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September 14th, 2009


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07:18 am - Synaesthesia
I 'see' time as a shape which curls around me. When I was a child I thought everyone oriented themselves in time like that, but I later found it was unusual, and recently it has been identified as a form of synaesthesia. Here is a bbc report on 'my' type of synaesthesia. The image in that report - here's a direct link - is a very good rendering of how I see time, though mine is not coloured, and it winds out and around in a sort of elongated spiral that stretches back to billions of years ago (that looks very far away). The thing about synaesthesia is that maintaining the correspondence (in this case between time and shape) is not effortful, and it lasts all your life. The time-curl has been with me for as long as I can remember, and I would describe it now as I would have 40 years ago.

The bbc report describes two other forms of synaesthesia which are familiar to me:

Synaesthesia is a strange condition that has attracted a great deal of research. But its variety and complexity mean that the time-space variant is one of three types that has only been properly described within the last few years. Two others are much rarer and perhaps even more bizarre.
Dr Simner explains: "There is one called ordinal-linguistic personification. So letters or numbers trigger, not colour, but the impression of a personality or gender. "So, you don't know that number seven is green, but you know that it's a maniacal husband who comes home from work and shouts at his wife.
"You might not have a colour for Thursday, but you know that it's a young girl who has spent too long kept in the house and wants to break out into the world."
Another variant recently come to light is called mirror touch synaesthesia. This causes people to experience sensations of touch when they see other people being touched.
"So if I sat in front of you and scratched my nose, you would feel a scratch on your nose," explains Dr Simner. Psychologists have linked this to a greater sense of empathy.


Funnily enough I have both of these, though to a fairly mild extent. What they say about 7 being a tyrannical husband is nonsense - 7 is an older unmarried woman, sister to 4, very peaceful and softly-spoken. The mirror-touch one, I think everyone has that a bit. I bet your nose itches now, right?

This is a very me-me-me post isn't it? Still, who can fail to be interested to read an article about one's normal way of thinking, identified as a peculiar neural phenomenon. I think it is part of my extremely right-brain way of thinking, which means that details of the world like numbers and dates are blurry unless I concentrate hard. I think it's almost the opposite of autism, it's the other end of the neural scale. And I suppose that like autism, it has its strengths and weaknesses. But no name yet, thank goodness.

(24 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:watervole
Date:September 14th, 2009 07:31 am (UTC)
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I wonder if Shakespeare had it? I've always wondered about "shuffle off this mortal coil"...
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From:watervole
Date:September 14th, 2009 07:32 am (UTC)
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I always see the year as a circular band, but don't have a spiral further back. No colours either.
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 08:15 am (UTC)
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They predict that everybody knows one or two people with this type of synaesthesia. I wonder how many others?
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From:archbishopm
Date:September 14th, 2009 08:41 am (UTC)
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Still, who can fail to be interested to read an article about one's normal way of thinking, identified as a peculiar neural phenomenon.

Not me boy howdy. 'Course what I am is a MASSIVE NERD so they totally covered me back when the internets was born. Interesting though that I consider you a very good indicator of what might be to me worth watching/reading so maybe People Who See Numbers As Something Other Than Numbers have something more in common or maybe it's just all uniquely individually complicated and boring stuff like that.
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 09:09 am (UTC)
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Do you see numbers as Something Other Than Numbers? I didn't realise.

I just emailed my sister about this and she sees time as a ribbon too, but going anti-clockwise (=weirdo).
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From:archbishopm
Date:September 14th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
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Do you see numbers as Something Other Than Numbers?

