Brews & Brains

When You Spell Hot Coffee &
Taste the Words in Your Mouth

Imagine if you knew words by their flavor, or colors by their sounds? What about if you could speak ‘coffee’ fluently as if it were a foreign language?
It’s not always easy to combine the particulars of a world-class commodity with the strangeness of a neurological condition. But now that we brought you all the way here, there’s no way back.
That delicious, vital, customary cup of hot arabica, that promptly elicits a world of sensations to your tasting buds, and a jolt to your brain, may be getting ever more expensive.
That’s because a roster of factors, from environmental conditions, to climate change, to labor regulations around the world, to the fragility of most coffee beans, seem to be conspiring against your daily rush ritual.
Plus, not to put too fine a print on it, it may also make us all get dementia, judging by recent studies linking the benefits of drinking coffee with mental health.
Then again, you may have already thought, at least once or twice, that the way people started demanding their brew, as if it were a vintage bottle of wine, sooner or later would crash and spoil for good one of the few pleasures of having to face the world at some forsaking time of the morning.
Efforts are under way to minimize such wretched factors impacting consumption of the world’s favorite beverage, even as it increases to places where tea and fruit juices used to be the preferred drink.
As coffee crops as still heavily dependent of personally hand-crafted and outdated farm practices, researchers are trying to come up with better hybrids, more tolerant to heat and drought, but it’ll take time.
So will needed changes in the way that Brazil, Indonesia and Colombia, the world’s top coffee producers, subsidize and trade their precious commodity.
Even without necessarily helping farmers, prices are always subjected to upward fluctuations, and it’s the rich consumer in industrialized societies who’ll ultimately foot the bill. That, sometimes, means you.
But while you know exactly how you’ve ordered your French Roast a few hours ago today, you probably have little idea how come that dark, thick and bitter drink came to be known as coffee.
Oxford etymologist Anatoly Liberman recently took a sip of the issue and found several references to a ‘very good drink’ called Chaube (1573), Caova (1580), cohoo (1609) and, surprisingly for such an early date, coffee (also 1609), cahue (1615), coho, and copha (1628).
Before it became the standard form in English, he noted, the word coffee had supposedly gone through Europe and changed from the Arabic quahwa to the Turkish kahveh.
The issue, of course, has no bearing on our current obsession with tall lattes and frappuccinos, but it’s a handy conversation piece while waiting on the increasingly longer lines at your local Starbucks.
However, after almost drowning us all on the arcana of Europe’s language phonetics, the reputed scholar found time for a quick stop at the kingdom of Kaffa in modern Ethiopia (formerly in Abyssinia), where ‘coffee trees do flourish.’ Now, how would you like your macchiato?

First things first: Synesthesia. There, now that the big, enigmatic word is out of the way, we can discuss its meaning. Or rather, how it’d taste to a group of rare individuals that possess the neurological condition that it names.
In itself, synesthesia is not some new kid in the brain block. Scientists know about it since 1812, when the first tests were conducted to prove that some people easily associate words with taste and sounds with colors.
What’s new about it is that it’s about seven times more common in artists, poets, and novelists than in the rest of the population, which is very good for the sensitive bunch, of course, since they seem to be better able to work with unrelated ideas, but for us, not so much.
Great, they just found another reason why, when it comes down to it, we’re just like the rest of the 6,999 billion of the population, who have a hard time balancing even their morning coffee with one hand, and their computers with the other.
But we shouldn’t be so callous with our fellow human beings, because even if their condition enhances their lives, the fact that evolution allowed it to develop may have to do with something important that we, as a species, needed to survive.
Scientists are busy at work scanning the brain of these privileged minds, in search for answers to that and other questions. That probably has a sweet taste for them as a group study, because 200 years ago, they were, simply put, considered mildly retarded.
Or worse: many believed that they were making it up as they went along, specially when they’d insist that they needed to search for a word of the color blue, even before knowing what kind of meaning the word should need to convey.
Another group of special-class individuals, savants, known to perform amazing feats of memorization, such as remembering the value of pi to 22,514 digits, have now being established as also having synesthesia.
Other questions scientists are trying to answer are whether animals experience it, how different brain chemicals affect the condition, and the role of genetics in determining a synesthete’s cognitive and creative abilities, since it’s also highly heritable.
But it always takes someone to ask the most obvious question, that somehow levels the field (and makes us all feel less guilty for being so jealous). In this case, it was the study’s own co-author, David Brang, who expressed what we’ve been thinking all along:
– “If it’s so cool and such a great trait, why don’t we all have it?”

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