The cognitive benefits of time-space synaesthesia

SYNAESTHESIA is a neurological condition in which there is a merging of the senses, so that activity in one sensory modality elicits sensations in another. Although first described by Francis Galton in the 1880s, little was known about this condition until recently. A rennaissance in synaesthesia research began about a decade ago; since then, three previously unrecognized forms of the condition have been described, and hypotheses for how it arises have been put forward.

Two new studies now provide some insight into time-space synaesthesia, the least researched of all the forms of this fascinating condition. One is a case study of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has an apparently unique characteristic. The second demonstrates that time-space synaesthetes are superior to non-synaesthetes in some cognitive abilities, and suggests that time-space synaesthesia may underly the savant-like abilities of people with hyperthymestic (or “super-memory”) syndrome.

Time-space synaesthesia is a form of visuo-spatial synaesthesia in which individuals experience units of time – such as hours, days, or months – as occupying specific locations in space relative to their own body. These associations are highly specific and are experienced consistently. For example, one synaesthete described her experience as follows: “When someone mentions a year, I see the oval with myself at the very bottom, Christmas day to be precise. As soon as a month is given, I see exactly where that month is on the oval. As I move through the year, I am very aware of my place on the oval at the current time, and the direction I am moving in.”

Michelle Jarick of the Synaesthesia Research Group at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and her colleagues describe the case of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has a previously undescribed feature. Like other time-space synaesthetes, the 21-year-old individual, known as L, experiences the time of day and the months of the year as being represented in the space around her body. She experiences the hours of the day in the form of a large “clock face”, and her mental calender consists of a giant number “7″, which extends for approximately 1 meter around her waist, and on which the months of the year are arranged.  

Uniquely though, L’s mental vantage point changes depending on whether she sees or hears the time unit. When presented visually with the name of a month, she reports seeing the giant 7 as if she was standing in its crux, with the month of April directly in front of her. From this perspective, she experiences January, February and March to her left, May and June to her right, and the rest of the months of the year, which form the tail of the 7, running along her right side and behind her.

time space synaesthesia.JPG

When she hears or thinks about the name of a month, L still experiences the months as being arranged in the same way, but perceives them from a different vantage point, as if she had walked around the arm of the 7. From this perspective, January, February and March are to her right, while May and June are to her left, and the remaining months extend forward on her left. She also reports similar changes in vantage point when she sees or hears the hours of the day. (The diagram on the right shows a “bird’s eye view” of the vantage points associated with vision (V) and hearing (A).)

To verify L’s reported experiences objectively, the researchers used a spatial cueing paradigm, in which a visual month cue was presented to the centre of her field of vision, followed by a target square presented to the left or right of the cue. They predicted that the visual cues would trigger shifts in her spatial attention that affect the time she takes to detect and respond to the target squares. For example, if presented with a visual cue for the month of January, this should orient her attention to the left, making her detect targets presented to the left quicker than those presented to the right. By contrast, an auditory cue for the same month should shift her attention to the right.

L’s performance on this task was compared with that of ten non-synaesthetic controls. The visual month cues were presented on a computer monitor for 600 milliseconds each, followed by a target square. The participants were asked to press a button as soon as they detected the presence of the target. As predicted, following visual cues of the first three months, L detected targets presented to the left significantly quicker than those presented to the right. Similarly, cues presented to the right were detected more quickly following visual presentations of the later months. For cues presented aurally, the opposite cueing pattern was observed. However, none of these effects was observed in the non-synaesthetic participants.   

L’s calender is a purely mental space, generated by her brain. Yet, as this study shows, there is a strong correspondence between this imagined space and spaces in the real world. One can explore real external spaces from multiple vantage points, and these characteristics seem to apply also to L’s mentally generated calender. The study also shows that time-space synaesthesia can bias visual perception and affect behaviour accordingly – L could not process the time units without biasing her visual attention towards the corresponding location in the space around her. As a result, her reaction times to the targets presented in the appropriate region of external space became quicker. 

Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh and her colleagues provide further evidence that the visual, spatial and temporal abilities of time-space synaesthetes are superior to those of non-synaesthetes. They recruited ten time-space synaesthetes, and compared their performance on eight different tasks to those of non-synaesthetic controls. The synaesthetes were able to recall the dates of autobiographical, cultural and world political events more accurately than the non-synaesthetic controls. They also out-performed the controls in tasks involving the manipulation of objects in three-dimensional space, the recognition of 3D objects from 2D silhouette representations, non-verbal visual short-term memory, and mental rotation of 2D drawings of 3D objects.

