The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner reviewed

The Man Who Tasted Words Book Cover The Man Who Tasted Words
Guy Leschziner
Non-fiction
Simon and Schuster UK
February 03, 2022
Ebook
336
NetGalley

In The Man Who Tasted Words, neurologist Guy Leschziner leads readers through the five 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 five 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.

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 wreaked havoc, not only on their view of the world, but also on their relationships. The cases Leschziner shares are extreme, but they are also human, and they teach us that both our lives and what we perceive as reality are ultimately defined by the complexities of the nervous system.

The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner

In The Man Who Tasted Words the author, a neurologist, takes us through our senses from his perspective. He starts by looking at the idea of which sense we might be prepared to do without. Given there are generally considered to be five senses this seems like quite a challenge from the start. Indeed the further you delve into this book and the subject the more complex it gets. Are there really only five senses and what would being without one be like? The introduction has me more than interested very quickly.

The book combines specific cases, generally the author’s own, with related aspects of neurology. It also looks at some of the more general challenges he has faced in his career. One of his general points is how badly doctors communicate with their patients at times.  He finds it frustrating at best.

Cases

In terms of cases and among others, we meet Paul who has no feeling of physical pain at all. The challenges of living life without necessary danger signals through pain are very big. Rahel is unable to walk/stand as she has no perception of her movements. Dawn has a “benign” tumour. Despite it being benign it is affecting her vision and this is during the pandemic which simply adds to the problems of treating patients. There are a number of other patients and cases mentioned. While I found them all interesting these ones seemed to stand out for me. The challenges of attempting to help people with some of these sort of conditions are substantial. All too often there is little that can be done.

Conditions

In terms of general neurological issues a number are covered in the course of The Man Who Tasted Words. I found the insights into how our brains offer us reality very interesting. During a chapter largely on vision I discovered that “blind spots” are actual a reality. The author tells us how we can check this and sure enough you can find your blind spot. What is remarkable is that we generally don’t realise it as the brain “fills in” the gaps.

Aphantasia is discussed in a later chapter which concerns an artist in the main. After she had a stroke she lost her internal visualisation ability which helped her with her painting. I guess what I hadn’t realised before I read this book is that something like this ability may not be common to everyone anyway. Until you ask someone what they can see/feel/experience they may have no idea that they lack something that others take for granted.

I guess no review of The Man Who Tasted Words would be complete without referring to Synaesthesia. This is the state where the man in the title can taste words. However there are other forms of synaesthesia. The colours, even textures, that some people find in music of music would be one.  There may even be advantages to synaesthesia and the subject is discussed quite broadly.  I found the synaesthesia part very interesting.

More generally

Towards the end of this book the author points out to the reader that “the way we experience the world is reliant upon the chemical and physical properties of our bodies (…) as much as on the physical properties of objects”. In that alone the book is fascinating – what is reality? The epilogue continues considering that theme in part. It reflects on “what is reality” really even name checking The Matrix. Indeed it is clear from the book that the reality we each perceive might not be experienced the same way as others regardless of whether we are considered medically “normal”. If no one asks us how we see/feel the world in its broadest sense we may be unaware that our senses are different to other peoples.

I did find some of these chapters quite dense. I would honestly suggest trying to read a whole chapter at a time for some ease of understanding. At times the reintroduction of cases I’d already read about in later chapters felt a little awkward. This may well not be a book for a real layman although I feel it should be appreciated by anyone with an interest in the subject. Allowing those thoughts this is a book that I really enjoyed reading. Parts of it were really fascinating and I learned a lot about senses generally and mine too.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review

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