina.

His house had no inside walls. Its "rooms" poured into one another instead of keeping to well–defined spaces as rooms in most homes do. When I sat down among the appliances––what he called the kitchen––it struck me how jarring the open funkiness of a Bohemian loft was in the Bible belt. Yet I suppose it made sense, because Michael taught at the School of the Arts. Artists were supposed to be eccentric.

I quickly identified with the offbeat atmosphere of Michael's house, an attraction that stirred up an old conflict. I was supposed to wear the conservative mask expected of physicians, yet the house spoke to the eccentric and artist in me, too, a part that had to express itself with care. I was glad Michael had invited me to dinner. I had long preferred the company of creative people to that of stuffy medical types, which is why I liked living next to the conservatory.

I sat nearby while he whisked the sauce he had made for the roast chickens. "Oh dear," he said, slurping a spoonful, "there aren't enough points on the chicken."

"Aren't enough what?" I asked.

He froze and turned red, betraying a realization that his first impression had been as awkward as that of a debutante falling down the stairs. "Oh, you're going to think I'm crazy," he stammered, slapping the spoon down. "I hope no one else heard," he said, quickly looking toward the guests in the far corner.

"Why not?" I asked. "Sometimes I blurt these things out," he whispered, leaning toward me. "You're a neurologist, maybe it will make sense to you. I know it sounds crazy, but I have this thing, see, where I taste by shape." He looked away. "How can I explain?" he asked himself.

"Flavors have shape," he started, frowning into the depths of the roasting pan. "I wanted the taste of this chicken to be a pointed shape, but it came out all round." He was still blushing. "Well, I mean it's nearly spherical," he emphasized, trying to keep the volume down. "I can't serve this if it doesn't have points."

An old–fashioned and odd diagnosis came to mind, but I wanted to hear more in Michael's own words to be sure. "It sounds like nobody understands what you're talking about," I finally said.

"That's the problem," sighed Michael. "Nobody's ever heard of this. They think I'm on drugs or that I'm making it up. That's why I never tell people about my shapes intentionally. Only when it slips out. It's so perfectly logical that I thought everybody felt shapes when they ate. If there's no shape, there's no flavor."

I tried not to register any surprise. "Where do you feel these shapes?" I asked.

"All over," he said, straightening up, "but mostly I feel things rubbed against my face or sitting in my hands."

I kept my poker face and said nothing. "When I taste something with an intense flavor," Michael continued, "the feeling sweeps down my arm into my fingertips. I feel it--its weight, its texture, whether it's warm or cold, everything. I feel it like I'm actually grasping something." He held his palms up. "Of course there's nothing really there," he said, staring at his hands. "But it's not an illusion because I feel it."

One more question, to be certain. "How long have you tasted shapes?"

"All my life," he said. "But nobody ever understands." He shrugged and carved up the chickens. "Am I a hopeless case, Doc?"

"Not at all," I answered. Just as there were no walls between the rooms of his house, I knew that Michael had no walls between his senses. Just as his rooms flowed into each other, so too taste, touch, movement, and color meshed together seamlessly in his brain. For Michael, sensation was simultaneous, like a jambalaya, instead of neat separate courses. Still, my self–satisfaction at recognizing one of the most rare of medical curiosities must have been perfectly clear.

Michael's glower tore me out of my reverie. "What are you grinning about?" he scolded. "I thought you would be sympathetic!"

"I'm not making fun of you," I laughed. "I'm just delighted to know someone with synesthesia. I've never met anyone who had it."

"Synthes . . ." he sputtered.

"Syn-es-thesia," I repeated. "It's Greek. Syn means 'together' and aisthesis means 'sensation.' Synesthesia means 'feeling together,' just as syn-chrony means at the same time or syn-thesis means different ideas joined into one or syn-opsis means to see all together. You've never heard the word?" I asked.

A glow of recognition washed over his face. "You mean there's a name for this? Is that why you're grinning?"

"Sure, and I know a little about it. People with synesthesia have their senses hooked together," I started to explain. "They can hear colors or feel sounds. Yours is--well, it looks like you taste shapes."

"What a relief!" Michael interrupted. "You mean I'm normal?"

"Normal is such a relative term. Let's just say that you're a rare bird," I suggested, "different, but not unheard of."

And with that roast chicken dinner started a research effort and a friendship that has lasted more than a decade.