The authors argue that time-space synaesthesia may underly hyperthymestic syndrome. Individuals with this syndrome have an exceptional autobiographical memory, and can recall life events, as well as other events which coincided with them, in remarkable detail. These recollections are, according to one hyperthymestic, “non-stop, uncontrollable and automatic“. The first documented case of hyperthymestic syndrome, a woman referred to in the literature as A.J., reported that her prodigious memory was at least partly due to an ability to mentally map time in space. Her super memory therefore appears to be closely linked to what Simner’s group assume to be time-space synaesthesia

Two of the synaesthetes studied by Simner and her colleagues spontaneously reported having exceptional memories for dates and events. This suggests that there are parallels between time-space synaesthesia and hyperthymestic syndrome. It also raises the possibility that all time-space synaesthetes have hyperthymestic syndrome, but this is not the case. Time-space synaesthesia may be necessary, but not sufficient, for hyperthymesia, and could possibly lie at the heart of the condition.   


Subscribe to my RSS feed and follow me on Twitter.

Jarick, M., et al. (2009). A different outlook on time: Visual and auditory month names elicit different mental vantage points for a time-space synaesthete. Cortex 45: 1217-1228. DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2009.05.014.

Simner, J., et al. (2009). A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex 45: 1246-1260. DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2009.07.007.

About these ads

17 thoughts on “The cognitive benefits of time-space synaesthesia

  1. Curious. I find that as my life becomes the same week in week out year in year out that placing things that happened in time becomes harder. The Berlin wall fell when? Oh yeah, time flies.
    Those whose lives have even less structure can easily loose track of which day it is.
    The things that where contiguous is what provides my structure. Now that those things are the same from year to year the contiguity is less helpful.
    On another note scientists tell us that time is just another dimension. Yet for us it is very different we can live only one slice of time at a time. I can move around choose to be here or there; but when now is, is beyond my controll.

  2. Do I have time-space synaesthesia or am I just a visual person?.
    I see a year as an oval, just like the first subject, L. Each month has a color and I associate that color with the general outside temperature and colors in New England (where I grew up). When someone says November I’m at the bottom right of the oval (Jan 1 is halfway up the right) and it’s a blended brown between orange (October)and white (December). January is the whitest and feels the coldest.
    What’s the difference between time-space synaesthesia and a strong visual/kinesthetic reference?

  3. I have space-time synaesthesia! To me, days appear as a sort-of sine-wave, and 12.00 noon is the exact middle of the wave… That is, the exact middle, between the crest and trough of each wave. At 12.00 AM, a black horizontal line starts climbing up my ‘sine-wave’ day, quite accurately representing the hour. 6.00 AM, it’s at the top most point, after which it starts climbing down. Each day has a unique sine-wave. They all look the same, but there’s something that uniquely identifies each day. I’m not able to explain what it is exactly. I think I sometimes associate each day with a recurring memory or a food item. I’m also pretty good at remembering dates and phone numbers, though I haven’t really tested myself. :)

  4. This seems in some ways similar to autistic savant Daniel Tammet and his perception of numbers. Is it related?
    There must be something to learn here about the physical processes of memory and perception within our brains. Fascinating topic!

  5. Time/Space? I see no relation to time at all except as a metaphor. These folks seem to be good at placing things on a scale in their ‘proper’ places, is all. Until someone can actually define ‘time’ (Hawking couldn’t do it), I suggest a new metaphor be found. Until then it is only a list in an imposed chronological order and entirely spatial.

  6. Wow! me too!
    I picture a year as a wheel with summer at the top, winter at the bottom, spring on the right and fall on the left. then that wheel travels along this sort of number line that goes uphill. a week i picture like pacman.. flat oddly enough but you go from right to left (not unlike a calendar) but more like a french one with weekend being dettached for some reason. The hours in a day are more like steps in a stair with each 3 or 4 hour period being a step. the 4am area is the cliff at the end :P

  7. If you don’t have any synaesthesia but would like to experience it, try LSD. Educate yourself about it before trying it, please. is a great website for unbiased drug information, and also has drug experience reports, which I find very interesting to read. It would be rather interesting to see what a synaesthetic person experiences on LSD.
    By the by, last Wednesday I smoked three nice lungfuls of some VERY good weed (I think it was called Fruit Punch). Two of my friends and I were “waterfalling” by my the community pool where one of them lives, the water feeling nice and cool on our feet after the long, sweaty walk from school. About two minutes after I had hit, a large acorn tree by the pool fence caught my eye. I couldn’t look away from it; the backdrop of the sky behind its branches made them seem connected in some way. Somehow the tree… became my mind. It’s hard to explain exactly what I felt, but that’s the best way I can explain it. The tree became my mind. I said this to my friends and I also said that the branches were all equations. So surreal.

  8. Thanks for the post Mo. There are several mnemotechniques that use spacial cues, I wonder if lessons could be drawn from synaesthesia to refine these techniques.

