Science + Tech

How synesthesia helps me see the world differently

On my first day of Organic Chemistry, our professor handed each of us a packet containing the major functional groups and their corresponding pKa values. We were told to memorize them. Many students frantically made flashcards, and quizzed each other out loud. Meanwhile, I studied by watching football.

When I looked at the functional groups, I not only saw ketones, esters and carboxylic acids, but to me, each structure resembled an NFL team and my favorite fantasy football players. I make these associations subconsciously. It’s been second nature to me my entire life.

In eighth grade, I learned that not everyone sees a rainbow of colors when they read or sees splashes of shapes when they hear a song on the radio. Not everyone thinks the color blue tastes like cinnamon, or that Wednesday feels like snowflakes falling from the sky. I was told my perceptual awareness functions at a higher state, due to a neurological condition called synesthesia. My senses blend together, causing an altered form of reality and a lot of confused, comical faces when I try explaining why I think the letter “A” is red and the sound of a drum creates little blue squares.

As I started studying Organic Chemistry, I drew out each functional group with the NFL team or player I thought of. The word “carboxylic acid” appears blue in my mind, and its pKa value of ~4 appears green, reminding me of the Seattle Seahawks. The word “ester,” also green, has the same color as Richard Sherman’s name, and both of those are number 25. Amines and 36 match with the 49ers, hydrogen sulfide and 7 match with the Minnesota Vikings, and Antonio Brown matches with alkanes. These associations apply to all parts of my studying. I memorized the Calvin Cycle through a pattern of colors, and I understand physics by the way shapes change over time.

Throughout my undergraduate career, I have come to terms with the way synesthesia brings a unique perspective to the way I think. We each have our own styles of learning, analyzing and conceptualizing ideas. We each process information differently. Whether it’s in dental school, a meeting or a late night study group, we should appreciate the importance of patience and honor how we all have unique thought processes and learning styles.

In dental school, I plan to study tooth anatomy with a box of colored pencils by my side, while other students might draw teeth in black and white. We’ll have the same goal in mind, even if we use different paths to get there.

Rather than being an obstacle, embracing synesthesia has brought a vivid, cohesive understanding to my life. It’s simply how I see the world find inspiration to learn and think creatively.

Do you have a unique study trick that helps you see things differently? Share it in the comments below!

~ Sydney McKenna, predental, Gonzaga University ’18

Sydney McKenna

Sydney is a Biology major at Gonzaga University. As a junior, she is vice president of the Gonzaga Pre-Dental Club. She is passionate about pursuing a career in the dental field so she can make a positive difference in the lives of others. Outside of studying, she enjoys yoga, running, traveling around the world and drawing.

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1 Comment

  1. I know her!!!

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