The Man Who Tasted Shapes

The Man Who Tasted Shapes

In this medical detective adventure, Cytowic shows how synesthesia, or "joined sensation," illuminates a wide swath of mental life and leads to a new view of what it means to be human.Richard Cytowic's dinner host apologized, "There aren't enough points on the chicken!" He felt flavor also as a physical shape in his hands, and the chicken had come out "too round." This...

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Title:The Man Who Tasted Shapes
Author:Richard E. Cytowic
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Edition Language:English

The Man Who Tasted Shapes Reviews

  • Clayton Littlewood

    I have to admit, this is not the type of book I would normally be drawn to. 'The Man Who Tasted Shapes' is a good title - because if I had seen this book on a shelf with the title 'Synaesthesia: An Introduction,' or 'Understanding Synaesthesia,' I would probably have lightly fingered the book and then my dainty little fingers would've found something else to finger.

    But...it was a really interesting book, an introduction to a condition that I didn't even know existed. I can't admit to understand

    I have to admit, this is not the type of book I would normally be drawn to. 'The Man Who Tasted Shapes' is a good title - because if I had seen this book on a shelf with the title 'Synaesthesia: An Introduction,' or 'Understanding Synaesthesia,' I would probably have lightly fingered the book and then my dainty little fingers would've found something else to finger.

    But...it was a really interesting book, an introduction to a condition that I didn't even know existed. I can't admit to understanding it all (my brain just doesn't work like that) but what I liked about the book was, as well as the theoretical detail, there was a diary/'journey like' discovery to the writing and Richard's voice jumped from the page.

    So, in the end, this book definitely was worth fingering.

  • Ana-Maria Petre

    When I was thirteen, I remember asking my mother: “Mom, what color is the number 3?” She looked at me, not understanding the question: “What do you mean, what color is number 3?” I repeated it to my father and my younger sister, but they didn’t understand either. “Does it have to be of any particular color?” “Why, it’s yellow, of course.” At that age, I dismissed the whole incident as an oddity of sorts.

    Years later, I was browsing the mighty internet when I came across the word

    , an

    When I was thirteen, I remember asking my mother: “Mom, what color is the number 3?” She looked at me, not understanding the question: “What do you mean, what color is number 3?” I repeated it to my father and my younger sister, but they didn’t understand either. “Does it have to be of any particular color?” “Why, it’s yellow, of course.” At that age, I dismissed the whole incident as an oddity of sorts.

    Years later, I was browsing the mighty internet when I came across the word

    , and that's how I discovered that I may be one of the many cases of grapheme-color synesthetes that nobody knew about. That is, I perceived each digit with a particular color, and also some letters of the alphabet. It felt good to be different, and to be acknowledged.

    Well, some time afterwards, I started looking for an explanation to my irrational fear of on-screen violence. It was almost an organic sensation which made me run out of the room until the scene was over. For example, if one of the characters was threatened with a knife to his neck, I couldn’t help touching my own neck and wince. What was interesting was that my only problem was when people were hurt, or obviously in pain. When people asked me why I can’t watch violent movies, I told them that “I feel like all those bad things are done to me”. By another improbable coincidence, I came across the following paragraph on Wikipedia:

    and so on. Well, wasn’t that certainly interesting?

    My third experience with this term happened when, one morning, I got increasingly frustrated, as usual, by my sister’s loud chewing. It always made me angry for some reason, although she was not doing it on purpose. She showed me then this article on Facebook about a condition called misophonia, which, guess what, is thought to be a form of synesthesia, a correlation between sound and emotion. I recalled various experiences when I got nervous because of various repetitive sounds, like bird calls or the creaking of water pipes. I couldn’t sleep for hours because of a little bird chirping once at every ten seconds outside my window, or because of the ticking of my watch, or even if someone breathed regularly next to me. It’s amazing how many things are overlooked every day.

    So obviously, when I found a book about synesthesia, I had to read it. And it didn’t disappoint. Mister Cytowic is a very open-minded scientist, unlike most. He doesn’t buy the objectivity bullshit. In fact, he doesn’t believe in objective scientists or even objective humans for that matter, because subjectivity is what makes us human, and most probably, humane. Here’s a quote:

    To sum up, Richard is as much of a philosopher as he is a scientist, and even if you don’t have an ongoing interest in neuroscience, this is a most interesting read.

