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Brainiac

The delicious taste of subway stations

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

No one wants to taste a grimy subway station, but James Wannerton has no choice. Wannerton, 54, has a neurological condition known as taste synesthesia, where his senses are crossed so that spoken words evoke involuntary taste sensations in his mouth. When he was 4 years old, he first noticed that the station names on the London Underground had, to his mind, their own unique flavor profiles, many of which were actually delicious. Over the next 49 years he visited every stop on the Tube, taking detailed tasting notes as he went, and earlier this year he released his results in the form of a gustatory map called “Tastes of London: 1964-2013.” There, Underground stops are renamed for foods like “Spam Fritters,” “Warm Semolina,” and “Caramelised Lamb,” among many other tastes, many of which Wannerton first encountered as a child.

In an e-mail, Wannerton explained that his synesthetic experience of a name begins as a complex mix of taste, temperature, and texture. Over time he is able to take that experience and locate a specific food that explains it:

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For example, the station name “Hammersmith” carries the a sweet taste and texture of slightly warm cake, moist and quite dense cake, slightly crumbly. The outside of this cake has a subtly different texture than the middle. Playing this over and over in my mind I’ll eventually come up with a food stuff that most closely resembles the synesthetic experience — in this case, Madeira cake.

Wannerton hopes the map will inform research on the relationship between taste synesthesia and language acquisition, and also noted that he has two other similar projects underway, of the subway systems in New York City and Toronto.

Selling suffrage

National Woman Suffrage Association

The civil-rights milestone that attracted all the attention last week was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute is remembering another: Monday was the 93d anniversary of the constitutional adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. To celebrate, the library has been promoting its recently digitized collection of posters from the women’s suffrage movement. The posters are interesting in lots of ways, including the glimpse they provide into the range of arguments that activists used to gain women the right to vote. These include the contention that men and women deserve equal access to privileges like voting; emotional appeals to women’s roles as mothers; and, as shown here, the peer-pressure argument: All the other states are doing it, and yours should, too.

Kevin Hartnett can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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