Our fallible senses

The Man Who Tasted Words: Inside the Strange and Startling World of Our Senses by Guy Leschziner (Simon & Schuster), reviewed by Georgina Lamb.

For those of us with no known sensory impairment, the senses appear infallible, an exact reflection of the world around us. But according to Guy Leschziner in his book, The Man Who Tasted Words, they are anything but. Tastes, smells, sounds, sights, physical feelings, and even the awareness of our own body’s location are in fact a clever concoction of the mind. It isn’t until something changes in our body’s ability to sense incoming stimuli that we realise the scale of our senses’ fallibility.

In this easy read, stories and science are pleasingly woven together from Leschziner’s fascinating and curious career as a neurologist in the NHS. Story by story, the feeling of certainty surrounding our senses – that they are permanent and a true reflection of the world – evaporates, leaving in its place gratitude and awe at the complexity of the relationship between the world and our complex bodies.

Leschziner explains that for many, altered senses are the only reality they’ve ever known. A change in a single gene removed Paul’s and his sibling’s ability to feel pain, with playtime ending in blood, burns and broken bones. Valeria’s and James’s synaesthesia (a joining of the senses) created the taste of pineapple chunks when hearing gentle piano music, and a crispy fried egg when hearing the word ‘Tottenham’.

For others, Leschziner says, altered or impaired senses are a dramatic and unwelcome change from the norm. Joanne’s lingering cold and subsequent sinus issues left everything smelling and tasting of decaying, putrid food for years. Poisoning through the consumption of coral trout on holiday resulted in hot-cold reversal for Alison, her glass of cold water feeling as though it was scolding her hand.

Not all of examples in the book are so extreme. Billions of people worldwide have sensory impairments, and we all experience fading senses as we age. As someone with (seemingly) no sensory impairments at present, I find it easy to take the everyday wonders of the senses for granted – the smell of freshly baked bread, a cool glass of water on a hot day, the sound of a blackbird at dusk, and even the pain of stubbing my toe.

Not only does this book leave me with a new appreciation of my own wonderful version of reality, but it reminds me that we each experience a subtly or radically different world, constructed from our unique minds. Our senses are fallible; they do not reflect a singular reality. And with a subtle change in our bodies at any moment, that world we know could radically shift in ways we can’t yet imagine.

- Georgina Lamb, MSc psychology student at Northumbria University

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