The Rare Humans Who See Time & Have Amazing Memories

By Smriti Rao | April 2, 2010 12:44 pm

synaesthesiaThe “normal” form of the condition called synesthesia is weird enough: For people with this condition, sensory information gets mixed in the brain causing them to see sounds, taste colors, or perceive numbers as having particular hues.

But psychologist David Brang is studying a bunch of people with an even odder form of synesthesia: These people can literally “see time.”

Brang’s subjects have time-space synesthesia; because they have extra neural connections between certain regions of the brain, the patients experience time as a spatial construct.

In his research, Brang describes one patient who was able to see the year as a circular ring surrounding her body that rotated clockwise throughout the year. The current month was reportedly inside her chest with the previous month in front of her chest, reports New Scientist.

Describing the condition to New Scientist, Brang said:

“In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind’s eye.”

So, while boring, normal folks whip out their physical or online calendars to jot down plans for the future, time-space synesthetes just look straight ahead and can tell you precisely what days work for them. It’s almost like their personal version of augmented reality.

Brang found these uncommon individuals by recruiting 183 students for a trial, in which he asked them to visualize the months of the year and reconstruct that representation on a computer screen.

New Scientist writes:

Four months later the students were shown a blank screen and asked to select a position for each of the months. They were prompted with a cue month – a randomly selected month placed as a dot in the location where the student had originally placed it. Uncannily, four of the 183 students were found to be time-space synesthetes when they placed their months in a distinct spatial array – such as a circle – that was consistent over the trials.

A second test was conducted to compare the memories of time-space synesthetes to those of regular folks. Brang asked his subjects to memorize an unfamiliar spatial calendar and reproduce it. The results showed that when it came to recalling events in time, time-space synesthetes far outperformed the others.

Earlier research has shown that people with synesthesia, on an average, remember about 123 different facts related to a certain period in their life, while a regular person could recall just 39 facts.

Psychologist Julia Simner last year told the BBC:

“So the average person might remember that they went on holiday to America when they were seven…. This person would recall the name of the guesthouse, the name of the guesthouse owner and the breed of the owner’s dog.”

Related Content:
Discoblog: “Seeing” Sounds and “Hearing” Food: The Science of Synesthesia
80beats: Revealed: The Genetic Root of Seeing Sounds and Tasting Colors
Cosmic Variance: Your Mental Image of Time
Cosmic Variance: Martian Colors explains how to test for synesthesia
DISCOVER: Are We All Synesthetes?

Image: Carol Steen / American Synesthesia Association

MORE ABOUT: brain, senses, synaesthesia, time
  • http://santabarbaralogo.com Lenie

    That explains a lot about my life. Thanks.

  • Cosnyka

    I’ve tried to explain this for decades to people. The year to me is like the Candyland game path. It’s more 3-D than the pic though. I haven’t found anyone else yet who saw this or who shared my level of detail of memory.

  • Rocio

    I´ve only known 2 people who can do that, my husband and myself, we are both mexican… I remember one time we asked our parents what color the months and the days of the week had (on their minds of course) and they just gave us this weird look, like saying: what have you been smoking?

    We can also identify the color of some scents, like perfume and stuff like that…

  • Fay Lovecraft

    i can sense the colors of music. violins are a kind of minty green, or sometimes marron or purple. marilyn manson is usually silver, star blue or that orangey streetlight color, where as the beatles are goldenrodish and offwhite and pinkish red.

  • Anon

    Yep, this is how I see time, too, except the ring goes counterclockwise and is stationary. I move in the center as I need to. The year begins at my right elbow with January. The end of Winter and beginning of Spring is in front of me, Summer to my left and rear, Fall begins over my right shoulder, and the beginning of winter winds up at my right side. Just as pictured here, the months are not of equal length or intensity. The colors that I see are less intense, more like shades of neutral gray/beige. I can tell you how far apart two dates are by “looking” at my calendar ring.

  • DW Ohio

    Yes! All my life I have viewed a calender as a giant circle with dec/jan/feb at 5:00, 6:00, 7:00 and the other months arranged clockwise in a similar fashion. Each month has a color and a character, and I can view events within the month as blocks of color…however it is not super accurate.

    Weeks are shaped like a capital “D” with Saturday/Sunday as the vertical bar, weekdays on the curve with Monday on the bottom, Friday at the top. Monday is brown. Tuesday is orange, Wednesday is green, Thursday is red, Friday is sky blue, Saturday is white and Sunday is grey.

    All I have to do is stare off into space and I can picture them in my mind’s eye. It’s not like they are a visible part of my world, I have to deliberately envision them. But in my mind, they are like a CG 3d object which can be manipulated however I want.

  • http://benchun.net Ben Chun

    The description of the visualization reminds me a bit of the way some characters in B.F. Slattery’s “Liberation” see events of the past.