  • Dave

    When I read the summary on the back cover I thought "This is me!" I picked it up immediately. Up until then I had assumed that everyone saw colors with numbers, and feeling different physical sensations attached to tastes was just the way people tasted things. It was interesting seeing the phenomenon from another person's perspective, and validating my own.

    There are times when I feel more alive - my senses are wide open and they blend together into an overwhelming experience. It's si

    When I read the summary on the back cover I thought "This is me!" I picked it up immediately. Up until then I had assumed that everyone saw colors with numbers, and feeling different physical sensations attached to tastes was just the way people tasted things. It was interesting seeing the phenomenon from another person's perspective, and validating my own.

    There are times when I feel more alive - my senses are wide open and they blend together into an overwhelming experience. It's similar to taking a pair of goggles off and enjoying the expansion of your peripheral vision. When doing math, the numbers have strong associations to colors and I can remember them and how they relate to each other. While walking through the garden, or standing in the shopping mall, or cooking, scents and tastes impart a sense of shape and geometry that invites me to stop and savor the edges and textures of the experience. It has become one of those perks in life that I enjoy, but until I found this book I thought it was commonplace and unnamed.

    I understand the consensus that there are no universal norms between synesthetes, but I totally get the example from the introduction - the subject remarking that there aren't enough "points on the chicken". If I'm cooking and the food isn't seasoned enough, it feels too smooth. Adding salt gives it a taste-texture like very coarse sandpaper; and if there is too much salt, I get a sharply jagged feeling that blocks out the flavor of the food. When I eat tomatoes from the store, they taste bland and give the impression of running, glassy water; but garden-fresh tomatoes are taught like a wire, with a delightful dip at the end like the curve of an ice cream spoon; and if you add the scent of tomato leaves it multiplies the effect, like the tomato is gently suspended by a thousand tiny spirals of narrow-gauge wire - tangy, complex, and tightly wound.

    When doing math in school I see the colors of each number. A two or three-digit number is a few splotches of color, like a Rothko painting, that sometimes resolves into a scene, but usually it's just the first and last digits that stick out. Sometimes I'll confuse one number with another - for example, 7 is a crimson red while 9 is more burgundy, and I'll sometimes switch the two and say seven when I mean nine.

    In the book, the subject feels it most strongly when under the influence of alcohol. I don't drink, but usually I feel it more strongly when I'm not under stress.

    Even though I'm usually reluctant to talk about it, when someone else mentions synesthesia I feel threatened, as if they read about it somewhere and are pretending they have it too; or maybe I'm just pretending...better smell a candle or do some math problems just to be sure.

  • Tani

    Another one bites the dust! I've had this book on my to-read list basically since I joined Goodreads, so it feels so nice to get it off of there!

    So, the first 2/3rds of this book focuses on synesthesia, an interesting phenomenon where a person's senses are intertwined. Each person is individual, so one person might taste shapes, as in the title of the book, whereas another may see colors in connection to sounds, or taste different colors. Which is interesting, but maybe not enough to carry a bo

    Another one bites the dust! I've had this book on my to-read list basically since I joined Goodreads, so it feels so nice to get it off of there!

    So, the first 2/3rds of this book focuses on synesthesia, an interesting phenomenon where a person's senses are intertwined. Each person is individual, so one person might taste shapes, as in the title of the book, whereas another may see colors in connection to sounds, or taste different colors. Which is interesting, but maybe not enough to carry a book, at least for me. I enjoyed the book, but I definitely had a couple issues with it.

    Part of this was stylistic. There are a lot of conversations in here, and it's kind of weird in a nonfiction book. I appreciate that Cytowic is illustrating how things happened, but the conversations just felt strange and stilted. The age of the book also works against it. There's a lot of time spent explaining theories that are old enough that I never learned them in the first place, which felt like time wasted for me.

    On the other hand, there's a lot to like. Cytowic's got a brilliant mind, and it's fascinating to see how it works. It's also really interesting to learn more about that time and the climate in the medical field. Behaviorism was really strong at the time, so it's fun to see how Cytowic deals with that. I also really liked the essays at the end of the book, which range through a variety of topics, many of which still feel pretty current.

    In sum, an enjoyable work that didn't blow me away, but that I don't regret spending my time on.

  • Holly Mays

    The = tastes like dry chicken

    Man = tastes like chipped beef gravy on toast

    Who = tastes like turkey

    Tasted = orange kool aid

    Shapes = swiss cheese

    It's somewhat dry, but gives you decent insight on a little thing I have called "synesthesia."

