‘Monday Tastes Like Strawberries’: Bronx Science’s Synesthetic Experiences

Bronx Science students share about smelling sounds, tasting words, and respecting individual perceptions.


Anna Koontz

Synesthetes’ mixed senses can create unique insights on otherwise ordinary life. “I enjoy how I think very differently about the world in a way that most don’t,” said Vi Ton ’24. “I’m an artist, and it really helps me make associations that are not very typical.”

It’s Friday, and everyone is rushing to finish their math test. Although the neat rows of desks, bent heads, and anxious scribbling might seem uniform, everyone’s experience is different. To one student, the sound of scratching pencils might conjure deep blue waves; to another, the answer to the last question is tinted pale green. When the teacher announces the end of the exam, her voice may taste like lemon juice or smell like burning toast. 

These experiences are all examples of synesthesia, a broad term for a rare neurological phenomenon that overlaps the senses. To the average person, the many subsets of synesthesia may seem as obscure as their long scientific names: colored sounds (chromesthesia), words with taste (lexical-gustatory synesthesia), or colored letters and numbers (grapheme-color synesthesia). Continued mismatching results in over eighty distinct types of synesthesia ranging in prevalence and sensory combinations, and some can be further categorized into ‘projective’ and ‘associative.’ A synesthete with projective chromesthesia might actually see green spirals when they hear a door slam, while an associative synesthete would picture the shape in their mind. 

Because these connections are intuitive and subconscious, synesthetes often are not actively aware of them, similar to how sirens and honks become normal background noise to city dwellers. With my own grapheme-color synesthesia, for example, I have a strong mental association between ‘H’ and light brown but still see the letter as black ink on a page. When I read, the colors of each word become ‘background noise’ that I automatically tune out. Other grapheme-color synesthetes might be more distracted when reading, or perceive ‘H’ as a yellowish green – everyone’s personal experience is unique, yet innate and consistent throughout their entire life.

All of this can seem unusual, but synesthesia is completely normal for the estimated 4% of the population that have it. Elisabeth Chai ’23 has several forms of synesthesia, including chromesthesia and ordinal linguistic personification, the association of personalities with concepts. To her, “the number one is a middle-school boy with brown hair,” and “inaudible conversation is a maroon tinged with silver and appears in a marigold-like pattern.” This has always been a part of Chai’s life; in second grade, her teacher noticed that she confused the verbs ‘see’ and ‘hear.’ However, Chai did not learn about synesthesia until she became a ninth grader in high school. She heard someone describe similar experiences that immediately resonated with her: “At that moment, I was like, yes!” she remembered.

Likewise, Vera Pankevich ’23 did not fully realize her own grapheme-color synesthesia until she was a teenager. “Because the association is so instant, I didn’t notice that I had it until I really thought about it,” she said. One day, she began speaking to her step-dad about the color of each letter, and he quickly pointed out that her associations were not common. Variations of this scene have repeated throughout many synesthete’s lives. There seems to be a general lack of awareness regarding synesthesia.

This is partly because scientists have only recently started to take synesthesia seriously and explore the neurology behind it. Synesthesia was not officially acknowledged until the 1889 International Conference of Physiological Psychology and did not have a scientific name until a few years passed. Even then, many considered synesthesia to be imaginary until the late twentieth century. It was then that neurologist Richard Cytowic published key information about the phenomenon and examples from real life, lending credibility to otherwise ambiguous experiences. 

Whether or not it is approved or understood, synesthesia can have slight impacts on daily life. As someone prone to test anxiety, Vi Ton ’24 finds synesthesia to be occasionally detrimental. “Sometimes, hearing simultaneous page flips in the middle of a standardized exam can make me smell dishwashing water – two things so seemingly disconnected,” Ton said. “It becomes overwhelming really easily.” Chai noticed that her synesthesia can have negative effects as well, especially when she has a migraine in a noisy environment and “the changing colors worsen the headache.”

Other complications are more inconvenient. “I can’t tell apart words that have similar colors to me,” Pankevich explained, listing ‘grapefruit’ and ‘pomegranate’ as two examples. This has happened to me as well, in the subway system. The MTA labels the B as an orange train and the C as dark blue, but their true colors are swapped in my mind. With a quick glance at the timetable display, I might see a blue color and automatically assume that it is referring to the B.

