REVIEW: The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner
In The Man Who Tasted Words, Guy Leschziner leads readers through the senses and how, through them, our brain understands or misunderstands the world around us.
Vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch are what we rely on to perceive the reality of our world. Our senses are the conduits that bring us the scent of a freshly brewed cup of coffee or the notes of a favorite song suddenly playing on the radio. But are they really that reliable? The Man Who Tasted Words shows that what we perceive to be absolute truths of the world around us is actually a complex internal reconstruction by our minds and nervous systems. The translation into experiences with conscious meaning—the pattern of light and dark on the retina that is transformed into the face of a loved one, for instance—is a process that is invisible, undetected by ourselves and, in most cases, completely out of our control.
In The Man Who Tasted Words, neurologist Guy Leschziner explores how our nervous systems define our worlds and how we can, in fact, be victims of falsehoods perpetrated by our own brains. In his moving and lyrical chronicles of lives turned upside down by a disruption in one or more of their five senses, he introduces readers to extraordinary individuals, like one man who actually “tasted” words, and shows us how sensory disruptions like that have played havoc, not only with their view of the world, but with their relationships as well. The cases Leschziner shares in The Man Who Tasted Words are extreme, but they are also human, and teach us how our lives and what we perceive as reality are both ultimately defined by the complexities of our nervous systems.
When I read the title of this book, I immediately thought it would be all about synesthesia. I’ve been fascinated by this alternate experience of the senses since I first read about it almost thirty years ago. Well, there is a chapter on this but the rest of the book is focused on the five to six senses that allow our brains to interpret the world around us. But this isn’t just the basic understanding of how our eyes work, or how sound waves are converted into what we hear but rather how things can be different than usual from birth or ways that changes to our bodies can distort the ways we’ve always interacted with what is outside us. Leschziner has an easy approachable writing style that makes the medical information understandable. He includes his own experiences along with case histories to illustrate each sense, speaking of his patients with compassion and understanding.
Early on Dr. Leschziner asks readers to rank senses with 1 being the sense we wouldn’t want to lose and 5 (or 6 depending on if proprioception is considered a sense) being the one we’d sacrifice if need be. I mentally arranged then rearranged my sense list. Then as the chapters and medical histories began, I started to realize that all of them are important in ways I’d never considered and most of them interact with each other in ways I’d never imagined. We all know about taste and smell being intertwined but the case histories show the amazing ways we use senses to survive and the means by which doctors and scientists are discovering how this works and how to help patients when something goes wrong.
Our brains do fantastic things every second to make sense of the vast amount of information that streams in via touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing (and how we perceive our bodies in space). Not everything is how we think it is, though. There are compensations that the brain makes for our anatomy, information that gets filtered out so that we aren’t overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it, and so many, many ways that each person’s reality might not match anyone else’s. B