  9. @Jeff (4) and Captain Skellet (9), anectdotally, those of us on the autism spectrum seem more likely to experience synestheisa than neurotypicals. Mine is taste-colour and is a lot less exciting than it sounds; I usually ignore it because it’s not helpful for me to identify that the veggie chips I just ate tasted mostly light chartreuse (the spinach ones were greener and also slightly brown, the tomato ones were also greener but less so than the spinach) or that the vanilla coke I have is a mix of pink, green, some bluish tones, and is quite pale (sort of like a white opal?).
    There is this, from a while back: I’m having a difficult time tracking down any other studies conflating the two.

  10. Not only is visualizing time used as a mnemonic (e.g. rooms of a house, each one containing a part of the list to memorize), but learning to visualize what you are reading is a technique taught to improve reading comprehension (e.g. visualizing and verbalizing). It is easier for some students to learn than others. This is not time-space synethesia, but I think that connecting language processing to visual processing might help firm up the memory, with more info zipping around in there? But synesthetes at least for color and numbers, say, are thought to have some neural connections crossed between the two area, right? So is time-space synesthesia really the same thing? Is a sense for time in a specific location? You might think, if you can map all these bits of information/concepts, you would get some kind of universal idea of what people’s cognitive toolbox looks like, but languages are set up conceptually differently, so I assume these specific sets of loci or pathways would also be different among cultural groups as well as individual differences.

  11. What a fascinating article. Thought processes are fascinating because everyone uses themselves as the “normal” gauge. There could be many, many people- maybe 10% of the population who-if someone asked them- experienced some kind of anomaly perception of space/time. If it’s 10%, does that still make it abnormal? Are people who think abnormally “mentally ill”?

  12. I had no idea that this was a phenomena studied by scientists, nor that there were others who saw time units visually. I’m relieved to hear that I’m not just weird (the diagnosis I received from my family).
    Years ago I drew pictures of years, weeks, and of the path of time throughout one’s entire lifetime. These images have remained consistent throughout my life, and at any given moment, I experience myself positioned on the relevant spot of each of these continuums. It’s not a conscious process, it’s automatic. It’s a given in my consciousness.
    As a child I experienced classical music as images. (But I’ve never “heard” a painting.) I also have been cursed with a persistent memory of trivia. I had hopes that the aging process would relieve me of this irritating condition, but pushing eighty, and no luck so far!

  13. It was a pleasure to read this article and know that there are other people like me, presumably more than a handful. It’s very hard to explain to someone who is not a synaesthete what time-space synaesthesia is. My husband doesn’t “get it”.
    Each day starts at the bottom and moves upward. The movement from day to day is from West to East (not left to right; it’s independent of the direction I’m facing). The movement from year to year is South to North.
    Today I asked my mother how she thinks time moves over the course of the day, and she answered “From bottom to top, upwards, OF COURSE”. She thought this was a perfectly ordinary perception of time. My son thinks all time progresses from bottom to top, whether it’s hours, days, or years.
    I’ve read that apparently a disproportionate number of autistic people are synaesthetes. I wonder if this is correct and whether there is a connection between synaesthesia and autism. I have a kid on the spectrum.

  14. My sister and I have this ability and we could discuss this so many times before we saw a few articles but we thought that all people should have it (because we both have it) with the only difference that they can see numbers, months, weeks, etc. in just different shapes depending on the person. I can see and draw endless numbers and form a shape which never changes starting for example with number one until as much as I can count and it is so interesting to see how it looks likes et the end. So, when I think of a number I have to put that number to a point in space/atmosphere as I see it when I draw it otherwise I can not really know how to do calculation if I do not imagine numbers in this way. Same stands for months, week days, seasons, aplphabet etc. This is an intersting article and finally I know that not everyone can see it like this.

  15. I wonder if I too have time-space synaesthesia. I am a 28-yr-old married guy. I’ve always pictured the day’s time as matching to the numbers on a clock. And I’ve perceived the year as one long strip, as though the months of a calendar are all laid out from Jan to Dec, top to bottom, to form a single long strip. So far pretty normal I think.
    I am a history buff, and I have a funny way of perceiving the years. I imagine a ‘clock’ where the last century is laid out. The 1920s is somewhere at the 2, the 1940s and Hitler at 4, the 1960s and the Hippie culture at 6, the 1980s and Microsoft at 8, the 1990s and technological revolution at 10… and then the numbers on the clock spin out of the dial and then come towards me to form a road that I am standing on. Here, the clock gets distorted.
    Similarly, when I look back at the previous centuries, they all take their place somewhere on the clock. The 1800s and 800s are at 8, the 1500s and 500s are at 5, the early church fathers of 300 AD are at 3, and the 1st Century time of Jesus is just after 12. Go backwards into BC and the path comes out of the circular clock and gets distorted.

Comments are closed.