On the other hand, synesthesia can boost memory and creativity. I knew that ‘V’ meant ‘or’ in geometry because they are both purple, and Pankevich matched colors between presidents’ names and related concepts while studying for U.S. History. Synesthesia’s influences extend far beyond the classroom to many culturally significant artists like Duke Ellington, Vincent van Gogh, and Billie Eilish, who credited her overlap of sound, color, and shape as an inspiration for her music. 

But synesthesia is individual and relative, which also impacts the reactions of those receiving the art. For Chai, there is some music that she “absolutely cannot stand because of the way the colors clash.” And in the case of a Tazriam Khandoker ’25, synesthesia plays a role in how she perceives books and literature.

Khandoker has two types of synesthesia, and similarly did not learn the name for it until high school. With spatial-sequence synesthesia, she visualizes the months of the year in a precise zigzag pattern through space – “Oh, like the constellations? January’s here, February / March / April…” – and her lexical-gustatory synesthesia causes her to taste words. Not every word has a taste, some tastes change based on context, and she often does not notice these sensations unless she reads slowly, word by word. 

In Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection The (Other) You, ‘stalactites’ felt like salt on Khandoker’s tongue. And the mood of a specific moment in Paul Kalinithi’s autobiography When Breath Becomes Air was reflected by the “hopeful and energetic” taste of one of Khandoker’s favorite drinks. Sometimes words can taste like cookies and cream ice cream or certain food that Khandoker’s mom cooks.

Usually, it is emotional writing that fills Khandoker’s mouth with flavors or sensations. Once, in history class, she read a primary source about a Nazi soldier passively watching people die. “It just tasted awful inside my mouth, because everything felt so vivid,” she explained. She reread the passage aloud to me. The soldier’s legs were swinging, he sat on a narrow ledge – she stopped suddenly. “‘Narrow’ felt like a knife inside me… It feels like there’s something on my tongue, in the middle over here.” Khandoker repeated the word a few times, adding that it felt similar to burning her tongue with tea. “Narrow…” She paused. “Okay, I can’t say that word anymore.” 

Poetry evokes these sensations the most. In particular, the poet Amanda Gorman’s poetry collection Call Us What We Carry brought Khandoker an explosion of feelings and tastes. “‘Halting like a headless haunt in our own house’ – it’s something that’s very soft and very delicate – ‘Our words water dragging down a windshield’ – you know, a vanilla milkshake.”

Khandoker’s synesthesia influences her own poetry, too. When writing a poem about New York and the immigrant experience, Khandoker tried to incorporate words that tasted like tandoori chicken, a Bengali dish. “For some of the words, I had the taste, but it didn’t sound right to me. So I guess it’s a matter of both taste and sound,” she reflected.

Each of these examples of synesthesia at Bronx Science reveals how everyone can have different interpretations of ordinary things. I see Sunday as bright, shining yellow. Monday tastes like strawberries for Khandoker. And Tuesday “has a mellow personality and is often forgotten about, but her favorite color is green and she keeps a mixed-media sketchbook on hand at all times,” according to Chai. It is clear that not everyone experiences the world in the same way. That is simply the messy and beautiful reality of being human, and this mindset can be extended to any part of life, rare neurological phenomenon or not. “Just because synesthesia has a name doesn’t mean it’s much more different from how other people perceive things,” said Pankevich. “We just don’t have a term to classify it yet. I don’t think synesthesia is all that different from other perception quirks.”

This also means respecting and accepting people’s differences. “I think that the average person does not have a very good understanding of what synesthesia is. It is easy to see it as a superpower of sorts, while forgetting that I cannot ‘turn it off’ when it is inconvenient for me,” said Chai. Non-synesthetes tend to respond to synesthesia with either exaggeration or disbelief, but it is important to remember that for some people, synesthesia is simply normal.

So with this new appreciation in mind, turn in your math test and place it on top of all your other classmates’, who might consider the last answer to be not pale green but purple or crunchy or just a plain, regular number that happens to be lucky or remind them of their cousin’s birthday. Then leave the room with the rest of the class, each your own unique individual, each with your own unique “perception quirks.”

I see Sunday as bright, shining yellow. Monday tastes like strawberries for Khandoker. And Tuesday “has a mellow personality and is often forgotten about, but her favorite color is green and she keeps a mixed-media sketchbook on hand at all times,” according to Elisabeth Chai ’23.