Synesthesia, empathy, and the “art” of medicine
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
|Mind of the Beholder (click to view). Artwork by Maeve Pascoe, November 16, 2016. Presented at the 2017 Helicon History of Art Undergraduate Society “Synesthesia” student art exhibition at the University of Michigan.|
“Do my name next!” people would exclaim as I tried to explain that I am not “doing” anything, I merely perceive things differently. Not many medical conditions double as parlor tricks, but the benign condition of synesthesia is unique in its ability to astonish.
For much of my childhood, I had not realized that the way I perceived the world was different. I first had this realization in fifth grade, when I read a young adult novel, A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass.1 Mass tells the story of a young girl with synesthesia, a condition described as a “blending of the senses” in which “stimulation in one modality also gives rise to a perceptual experience in a second modality.”2 Different types include spatial-sequence, auditory-tactile, and lexical-gustatory. One of the most common is “color-grapheme,” where individuals “see” colors when looking at symbols (numbers, letters, etc.). In one scene of Mass’ book, the protagonist discovers she is “not normal” when she uses colored chalk on a chalkboard in school to write numbers with the colors she perceives them to have. She is ridiculed by both teacher and peers. While the book has been criticized as an inaccurate depiction, that particular scene made me realize that my reality was not shared by everyone, but by fewer than 2% of the population.3,4 I was floored. I felt universes away from the reality apparent to everyone else and worried others would treat me as alien.
The discovery of my synesthesia solidified when I finally opened up to parents and friends, who confirmed they did not experience letters, numbers, and other symbols as I did. But unlike the book’s protagonist, I was not “othered”; instead, my perceptions were met with fascination and curiosity. “Do all words have colors? What about my name?” became common questions. I was relieved and happy to answer. Unlike Mass’ poorly regarded protagonist, I was met with acceptance. This continued through my undergraduate years when, in my school’s “Synesthesia” student art exhibition, I exhibited a work of art I had made which described my experiences using different colored pens so that the audience could experience the written word as I do. The piece was well-received, and the ability to share my perspective through art was gratifying. I was elated that friends, and even strangers, could understand me better.
Entering medical school, I was grateful that “my colors” helped me memorize vast amounts of information. Yet I worried what value I could bring to our profession and the patients I would encounter. I worried that I had been accepted to medical school by mistake, and that I would have no place in everyone else’s medical world. But one day in the clinic brought Charlie*, a 45-year-old gentleman, and a new perspective into my life.
After resection of a brain tumor, radiation, and chemotherapy, Charlie felt loss. “You say I have a new lease on life now that I’m in remission, but I feel more stuck than ever,” he said. “How am I supposed to go enjoy my hobbies when I can’t even walk properly, or hang out with friends when I’m liable to start seizing?” At first, I could not understand; I had thought that being cancer-free would be good enough. But as I listened to his perspective, I noted how his symptoms had left him feeling behind his peers and “othered” from friends. People could not understand what he was going through. Although he was alive, he was alone. It became apparent that we could provide more healing by listening with empathy, validating his feelings, and providing resources for when he felt he could use them, rather than simply giving him a prescription. He felt scared, and we told him how normal that is. He felt stranded, and we reassured him that we would always be here to assist on the next step of his journey. After our hour together, Charlie said that he still carried much grief, but having been truly heard and supported, he felt comforted.
Most medical conditions, such as brain cancer, inspire fear and sadness. However, synesthesia, also with its physiological origins in the brain, elicits curiosity. My personal experience and my encounters with patients have shown me just how different our perceptions of the world can be. Acknowledging this, we might be able to truly “see” each other. My parents and friends have never experienced my cerulean “M’s” or vermillion “E’s,” but their curiosity and encouragement have shown we do not need to see the world in the same way to understand and appreciate each other. Similarly, I will probably never experience the trials most of my patients will face, but I hope to approach their experiences with curiosity and empathy. If I can use what I have learned from my experience to improve the lives of patients, that will be the best parlor trick of all.
*Name changed to protect patient privacy.
- Mass W. A Mango-Shaped Space. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 2008.
- Sagiv N, Ward J. Crossmodal interactions: lessons from synesthesia. Prog Brain Res. 2006;155:259-71. doi:10.1016/s0079-6123(06)55015-0.
- Simner J, Mulvenna C, Sagiv N, et al. Synaesthesia: the prevalence of atypical cross-modal experiences. Perception. 2006;35(8):1024-33. doi:10.1068/p5469.
- Rouw R, Scholte HS. Personality and cognitive profiles of a general synesthetic trait. Neuropsychologia. July 29, 2016;88:35-48. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.01.006.
MAEVE PASCOE is a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University and research fellow at the NIH neuro-oncology branch as part of the NIH Medical Research Scholars Program. She plans to pursue a career in neurology.
Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest
Spring 2023 | Sections | Personal Narratives