The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner review – making sense

Ekmagine tasting a full English breakfast whenever you heard the words “Tottenham Court Road”. Or the flavour of pineapple chunks at the tinkling of a piano. For James, who is a synaesthete and one of the extraordinary people described in Guy Leschziner’s new book, words, music and life itself are saturated with striking taste sensations. Leschziner, a professor of neurology at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, has brought together a collection of exceptionally unusual and interesting stories in his second book, dedicated to the wonder of our senses.

Among his astonishing tales of what happens when the processing of sensory inputs goes wrong, Leschziner includes crystal-clear explanations of something no less amazing – how our senses operate normally. We meet a cast of people whose lives changed when the senses they took for granted suddenly shifted: Valeria the sommelier who lost her sense of taste; Oliver the film-maker who only discovered in his mid-20s that he was missing a chunk of his visual field; and Mark, a man who can hear his own eyeballs “moving and squelching”. Bill Oddie makes a charming if unexpected appearance at one point, discussing his hearing loss-related auditory hallucinations, which sound like a brass band playing nearby.

As well as the Big Five – sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch – Leschziner introduces us to people with neurological differences in less obvious modalities. His first patient, Paul, has a genetic disorder that means he cannot feel pain. Far from being a blessing, this causes him to suffer constant ruinous injuries. Rachel experiences the impairment of something most people wouldn’t even consider a sense at all: proprioception, the awareness of where our bodies and their various parts are in space, is critical to our everyday functioning. She struggles with door handles, or lifting a cup to her lips.

Almost all the people in Leschziner’s collection of cases have suffered catastrophic losses, and yet they show stunning resilience. Their stories are jaw-dropping, but this is not misery porn. Refreshingly, one never has the sense that Leschziner is wringing out his patients’ lives for dramatic effect. His prose is straightforward, and it lacks the whiff of narcissism or martyrdom that can emerge when doctors write books for a popular audience.

For all his professional expertise, the moments when Leschziner lets himself get personal or make a gentle, avuncular quip are where his warmth and empathy show, making a book that could otherwise be hard-going a delightful read. Op 'n punt, he imagines what it would be like to be a maggot or a dung beetle. He reminisces about the fragrance of sun-warmed pebbles in kindergarten. In the middle of the book – not quite out of nowhere, as he is circuitously talking about our sense of taste – are three delicious pages of lyrical culinary descriptions of the cuisine of his dual Baghdadi-Jewish and Ashkenazi heritage and a dip into his fascinating family history.

Tantalisingly, Leschziner leaves any serious consideration of the major philosophical implications of our imperfect senses – which he describes as “like trying to stream an HD movie over a slow internet connection” – until the epilogue. At this point, having introduced heavyweights such as Cartesian mind-body duality and the notion that our reality is merely a controlled hallucination, he taps out of the ring, stating: “I make no pretence at being a philosopher.” Yet Leschziner’s existential insights are exactly what I want to hear more of at the end of this intriguing book. In plaas daarvan, he leaves the reader hankering for more, with a renewed sense of awe at the delicate, magnificent workings of the senses.

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