Only in the coloury vibey way that a fair chunk of the population does. Which I suspect is, like, everyone who's ever really sat down and thought about the number 4...which, hm, there's the common ground right there probably :-p.
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From:happytune
Date:September 14th, 2009 08:56 am (UTC)
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I've been reading a really good book called Musicophilia http://www.musicophilia.com/. He looks synaesthesia, amongst a number of other interesting things. I do recommend it.
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 10:28 am (UTC)
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Thanks for that
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From:mistraltoes
Date:September 14th, 2009 10:12 am (UTC)
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I think it is perfectly natural to be interested in how your own mind works--why wouldn't you be? And further, I expect that your friends are, as well. I thoroughly enjoy this type of post. At least, I do as long as nobody's trying to pathologize such differences. I think there are a great more many shades to 'normal' thought than our society realizes.
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 10:32 am (UTC)
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Definitely agree on not pathologising. Like left-handedness or whatever, I think progress is realising it's just a minority variant, not a 'fault'.
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From:spacefall
Date:September 14th, 2009 11:21 am (UTC)
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It's arguable that it's not so much of a 'minority' experience, though very strong or projecting synaesthesia seems relatively rare. Historically, it has been seen more as a curiosity, and indeed I have an Edwardian book that talks about coloured hearing. I remember another yet another old book which said that each generation thinks it has invented visual music as a 'new' art form ... which is a bit depressing, when you come to think of it :p
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From:spacefall
Date:September 14th, 2009 11:04 am (UTC)
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Interesting. I don't see time this way myself, though I do have a sense of coloured months in space (the colours come directly from the month names: January is orange, February is blue, etc.) For example, when making 2010 plans yesterday, I was looking up and to my right at a blue February which seems to sit at the top of a curve. I suspect that synaesthesia can exist for anything we can have a sense of...which makes me wonder if I actually have a sense of long-distance time at all :p

No doubt many people reading the report are immediately going 'but that's me', and I'm sure if everyone with synaesthesia stood up, we'd have trouble recognising it as an 'unusual' way of being. The more interesting thing is how millions of us learn to place a filter between our synaesthetic sense of things and the way we speak and present things in the 'real' world. The fact that people can go through life without being aware of other people's synaesthesia or non-synaesthesia is quite strange when you consider how common it apparently is. Not sharing these impressions is some part of our culture (but not all cultures.)

I would disagree with placing synaesthesia itself in opposition to autism, though I recognise what you are saying about your own way of thinking, and perhaps that affects how much you engage with and rely upon your synaesthesia. I have seen attempts to associate synaesthesia with Aspergers or ADHD by people who identify with those categories, but I think that synaesthesia has far more universal roots. People who consider themselves neurotypical may be less likely to report synaesthesia because they regard themselves, and it, as entirely usual, and perhaps some autistic people have different issues with their synaesthetic projections, but synaesthesia seems to exist within just about any group you could think of. As you say here, the common experience of synaesthesia isn't discovering you have it, but discovering (with surprise) that other children or adults apparently don't. Then, if you press people a little, you often discover that they do have some synaesthetic impressions, but that they are largely filtered out of their everyday experiences.

In an ideal world, we'd probably be more open in acknowledging people's sensory individuality, and in teaching people to exploit their synaesthesia if they wished to. You have said that you use your strong sense of time, though your experience of dates is fuzzy, and I would say of myself that I rely upon visuals rather than my very poor working memory for numbers. If these things were integrated with learning, we might make better use of our natural resources...but the effect would be tiny compared to that of the one-to-one teaching that it would probably require :D All said though, I value synaesthesia partly because it seems to bridge a gap between the thinking, speaking bit of me that's writing this and the feeling bit that can't talk about itself. I think that art does that for us, but synaesthesia can perform that function too, by visualising/something-else-ising feeling where the rest of us can get at it.
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From:spacefall
Date:September 14th, 2009 11:37 am (UTC)
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Thinking about the year thing...it came to me that a better way to describe it is like a curved scroll or band, but it is not continuous. The future is 'over there' until this year curves up to reach it, and the past doesn't have a space. I find this sort of amusing, because English has a past tense but no future tense.

British sign language has a number of visual timelines, and the year timeline is a loop.
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 01:29 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for that. You may be right that it's not as rare as people think. BTW I expressed myself badly - I don't think synaesthesia is opposed to autism. I just think my synaesthesia is part of the way I deal with numbers and dates, which is pretty blurry compared to most people.