  • SnakPak

    I remember telling my math teacher that each number had a colour as well as the days of the week which are each aligned around myself in a clockwise manner.
    Given the comments here, I guess I am not alone after all

  • http://www.DigitalRelayGeologix.com Ronald Smith

    My twin brother and I see time similar to this. However; the pathway’s shape is slightly different and January takes the position of July. The floating ribbon shown in this article is, nevertheless; somewhat representative of what we see, excluding the color chart. Ours is more vivid and covers more of the color spectrum. January is crimson lollipop transparent red, December is pure solid white. August is vivid bright cadmium yellow. March to April is a blended transition from crystalline bright blue to crystalline traffic light green.

    This article explains a lot. We are not alone and now we know that we are not strange. Many of our peers labeled us as strange as we were growing up. Now we know that they are the unfortunate ones in lieu of us.

    We are both musicians and see tones and movements in colors and shapes. For example: Bass staccatos are maroons and gray with triangular sharp shapes and some elongated pointed edges. We began experimenting with the piano at age four. We had our own language when we were extremely young and still use many of those verbs and nouns to this day, when the need to be discreet is present. Others have no idea what we are talking about; however, we don’t much care what others think, they are outsiders to us….they always have been.

    Thank you for this revelation.

  • George

    Thats almost exactly how I see the year

  • luke

    I see the year differently

    It starts with december in front of me to the left and all the months getting closer to me until the month im thinking of and then the months get farther away to the right and I move along the months to the month im thinking of. It’s hard to explain and this is the best way I know how. Also when I think of a year, there are quite a few years by the one I’m thinking of but it’s like stair steps with the decade with the year i’m thinking of as the top step and the steps go down for a few decades( about to the 60′s) this is the best way I know how to explain this.

  • KarenR

    Thank you David Brang for shedding light on this I am also a time-space synesthete and it is nice to see that there are so many others! I see time in a reverse clock with Dec beginning at 12. My years run together and form a sort of spiral which allows mt to visualize events in time in my “minds eye.” It will be interesting to follow the future research on this!

  • http://deltahere.com delta

    I just discovered that I have a Number Form synesthesia yesterday. All these time, I thought its present to everyone. but just yesterday I discovered that not everyone would automatically/subconsciously have a map/graph on their mind when we hear of numbers.

    In may case, whenever I hear numbers, exact dates, weeks, days, months and year, I would always see a graph automatically/subconsciously.. But the graph doesn’t have colors just like the descriptions above. It’s just a plane black/gray.

    I see the whole year as a ring but with equal length for each month. Also, I’m am not located on a specific part of the ring, rather I move from one part to another dependent on the month/date being told. For example, January can be at my back, front or side dependent on the month. If we are talking April, then January is on my right, if July, then january is far on my front, if october,then January is on my right. Sometimes I am inside the right soemtimes outside of it. As I go down to specific dates, I would then form another zigzag/ladder graph for the 30 days of the whole month and the other months would faint in my “vision” or would totally get vanished. For example 1st-10th day of the month is a vertical line, then at the top of that vertical line will join a horizontal line going to the right for the 11th-20th day then in the right end of that horizontal line will join another vertical line for the 21st-30th day.

    Days of the weeks is also like a “D”. Sat/sun are the vertical of the D and weekdays are the curve part.

    When talking about years, for example 1520, 1990, 1870 etc, it would form another graph. The view of the graph/line is dependent on how specific the date is. If you will mention something about the far past like 1120, I would see the whole 2000 years on a zigzag/ladder manner and the 1120 is on the far end of it cause my position is oont he year 2000. If you will talk about 1520, the end part will vanish on my “vision” and it would only start viewing 1500′s to present and the same things goes for the others. The years prior to the year that’s being told would vanish on my mind. But if you would make it specific January 20 1520, then I can only see a drawing for the whole century of 1500-1600, the centuries prior to and after that would vanish on my picture. Also, what’s wondering is the lines before 1900 are not that clear, it’s like grayish. However I can be more detailed on the picture of 1900-present than the years before that. I can see it the way I describe the 30 days of the month. 1900-1910 is vertical, in the top will join a horizontal going tot he right for 1911-1920, in the end will join a vertical for 1921-1930 and so on…

    Also in numbers its almost the same. For numbers 1-100 it goes that way as I described the 1990-1930 above (the ladder/zigzag pattern joining vertical and horizontal lines). But 100-200, 200-300, 300-400 up to 1,000 are just like horizontal lines above one another. So the first horizontal line at the bottom is 100-200 then above it is another horizontal line for 200-300 then the very top is 900-1000. Just like the horizontal lines on your paper. Then 1,000-10,000 is like the zigzag/ladder pattern again. 1k-10k is vertical in the end is horizontal for 11k-20k, in the end of it is vertical again for 21k-30k until it reaches 100k. For 100k to 1Million is like the lines again on your paper. then 1Million-100M is like the ladder pattern again then 100M-1Billion is the paper lines again…

