I'm A Synesthete

This has nothing to do with synthesizers or athleticism.
Publish date:
July 3, 2012
science, neuroscience, brains, synesthesia, time-space

Maybe you’ve heard of synesthetes -- people who smell music or taste colors. Synesthesia is one of those fascinating neurological conditions where your brain sends mixed up signals about perception. Or, as the internet helpfully explains, “Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight.”

Synesthesia has nothing to do with synthesizers. And that's a toy keytar. I'm sorry.

There are different types of synesthesia, with the most common form being grapheme-color synesthesia, where numbers or letters have an inherent color. For example, someone with this kind of synesthesia might always perceive the letter K as green or the number eight as yellow.

It’s wacky brain stuff, you guys. Also: science.

The type of synesthesia I have is called spatial-sequence synesthesia, and it is specifically related to my perception of time. What this means for me is that time is a place. I am standing in a place in time, and the future and the past (hours, days, weeks, years, decades, centuries) have a spatial relationship to my physical body.

I didn’t even know I had it until I read something about it a few years ago (thanks again, internet!) -- until then, I just thought that everyone thought of time this way. It is sort of mind-blowing to realize at 30 that your brain might be wired differently, and you never even knew.

I’ll try to explain this without sounding totally bananas crazy, but it’s hard to articulate. So allow me to illustrate it:

A year looks like this. If you can read my handwriting.

This is a year (above). It’s a big wheel and I move counterclockwise through it. Right now I’m standing almost at the very top of the wheel, and I’m looking forward to July and slightly down and to my left at August. I can see December to my left and straight down from where I’m standing. October through December are longer months for me; they occupy more space than the other months. January through April occupy less space. I know; my brain. Sorry.

Again, the handwriting. Shoulda been a doctor.

This is my chart of decades. I’m standing in 2012 and can look back and to my left at previous decades and forward and to my right at decades yet to be. It’s sort of like one of those tall collapsible ladders; the individual years are the rungs of the ladder, and the decades are the sections of the ladder that fold together.

A week, according to my brain.

Weeks are funny, sort of like blobby ovals. As I’m typing this, it’s a Friday morning and I’m looking up and to the left at Saturday. Thursday is directly behind me.

Hours of the day sort of go in a wide arc from left to right, with 10:00 p.m. at the top and 8:00 a.m. at the bottom.

I also think of numbers as having a place in space, though I don’t perceive myself as standing “in” it like I do with time.

Often, those of us with spatial-sequence synesthesia excel in school at math and history, but this was not the case with me. I’m not so great at math, and I always had trouble paying attention in history classes.

I’m terrible at remembering actual birthdays but really good at remembering my friends’ birth months. I hardly ever have to write down an appointment to remember it.

I also have pretty good luck pinpointing what year a popular song was a hit, and I like watching science shows about quantum physics/time travel/string theory, even if I don’t understand the math behind it. All these things probably have nothing to do with my synesthesia, but I’d like to maintain the fantasy that if only I was better at math, I would be studying the fabric of space-time in exchange for cash money.

So really, my synesthesia serves no real-life purpose for me, other than being a cool thing that my brain does. I described all this to my mom and she said, “I have that, too!” She didn’t know it was strange either. Then she told me that her year goes clockwise, not counterclockwise like mine, and that almost made my brain explode, so we had to stop talking about it.

I also recently found out that some of my ex-in-laws are synesthetes (grapheme-color and spatial-sequence) so I’m curious to see if my kid is a synesthete as well. I’m thinking that now, at seven, he might be old enough to understand if I start asking him questions about how he perceives time.

Any other synesthetes out there, and what kind do you have? When and how did you find out that something was unusual about how you percieve the world? How does it affect your day-to-day life? I wanna know!