What you call 'bridging the gap' is I think a very important concept. Many people locate their thinking within language, and I'm very conscious that I don't, and I need to translate my feeling bit, which is where I locate myself, into the verbal bit which (as you say) is writing this.

Hard to talk about the pre-linguistic in language.
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From:buymeaclue
Date:September 14th, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)
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Very Donnie Darko!

That's astonishingly cool. And it's there all the time?
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
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I never thought of that, the background info to Donnie Darko makes a lot of use of 'time loops' and the writer I think must have a ribbon conception of time. It is there whenever I think of time or dates, unless I am particualrly trying to translate them into normal numbers and words. And months are always in the same place. Like the picture on the BBC site, August is directly in front of me, with Sept-Dec on the right and Jan-July on the left. That means the first two-thirds of the year is more bunched up. Heaven knows why.
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From:astrogirl2
Date:September 14th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
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Huh. You know, someone once asked me, "How do you see time?" and I think was as baffled as my utter "does not compute" response as I was by the question. She said something about how she saw time as a circle of some kind, and was very interested in how other people saw it, and whether that had been affected by younger people growing up with digital instead of analog clocks. I finally decided that she was talking about some kind of timeline-visualization trick, and that the deficiency was mine because I never tend to conceptualize things visually. But I think now I understand!
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From:communicator
Date:September 14th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
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I think we imagine that other people experience the world in much the same way as ourselves. The more I find out, the more people seem quite radically different.
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From:astrogirl2
Date:September 14th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
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Which just makes us that much more interesting, really! :)

Edited at 2009-09-14 04:00 pm (UTC)
From:jthijsen
Date:September 14th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
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I've got Asperger Syndrome and no experience whatsoever with synaesthesia of any kind. Time that's passed doesn't seem to exist for me. I know intellectually that things happened in the past, but have to reason out when they happened by remembering if other things had or hadn't already happened. But emotionally, last week is as insubstantial as ten years ago. The same, BTW, goes for the future. That does come in rather handy, as I don't start worrying or sweating about something scary (such as a dentists appointment) until the moment I start getting ready to go there.

For me, numbers are precise items that can be used to categorize whatever needs categorizing. They are themselves and nothing else. Which happens to come in handy in my job, so that's ok. But sometimes I think a little synaesthesia would help me remember stuff. As it is, even that often preached memory trick, where you place everything you're supposed to remember in a landscape, doesn't work for me at all. For one thing, there's just no connection between the item to be remembered and anything in the landscape for me, so now I also have to remember that connection. And worse, I have to try to remember the landscape as well, meaning that trying to memorize anything in this way is three times harder than just memorizing the items that need to be memorized. I wonder if the original inventor of the method has synaesthesia as well.

So here's an answer about myself in reply to a post about yourself. I hope you found it somewhat interesting anyway. ;-)
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From:communicator
Date:September 15th, 2009 09:27 am (UTC)
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Yes, indeed. A very different experience to mine. I am interested in what you say about living in the moment. I'd like to be more focussed on the here and now, it's something I try to practice. When I was a child I was even more scatter-brained and vague than I am now.
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From:vilakins
Date:September 15th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
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I bet your nose itches now, right?

Not really, but I was rubbing it when I read that. :-)

I believe different cultures have different views of how time is laid out. To me it's a long strip, but with different colours and styles for each decade / century.
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From:communicator
Date:September 15th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
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I have heard that while our culture says the past is behind us, other cultures say it is before us. Come to think of it 'before' means both 'in the past' and 'in front'.

To me the past is on the left, and the future on the right.
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From:vilakins
Date:September 15th, 2009 10:10 am (UTC)
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To me the past is on the left, and the future on the right.

For me too, probably because of how we write, and think of numbers. I read that people who write from right to left, or top to bottom, also see time that way.

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