When feelings have no flavor February 06 2021 3 Comments

    One interesting component of Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia is the difference between word flavors and feeling flavors. What I mean by this is that the word "happy" tastes one way, but the feeling of being happy tastes entirely different. When I read the word "happy," my tongue is coated with sweet orange oil and the sensation of catching a snowflake on the tip of the tongue. Pops of effervescent coriander make themselves known here and there like very quiet pop rocks. The feeling of happy, however, is the smell of lilac in the back of the throat and a warm wet cloud pressed against the hard and soft palates. It's a bit earthy-fatty on the sides of the tongue, like a very rich cacao nib.

    I commonly experience both the feeling and the word flavors simultaneously as a double exposure (like trick photography, but in my brain-mouth), as emotions are at least a little replicated when they are being discussed or described. Humans are super into empathy as a general rule. 

    While I can certainly parse the word from the feeling, gustatorily speaking, they typically don't clash with one another to the degree that a distinction is necessary. I just kinda let them mingle and don't think about it too much. But you know that feeling when you omit a vital ingredient in a soup? Or when the vinaigrette is all vinegar and no oil? It's just wrong. Total cognitive dissonance. You can technically tell what it was supposed to be, but it's empty. An approximation of. For me, this sensation occurs when I am depressed or deeply sad. Emotional flatness blocks my palate from experiencing the flavors of feelings and I can only taste the words that represent them. Even these are muted. I call this sensation "grey tongue."


Image of a red lipsticked mouth, top teeth slightly visible, open with a tongue protruding far out. The tongue is entirely gray, though the rest of the image is in full color.
     "Grey tongue" isn't a totally unusual experience, I think, even for those without synesthesia. Depression is sometimes described in terms of food turning to ash in the mouth and the world draining of color, scent, flavor, sensation. Good to know I'm not alone in being robbed of the vividity of my senses, at least. The problem in my case is that my job directly requires me to taste feelings, both my own and others'. In my line of work, joy is a function of the job. True, genuine joy, not the "customer service voice" style of forced joy. A strange job requirement, but true for me to an extent. I still taste words and ideas when struggling with depression, grief or heartache, but it's a more shallow experience than the many-layered perception typical of most days. It's shallow and thin and I have to really go looking for it.

    Joy is my baseline. My natural state of being. The substrate from which feelings flavors grow. It's the reference point, the benchmark, the true neutral for me. I know I'm lucky like that, to have grown up so happy that happiness is the magnet in the compass of my tongue. 

    In aging into the difficulties of adulthood, parenthood, business-ownerhood and so on, my feelings have necessarily been less sheltered and protected than when I was a tiny fae creature with all my heart-on-the-outsidedness celebrated and cherished. I'm still a naturally joyful person, but it's hard, damnit. Joy as an adult in this world is impossible to hold every minute of every day, and in enriching one's life experience it is just a fact that some days you'll want to cry until you disappear. Some days everything will hurt. Some days, you won't be able to feel anything at all. And on those days, when you're me, you can't taste anything. Tastebuds: neutralized.

    So if depression, grief and heartache are facts of being and it's one's job to be happy on command, how can the job reliably get done? How can we assure clients who sign on for custom blending appointments that the tea master won't be having a terrible day and thus unable to taste the love and optimism needed to create their special wedding tea, much less anything else? The answer is, we can't! I can never promise that I'll be able to taste anyone's hearts and minds accurately. It's a risk. I genuinely don't think it could be done if the lexical-gustatory synesthete tea blender (of which I may possibly be the only one in the world) were from a less open-hearted background with less of a joy habit already well ingrained before heading out into the wide wild world. My days of grey tongue are few and far between, thank goodness, though they do happen.

    Don't worry though, I always back up my magic.

    I keep a catalogue of common feelings, motifs, language choices and characteristics and their corresponding flavors, complete with possible ingredient matches. Even when I can't taste, I can reference how a feeling or idea should taste and use my 15 years of professional culinary and tea-specific flavor balancing experience to guess at the best ratio of ingredients. I've learned to fake my own synesthesia when needed. Once we have a base concept put together, the client is able to identify what notes they'd like dialed up or down, omitted or added, and I can adjust ratios as needed. It feels like a cheat, but I suppose it's more like adapting to supplement a missing sense. Like hearing aids or a prosthetic limb.

    So there's my secret. I can taste your brain, I can taste your feelings. Honestly, I can't help but taste it all. Some days though, my primary way of interacting with the world is stripped away and all that's left is a database of information to approximate. I have yet to disappoint a client, so I suppose everyone's still getting their money's worth. Makes me wonder, though. What workarounds do other people find when they occasionally and unpredictably can't perform a function of their job as usual? I know you're out there, struggling to appear as if everything is business as usual as you bend and twist yourself to make it work and get it done. It's often invisible and it's definitely difficult and I think you're amazing.


Image showing the text: "I know you're out there, struggling to appear as if everything is business as usual as you bend and twist yourself to make it work and get it done. It's often invisible and it's definitely difficult and I think you're amazing."

 Those of you finding your own accommodations to get things done on hard days: that side of you tastes like topsoil and fresh rubbed cedar bark. The good, aromatic, rich, earthy stuff. Growing and sturdy and delicately spiced.