Psych Your Mind: Time, Space, and Synesthesia

Time, Space, and Synesthesia

by Similar,
December 1st 2011

When we talk about time, we often use metaphors related to space. For example, “I’m looking forward to this weekend.” Some people experience this connection more literally, feeling as though units of time have an almost physical reality, one with a definitive size, location, and sometimes even color. This tendency has been termed time-space synesthesia. In a 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo, participants were asked to draw their unique representations of the months of the year, pictured above.

Although these spatial representations may seem bizarre and random, for those who hold them they are experienced as logical, meaningful, and consistent throughout life. For these individuals, any reference to the past, present, or future will automatically activate these representations, and one’s own spatial relation to them. In an interview for BBC news, Holly Branigan, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, describes her experience like this:

“For me it’s a bit like a running track. The track is organised around the academic year. The short ends are the summer and Christmas holidays – the summer holiday is slightly longer. It’s as if I’m in the centre and I’m turning around slowly as the year goes by. If I think ahead to the future, my perspective will shift.”

Although this perspective is typically experienced in one’s “mind’s eye” it seems to manifest itself quite literally in visual space, at least for some. In the study referenced above, the researchers found that thinking about a particular month increased participants’ visual attention to that region of space, without participants’ awareness or intent. The procedure began with a visual prime at the center of the computer screen (e.g., the word “January”). A target (small square) then appeared somewhere on the screen, and participants were asked to press the spacebar as soon as they detected the target. The results showed that the group of synesthetes, compared to a control group of non-synesthetes, were faster at detecting targets that appeared on a location of the screen that was consistent with their unique mental mapping of that particular month, even when there was no time to exert voluntary control. were later obtained by a different team of researchers. Rather than simply being a weird quirk, time-space synesthesia may have cognitive benefits. In one study, synesthetes were faster at reciting the months of the year is chronological and reverse-chronological order. In another study, a group of synesthetes were found to have superior memory for both autobiographical and cultural/historical events, and performed better in visual short-term memory tasks. There may be downsides as well, however — some suggest that time-space synesthesia could be related to Hyperthesmic Syndrome, which involves an inability to forget even the smallest details about the events of one’s life.

Time-space synesthesia is estimated to be quite common, affecting approximately 1 in 5 people. Many people may not realize that they have this condition because it feels so automatic and natural. When I first learned about this form of synesthesia, my first reaction (as I’m sure is common for synesthetes), was, “But doesn’t everyone think like this?” It’s hard to imagine how people experience time without having relying on some sort of consistent spatial representation, even if it’s a little strange-looking. For me, time-space synesthesia has never seemed like a particular advantage (I certainly don’t have an exceptional memory for dates), but it did help me get by without relying on a planner at least until grad school — now there’s just too much to remember. It also seems to give a meaningful organization to my life, clearly marking off stages and seasons as I go.

If you think you might have time-space synesthesia, you can take a test here. This test also assesses other forms of synesthesia, such as grapheme-color (e.g., perceiving a letter or number evokes an associated color). Sub-types of synesthesia may tend to overlap — time-space representations, for example, often have color associations as well (e.g., see drawings above).

Further reading:

Smilek, D., Callejas, A., Dixon, M., & Merikle, P. (2007). Ovals of time: Time-space associations in synaesthesia Consciousness and Cognition, 16 (2), 507-519 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2006.06.013

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