  • Linda

    this book changed my self-perception...until i read it i had no idea that there was a name for the condition (gift, oddity...) i have wherein i hear colors and why i always questioned how the makers of certain items (like toys when i was little) could color them - let's say green - when the word sounded so obviously blue!

    Or why a siren in the distance was painfully red and the locomotive down the line had such a soothing, velvety feel to it.

    Anyway - good read for curious minds who want to

    this book changed my self-perception...until i read it i had no idea that there was a name for the condition (gift, oddity...) i have wherein i hear colors and why i always questioned how the makers of certain items (like toys when i was little) could color them - let's say green - when the word sounded so obviously blue!

    Or why a siren in the distance was painfully red and the locomotive down the line had such a soothing, velvety feel to it.

    Anyway - good read for curious minds who want to know more about "synesthesia".

  • Rickeclectic

    Very interesting book about synesthesia (the mixing of sense, like tasting shapes or sensing numbers as having colors). Though it is not as well written, folks who like Oliver Sacks books will find this interesting. Synesthesia is a true phenomenon though relatively rare and this book if a non-fiction book about a variety of interesting synesthetes.

  • Laura

    This book is about synesthesia, a condition where certain people link senses together in an unexpected way. For example, one of the two main cases in this book tastes shapes, the other has colored hearing. This book is part textbook, part autobiography, and part editorial. It is divided into two sections. The first, larger section concentrates on synesthesia itself and Cytowic's interest in it, and the second part is a series of essays on the importance of emotion over reason.

    Cytowic alter

    This book is about synesthesia, a condition where certain people link senses together in an unexpected way. For example, one of the two main cases in this book tastes shapes, the other has colored hearing. This book is part textbook, part autobiography, and part editorial. It is divided into two sections. The first, larger section concentrates on synesthesia itself and Cytowic's interest in it, and the second part is a series of essays on the importance of emotion over reason.

    Cytowic alternates chapters between recounted personal experiences, starting with his own childhood, and more technical chapters about brain function and synesthesia as well as other neurological conditions. I actually liked the back and forth approach, it brings Cytowic's knowledge and enthusiasm about synesthesia to a personal level. While some of the technical parts were a little above me, he definitely tried to thoroughly explain concepts so that the lay person could understand them. He also includes helpful graphs and charts. I also enjoyed his brief but interesting account on the relationship between art/music and synesthesia.

    For all that I liked about this book, there was just as much I didn't like. Cytowic has EXTREMELY strong opinions, and doesn't hold back in telling you about them. For example, he basically hates anything to do with medical machines, hates modern doctors who do tests, and just seems to hate medical technology in general (he even had bad things to say about the stethoscope!). He also makes sweeping generalizations about non-religious people, who apparently are all scientists, and "spiritual people," of which he is one. He often adopts a tone of superiority about these things, and comes off extremely pompous. Many of his points rely on his picture of the world as purely black and white.

    My other complaint is that Cytowic can be very redundant. He not only makes the same points over and over again (especially in the essays of part two), but frequently uses the same exact metaphors. Not a huge faux pas, but a little annoying nonetheless.

    In general, if you discount his digressions, this is an interesting way to look at synesthesia, especially if you are looking for an alternative to purely textbook material (although if you ARE looking for a textbook devoted entirely to synesthesia, Cytowic does not fail to mention numerous times that he in fact has written one!).

  • Stefanie

    Cytowic spends way too much time talking about himself (the hero who dares to study synesthesia) and his convinction that "people" think medicine and science are all about machines. And he goes on about this... Synesthesia was what I was interested in, and there's not enough of it in this book.

  • Maria Elmvang

    Half interesting, half very dry and occasionally boring. Richard Cytowic is obviously very interested in synaesthesia - what causes it, how it is manifested in different people, whether or not you can track it by scanning the brain etc. - but his book isn't really meant for non-medical readers. I was fascinated by the experiments and the discoveries, but there was a LOT of medical babble that I had no interest in at all, and ended up just skimming.

    A non-fiction that reads too much like a textbo

    Half interesting, half very dry and occasionally boring. Richard Cytowic is obviously very interested in synaesthesia - what causes it, how it is manifested in different people, whether or not you can track it by scanning the brain etc. - but his book isn't really meant for non-medical readers. I was fascinated by the experiments and the discoveries, but there was a LOT of medical babble that I had no interest in at all, and ended up just skimming.

    A non-fiction that reads too much like a textbook for me to enjoy it as "casual reading".

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