When you can taste colors, feel time as space

When you can taste colors, feel time as space »Play Video
Judy De Chantal, a Port Angeles painter, is seen working on canvas.
SEATTLE -- When you hear a meow, do you hear or see anything other than a cat?

Pat Shook does.

"'Meow.' The 'M' is kind of a brownish color," she said.

Shook not only hears the cat, but also automatically hears a color and then sees that color.

"I know, that's so weird," she said.

We thought it was a little odd, too, but then we met Judy De Chantal, a Port Angeles painter who says sounds prompt certain colors in her mind's eye, too.

She insists every letter in the alphabet has a corresponding color. And every time she sees a letter, she automatically see its color. Typically it's the first letter of a word that gets her attention. If the word is "ring," she focuses on the r and sees color.

"'R' is orangey-red," De Chantal said.

Shook is the same way.

"The 'S' is white,' T' is green. Those are the colors I'm seeing," she said.

Shook says the 'M' in Men's Journal should be brown, and that 'J' is really the color of ginger.

Both women thought everyone saw colors.

"I kind of see words when people are talking. It's funny, I didn't think that was unusual. I was telling my husband this and he says, 'I don't see any words!'" said Shook.

And De Chantal says she can even taste the letter "R."

"I'm just kind of embarrassed to say that because it just seems like everybody tastes 'R', but I guess not everybody does," she said.

So how does the letter "R" taste? De Chantal says it tastes like blood.

"It's not some magic thing. It's just purely in your mind," she said.

Synethesia: When senses are cross-wired

It's a window into the brain, according to Dr. Richard Cytowic, a neuroscientist at Baylor College.

Cytowic says the two women's senses are cross-wired. Their unusual sensory ability has a name -- synethesia, a syndrome Cytowic has spent his career researching it and documenting cases.

"It's completely reversed how we think about the brain. We used to think of it as made up of modules that never spoke to one another what we know now. The normal brain is hugely cross-connected," said Cytowic.

Synethesia is rare. People are born with it. The condition can present in different forms. In the case of Redmond mom and neuroscientist Sara Glickstein, sight and touch are blurred. She sees time and numbers in space.

"It wasn't that I just visualize time; I feel time," she said.

Dates prompt a visual timeline that appears in her mind's eye. It stretches from B.C. to eternity.

"I have these blocks of centuries moving all the way back," said Glickstein.

But the B.C. period, she said, is just a bright area.

"I can't get much detail there," she said.

Glickstein's time line arcs up and goes to infinity -- another blurry area.

But each decade has its own block, and Glickstein can zoom in to any year.

She also sees the calendar year differently. Instead of calendar image, she sees an oval with the months moving counterclockwise. And days of the week appear in a visual block.

"I know where time is in relation to my body, much like if you close your eyes and you know where your joints are without looking at them. You know where you are in the room in relationship to the door. I know where I am in relationship to all time," she said.

Glickstein says her synethesia makes it easier for her remember dates and number.

De Chantal, who also sees dates, agrees.

"I don't know if I could function without it," she said.

De Chantal also says certain sounds trigger images in her mind. If she hears Canadian geese in flight, in her mind's eye she sees green shapes that look macaroni.

Experts say that the condition is not as rare as you might think. They believe one in 20 people may have a much more subtle form of synethesia .

Scientists believes tiny genetic changes in the brain trigger the cross talk. But as far as why it happens, that answer is still locked away in someone's brain.