Baby Name Synesthesia: Names Activate the Senses
People with synesthesia experience baby names in multiple dimensions. Imagine learning someone’s name and immediately associating with it a color or pattern, taste or touch. A name like Agnes might be experienced as, “white toast, buttered, cut into triangles. You dunk it in tea with no sugar, just milk. And when you bite it — that’s Agnes.”
Or maybe you see Agnes as this:
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a condition in which multiple sensory pathways are activated by a single stimulus, according to the American Psychological Association. There are many different combinations of senses that can occur in synesthesia — a synesthete might perceive music as color or feel words as bodily sensations.
It is estimated that approximately four percent of the population experiences some form of synesthesia. Synesthetes’ perceptions differ from each other but remain internally consistent. One who perceives the month of June to be seafoam green will always do so, even if June is bubblegum pink to someone else.
Baby Name Synesthesia
Naturally, synesthesia connected to words or letters often carries over to baby names. Baby name synesthesia is a relatively common condition among our Berries, and a frequent and popular topic in our forums.
We talked to Bernadette Sheridan and Donna Vaicels, friends from Bloomfield, New Jersey, who each have a different form of synesthesia. Sheridan, a graphic designer, has grapheme-color synesthesia — one of the most common forms — and associates letters and numbers with specific colors. She’s the creator of synesthesia.me, the website and Etsy shop that maps names to the colors Sheridan perceives.
For Vaicels, only certain names have tastes, while for Sheridan, each letter of the alphabet has an associated color and every name creates a pattern. “When I hear a name, or when I focus on a particular word, in the back of my mind I’m counting how many letters are in that word and my mind is automatically assigning colors to each letter,” she explains.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Sheridan is meeting multiple new people at once, it can get to be a lot. “I’m genuinely distracted in my head by what’s going on with the colors and the counting, so I don’t remember names,” she says.
Sheridan discovered she had synesthesia as an adult, while working as a designer for The New York Daily News. “I would have arguments with my boss like, ‘no, that word’s the wrong color.’ He’s the one that found the article in the Wall Street Journal that had a name for synesthesia and changed my life,” she said.
Vaicels too wouldn’t discover the term for synesthesia until adulthood but recalls her first-ever link between word and taste from childhood: “The first one I ever remember is the word ‘grown-ups.’ Every time I say it, I can taste that plastic, glossy, American cheese.”
Vaicels says her ex-husband was the one who ended up choosing the names for their daughters, Courtney and Carly, but she never would have agreed to them if he had suggested bad-tasting names. Thankfully, her daughters’ names are delicious. “Courtney is pink lemonade, she told us. “A fruity and tangy flavor you get on the sides of your tongue.” Carly is “biting into an apple wedge dipped in caramel.”
Unlike Vaicels, Sheridan’s perceptions aren’t positively or negatively valenced. “It’s not like I ever get a bad impression of somebody,” she explained. “It’s more like I put them in a bucket until I get to know them better.”
The “buckets” come from the feeling she gets about someone based on the colors of their name. “People that have a lot of bright colors in their names — lots of Is and Es — are to me, very bright and optimistic. They immediately put me at ease. Names that have darker letters make me feel like that person is really stable and confident,” she said. Sheridan is particularly interested in people with As — bright red — in their name because it signals a vibrant personality. “I’ll ask people that I meet who have As in their names more questions, which might explain why some of my very best friends have As in their names.”
Synesthetic Name Perception
These perceptions affect name preferences. Among Sheridan’s favorite names are short, punchy choices such as Nick, Erin, and Rich — those with Rs, Is, and Ns — because they produce a pleasing color pattern with magenta, white, and green. “I also like longer names, like Charles, Charlie, and Heather,” she said. “The rainbow names are really good. They light up my mind.”
Vaicels is also fond of the name Charlie, because it tastes like, “a minty, chewy candy.” Others she likes include Stephanie, which is cotton candy, and Julie — elbow macaroni and cheese out of a box. But for Vaicels, a bad taste is more likely to turn her off a name than pleasant taste is to attract her to it. One name she dislikes is Viola — the name of her own grandmother! — because she perceives it as, “cheese from the inside of a stuffed shell that’s past its prime.”
“Luckily I just got to call her Grandma,” Vaicels remarked.
She also has strong sensations — which are intensified by repeated exposure to the name — with Colin, which is “iceberg lettuce with vinegar on it that gets stuck to the back of your throat and flaps,” and Deb, “the feeling when you bite into strawberry jam and get a big chunk of strawberry.”
Vaicels’ baby name synesthesia perceptions are not linked to letters, and thus, sounds, the way Sheridan’s are. Whereas Sheridan will perceive related color patterns for names and nicknames if they are made up of similar letters, Vaicels may have unrelated tastes for name and nickname. Michael, she said, tastes like, “a big pickle cut into coins,” while “Mike is a corn muffin all the way.”
The taste Vaicels gets from a name is so divorced from sound and context that even names you might expect to have a taste — food names — don’t match up. “Clementine has a pleasant taste,” she told us. “But it doesn’t taste like a clementine.”
Clementine is the name Sheridan chose for one of her cats, although she wasn’t the one to come up with it. “The credit for Clementine goes to a seven-year-old girl who really just nailed it,” Sheridan said. Her synesthesia helps confirm her choice of names, rather than guide it. “When you hear the right name, you’re like, ‘that’s it, perfect,’” she explained. Sheridan knew Clementine was the right choice for her cat because “she matches her name exactly. It’s this bright sunshine lemon-lime picture of optimism.”
Ultimately, both Sheridan and Vaicels have an appreciation for their synesthesia. “It makes me a little more curious about everybody that I meet,” said Sheridan. “Everybody has a name, and the way my brain works, when I meet you, I automatically come up with ten questions I want to ask you before I know who you are.”
Vaicels has a sense of humor about her unusual ability, particularly in relation to other synesthetes. “Other people with synesthesia are like ‘what are the colors of the days of the week?’ Nothing, but Tuesday’s a fried egg.”