    I hope you would understand and picture out my descriptions. I want to make it as detailed as possible so researchers who would read this would have a better understanding. Anyone who would like to e-mail me regarding this if I can offer any help can reach me thruogh my site just click my name. I want to help them out having a better understanding why we have such “vision”

    Also, what about this, is this a synesthesia? – sometimes when i’m hearing music/songs/note/chord it makes me feel something (emo,happy, sad etc). The odd fatc if it makes me feels these feelings without remembering anything. For example, some people would feel in love when they hear a song because they can remember their girlfriend, some would feel sad because they would remember a tragic past. On my case, I don’t remember anything, I just feel such way without explanation. More odd thing is even when the music isa happy and lively music, it can make me feel sad. Also sometimes when I smell something, its not a color that I see but a feeling again that I cant exactly determine. Can we consider this as a form of synesthesia or is it just normal thing to happen??

    • Synesthete

       delta i have almost the exact same thing as everything you mentioned

  • Tyler

    I perceive the calendar similarly but it doesn’t wrap around me, the calendar to me is more like a backwards C in space

    The beginning of the year and spring move from left to right, the summer months (starting sometime in mid may move from top to bottom, starting in late august the months move from right to left and when january comes back around it jumps up to the beginning again.

  • Cyndi

    Tyler..that is exactly how I see the calendar. I have asked others about this before and they just look at me like I’m crazy! I also have a certain pattern for days of the week and numbers and the alphabet.

  • TimeSpaceGirl

    I think this is probably not rare at all. Once more light is shed on the subject, I believe the percentage will be higher. I never knew it was a ‘thing’ until I heard about it in a podcast. I was amazed to learn that my reality didn’t conform with everyone else’s. It’s kind of exciting.

  • Sheila

    I recently discovered that the way i perceive things is a condition that is shared by many. I have colors for months, days of the week, numbers, names, sounds, letters. Indeed i have a very good memory of events in my life and faces. My memory and recollection of things is very heavily dependent on the way i perceive things, that is in colors.

    • Andy

      I only found out today that the way I ‘see’ numbers, dates, years months and the days   of the week, is not what ‘normal’ people experience. I see my calendar as a kind of 3D square that I can move my position around depending on what month it is. I always thought of it like being on a chess board. I have a very specific line my numbers follow too which I always wondered why there was certain curves and zigzags in my thoughts. Sometimes when I’m going to sleep and close my eyes I get the sensation of being very small in an immense dark ‘space’ that feels comforting, Dont know if this is connected. Its mind blowing that I see the world differently to others.

  • Lucywager

    This is such a revelation, I have tried to explain to people about my “mind calendar” – the seasons are coloured too and my calendar is in a horsehoe shape which circumnavigates my body in my minds eye.  As soon as I saw the image on this article I felt elated!

  • Kimberly Furnell

    I don’t have colours in my calander.  But it is very similiar to the picture.  I also have a shape for the week and the day.  They are all ovals of sorts (well, a day is more round).  The year is stationary, and when I look at it December is always at the top.  But if I turn around I will be facing July/August.  Also I move “through” the year.  So right now it is May, and so I look down toward June and July (which is sort of accross as well as down).  But if I want to think about December, I can turn around (physically, or I can just imagine) and I will be looking back.  Okay, this description probably is very confusing to other synesthates, like yours are to me (all the years get jumbled together–that is, yours and mine).  

    But what about a day?  I can describe that shape more easily!  It’s like a clock.  6 am is at the bottom, you go up until noon, and then you go down the clock until 6pm and then you move back up until midnight and then it goes down again until 6ish…and then up until noon.  So in the morning there is a sense of time going up, and in the afternoon of it sinking down (maybe why 3pm makes me sleepy? ;-)

    And I *think* but I have yet to test it for certain, that my perception of the weekdays and the year correlates to North/South and is fixed (which is why I have to turn around…it stays still).  

  • I Need Reminders!

    Wow! How fascinating!  The rest of us have to take drugs just to get to this level :( ….Well the colors part anyways…  Anyhow, I’m just curious as to these colors- do they affect your everyday life? I mean driving (green, yellow red) or can you separate the two?  I still won’t fully understand how seeing colors is relevant to being able to memorize anything, but in a nutshell is it something like: Tuesday July 20 2012 I broke up with my boyfriend, so that day’s color is black?  Yea cheesy example I know, but for someone like me who needs 20 reminders, this is as much as I’m gonna understand. hahaha, and I’m obviously asking any one of you amazing people since I have never heard of something like this before. 

  • cindy

    That circle is exactly how I see the months in a year! I didn’t know other people did this too! But I don’t have colors. December/January is always at the top. July at the bottom. I see a day as a rectangle from left to right. I see bad or angry people as dark ugly colors like a child coloring hard, back and forth with a crayon.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Discoblog

Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »