Can You See Time?
We're not talking about looking at your watch. We're talking about something non-tangible, something experiential, like how your brain and body feel time passing. As it turns out, it is not the same for everyone.
In 2010, a scientific study found that some people with a rare form of synesthesia do not perceive the passage of time in the same way that most of us do. Affectionately nicknamed Time Lords (Hello, Doctor Who fans!) by the New Scientist, people with this type of synesthesia perceive time as a circular ring that moves around and sometimes even through their bodies. Interestingly, for most, this perceived ring of time rotates in a clockwise direction throughout the year.
"In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind's eye," said David Brang of the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego to New Scientist magazine.
What Is It?
Generally speaking, synesthesia is a perceptual condition in which the sensory or cognitive pathways are mixed and, at times, overlap. For example, grapheme-color synesthesia is when people perceive letters or numbers as having an inherent color.
This newly discovered "Time Lord" ability or condition is called time-space synesthesia, and it's believed to be caused by extra neural connections between specific regions in your brain. Put simply, time-space synesthetes can experience time as a spatial construct, like seeing the yearly calendar projected into the real world.
Most time-space synesthetes see time as a circular ring around their bodies, which rotates clockwise throughout the year, but these calendars can take any possible shape. For example, during this study, one subject could feel the current month inside their chest and feel the preceding month in front of their chest.
Others, like Emma Yeomans, from Buzzfeed, see time as square boxes where she is standing on the "today" box daily. Emma describes seeing the future to her left and curving behind her slightly, and the closer the date is to her, the larger the box appears. The time she lived in the past, like yesterday, is located on her right. So, she feels like time runs from right to left.
Meanwhile, other time-space synesthetes see days of the week as colors or as having specific textures.
People with time-space synesthesia are often unaware they are experiencing anything unusual. They don't realize most people do not see the world in that way. Professor Julia Simner of the University of Sussex, who runs the university's synesthesia research center, told Buzzfeed, "It's a real challenge – you have your reality, I have mine, and who would have thought that they'd be different?
These newly dubbed Time Lords don't need a calendar, as time-space synesthesia allows them to know the precise days and exact times as they are “felt.”
For them, scheduling is easy because their mental calendar is projected through their vision. They look ahead and will be able to tell you what days would work for them quickly. It's their form of augmented reality.
Additionally, further studies conducted by Julia Simner and David Brang also discovered time-space synesthetes to have unforgettable memories. As Professor Simner told the BBC, "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."
In quantifiable terms, people without time-space synesthesia, on average, remember about 39 different facts related to a certain period in their life, while a Time Lord can recall around 123 facts.
Can I See Time?
Personally, I never realized that I saw time differently than other people. We often talk about watches between friends, but never how we picture time and space. I only recently ended up realizing it after a conversation about this article with my husband. But I honestly believe it is because of the way I was taught about time while at school in Switzerland. Until last week, I never realized that my amazingly precise memory was due to time-space synesthesia. I can vividly remember most of my childhood, the feelings I had, the colors and smells, and what was going on in my head at that time.
My time-space synesthesia is a bit different from what is described above, but it’s definitely similar. I picture the year as a circle that finishes on the 31st of December. The year is separated into four sections, one section for each season, and each month with a different color.