Tuesday, March 23, 2010

synesthesia and the perception of time

You probably know that there are some people who see colors when they see specific letters or numbers. Or hear certain sounds. This is a condition known as synesthesia, and I read an article about it a couple of months ago in an old issue of the Smithsonian. (I think this was the article I read, but I'm not sure, because the link is just to an abstract.)

It was a fascinating article, but it became personal when they noted, off-handedly, that some synesthetes perceived time in a concrete fashion. They had a picture for the way years looked, or weeks or days. An idiosyncratic chart of time.

That pulled me up short. I thought, Well, I have that. And I thought it was strange that they should mention it. So I asked my husband if he had a specific picture when he thought about time. And he said no. And after that, I asked around some more.

Turns out most people don't see time when they think about time. But I do. I always have. As far back as I can remember knowing about years and months and days and weeks, I can remember seeing them. From what I've read, that's part of what makes it true synesthesia: you've always seen it that way. Apparently it's really common to spend years not knowing you have synesthesia for the simple reason that it never occurs to you that other people don't see the same thing you see. Now, I never thought people saw the same chart I saw, but I assumed they saw something. It's still very weird to me that that's not true.

What do I see? Well, years hang like an ovoid loop, suspended from December 31 and January 1. Sort of a teardrop shape. Right now we're going down the loop of the year. By about September, we'll start going up. Years string together in a sort-of L-shape scroll, from as far back as history goes, extending out towards the future. Out and up. At a specific angle.  Weeks look like telephone lines, suspended by Sundays and dipping lowest around Wednesdays. I can view it from the side, or I can sit on top of it and swoop up and down the curve of it. Days themselves are a loop, very similar to the loop of the year. And I can zoom in or out along this picture, down to the minute and out to the century. It all strings together.

Apparently this isn't normal.

But, I'm curious, do any of you reading see time when you think of time? I guess it's called number-form synesthesia or spacial-sequence synesthesia. I get now that not most people see things when they think of time, but I always have, and I can't imagine how you would think about it if you couldn't see it. I see numbers along a specifically-shaped line too, come to think of it. They head straight up to 100, and then veer off sharply to the left. Negative numbers are down. I do better thinking of them if I look at them from the left instead of from the right. Like tilting your paper a bit so your handwriting slants the right way; it just makes things easier.

Again, I now get that this isn't normal. Most people don't shift their position in regard to the numbers they're studying in their head so that they can see and understand them better. But I do. Always have. (Okay, now that I think of it, I have to shift to look at them from the left, because then I can read them forwards instead of backwards, because after zero, the numbers start to go from left to right instead of up and down. Well, they go down, but they are next to each other rather than on top of each other like the positive numbers are. Huh. Never realized that's why I did that.)

If you don't see a picture when you think of time, how do you conceptualize it? Do you conceptualize it? Or is it just something that exists, without needing to exist in any tangible form?

Truly, the brain is an odd organ. But if I have to have an odd twist to my brain, I think I'm glad I have this one. It's not a hindrance to me, I don't think - though it may explain some of the trouble I had when I hit the higher maths. I couldn't ever fold my number line in a way that made calculus make sense. But there you are. I'm not sorry for it. Like I said: I can't imagine seeing time and numbers any other way.

But I'm still curious how others see it, if they see it at all.   

peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


Jessica said...

How funny--I've thought about how I perceive the year but never imagined there would be an article about it. Jan 1 is the bottom of the clock (6) and the year goes counterclockwise from there, so now we are about 3 o'clock. Bright summer is the top of the circle, and fall (9 o'clock) starts the descent into darkness again. Time travels on the track so each year erases the previous one. Weeks are just like a calendar, maybe a slight curve in the middle, but still linear. Maybe this is part of why I like the church year...adding some color to my circle?

Anonymous said...

My mental versions of a year or a week are definitely ovoid (For a year, Jan. 1 in lower right, proceeding clockwise with June in the lower left, September at the top, and so forth; for a week, viewed rather more across a plane from about Wednesday, with Sunday at 9 o'clock and Thursday around 3).I also view centuries as stacked number lines (also planar) until I get back to 0; then it's just an infinite line extending back to the left.

Amy said...

I'm fascinated by this!

I am rather the timeless sort and I am rather envious that you can map time is such a fashion. I cannot - which is one reason the church year is so very important to me. It marks time in a meaningful way that my brain can wrap itself around.

I'd really like to hear you talk more about this subject.

EmilyTJ Blog said...

Wow, this is so funny because I totally do this, and I never knew it was a "thing." I've tried to describe it to my husband, but I thought it was just a weird thing I did. The one that is the clearest in my mind is the year, and it's a circle, standing-up like a clock. But my months are in different positions than the previous posters.. December/January are at the very top and they're darker, grays and blues. March is at 3 o'clock and is a light red, July is at 6 o'clock and is greenish, October is at 9 o'clock and is orangey. I see the months as squares within the circle, and the weeks are divided by lines going across. My circle is actually more like a ring viewed from the side, so the weeks are lines that cut across the ring. (the middle is empty... that's kinda weird!) When I count years I literally have to go around the circle in my mind to count one year. My individual weeks I just see pretty much as on a calendar, but the days are colored. As for the hours, sometimes I see them like an hourly calendar going up and down, but if I'm thinking of the whole 24-hrs., I see it as a circle. When I count numbers in math, I see the pattern of a dice in my mind. So if I'm adding something like 5 plus 4 (ok, other than the fact I just have that memorized!), I would say, "five" and then picture what four dots on a dice look like, and mentally touch each dot as I count. For some reason I tend to move my head as I do that.... I try to keep that at a minimum in public! =) This is fascinating, I really just thought I was totally weird, glad to know I'm not alone!

A. said...

I have heard of synesthesia, but I had never heard of the time thing. I totally do that, and my conception of the year is ovoid as well! How interesting. I have had experience with the sounds/colors thing.

Becks said...

I have synesthisia, but for me it is colors as they relate to numbers. Whenever I think of a number, it has a color: one is white, 2 is pink, 3 is orange, 4 is blue, 5 is a different shade of orange, 6 is purple, 7 is green, 8 is yellow, and 9 is black (and sometimes purple!). Whenever numbers are in a sequence, the number has a color based upon its components; so 1997 is white, black, and green, sort of like a mint oreo. Years definitely have colors for me.

I also assign colors to alphabet letters and words, but to a lesser degree, and I also assign colors to people and their personalities. I'm green, and my husband is red. Our son is blue. My mom is orange, my sister is yellow, and my dad changes color depending on his mood.

I discovered that not everyone thinks like this a couple of years ago, and it doesn't especially affect my life. Just a little quirk of the brain, I guess!

Jessica said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your experiences with time-concepts and other things-synesthesia! It's so interesting to hear how other people conceptualize intangibles.