Seeing Green (And Yellow and Purple)

12/10/2014 09:54 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

The thing I most remember about second grade is the week we spent looking at optical illusions. Staring at pictures of M.C. Escher's impossible staircases, the idea that my eyes could see one thing and my brain could think something totally different was mesmerizing. The world was suddenly full of impossibilities and also possibilities -- a painting that could simultaneously be of both an old woman and a young maiden. Several years and many "gotcha!" moments later, I now trust my eyes less than ever before. Seeing and believing are not synonymous, as those optical illusions can be rooted more deeply in cultural beliefs. Half of the difficulty with empathy lies in the fact that we can never truly know how others see the world, either literally or psychologically, but as we grow older and more settled in our worldview we tend to assume otherwise.

I have synesthesia, a strange mental phenomenon that creates involuntary connections between sensory pathways, and the version that I have causes me to see associate colors with letters and numbers. It's really not that exciting -- it's not like I'm living in some sort of trippy, rainbow fantasy or anything -- but it means that I visualize the word "Tuesday" in a specific shade of green, for example. Whenever my family wants to poke fun at me they'll point at a random word and ask me, what color is it? while grinning broadly, amused at the girl who sees colors that aren't there. A little less obvious than the bearded ladies at carnivals, but a spectacle, nonetheless.

Around the same time in high school that I realized not everyone had these perceptive associations, I also had my first experience immersed in a foreign language. It was Swedish, I was 15, and I never looked back. Since then I have been only mildly obsessed with getting the hang of idioms and dialects in a variety of languages, if not for their practicality (ahem, Swedish) then for the fascination I took with cultural interpretation. Every time I encounter an entirely new concept, a different way of seeing that is a product of a new environment, I get a weird adrenaline rush. My favorite epiphanies have been when I discover something I did not know before, merely because I didn't have the tools to know it. It's like thinking you had 20-20 vision, only to discover years later that you were nearsighted.

Although there are much cooler versions of synesthesia (some people see sparks of color whenever they hear a particular musical chord -- how sick is that?), since high school I have realized all the more that the world is not just a jumble of sensory stimuli for our brains to process and spit out, assembly line style. Rather, our thoughts come from perceptions, influenced both by our cultural surroundings and our genes. We cannot know what others are seeing, much less thinking or feeling, despite hegemonic attempts at standardizing experience. If you are unconvinced of this just ask two artists to draw the same object -- they'll inevitably disclose differences in perception through the thickness of their lines, the brilliance of their colors, the depth of their shadows.

The important piece of this is to be aware of the kaleidoscope of sensory perception when going out into a world filled with people who think differently from us, in part due to the linguistic and mental roadmap they were given. Globalization makes it impossible for us to stay in micro-economic bubbles that don't bump into others, whether we speak directly with these trade partners or not, and one can't help but to wonder how much gets lost in translation during those supposedly objective transactions. Business Chinese is a start, but a pocket dictionary is no substitute for cultural familiarity.

College is one of the best places to be exposed to other ways of thought, in and outside of the classroom, and Harvard is a prime example of this diversity. But at this stage of technological development we, as the saying goes, cannot know what we don't know. Perhaps, then, the most important thing we can do is to listen. Listen and learn from others to uncover some of what we don't know, unearthing the optical illusions of everyday life. And who knows: you might just start seeing Tuesday in the color green.