I'm at my desk, and my laptop and I are sitting comfortably in today. To my right, a hot cup of tea is filling yesterday with plumes of steam, and to my left piles of notes and papers submerge tomorrow and the day after. Outside my window, a dirty-looking London pigeon flies through the 1990s to land on a lamppost in 1987.
Although it seems as if I've accidentally typed nonsense, I promise I haven't. I have a form of synaesthesia where my brain connects spatial awareness with the perception and understanding of time. To put it simply, time is all around me. My mental calendar game is pretty strong.
Time-space synaesthesia is not as well-known as its sibling grapheme-colour synaesthesia, where people see colours for certain words, numbers, characters, or letters. Synaesthesia tends to run in families, and it essentially means someone has unusual relationships between areas of the brain that process different things; in my case, the processing of time and space.
I’ve "seen" time for as long as I can remember, and it has always looked the same – each unit, whether lessons, days, weeks, months, or years, is represented by boxes, running right to left. If they existed outside my head, each box would be around 40cm x 40cm or so, much like a hopscotch square, and I am always standing in today. If I’m in a room of people, I can roughly identify who is standing where in time. It’s my bizarre party trick.
The closer a date is to me, the larger it appears, so next week is bigger than next year, and if I’m reading a history book with lots of dates then I might find myself "zooming out" to see it in units of decades or even centuries. However, the strangest aspect has to be the direction in which it runs. As the future runs to my left, it curves slightly behind me. This makes sense to me – you can’t see the future, so naturally it would be positioned so it disappears from my vision.
The past is to my right but it curves around so that between 1996 and 2000, it completes a U-turn and runs back to the left. The best explanation I have been able to come up with is that time which I’ve lived in runs right to left, but at the point at which my memories give way, it curves back to resemble the timelines I studied in school.
The fact that, on the whole, time runs right to left, does mean that calendars feel faintly odd, as they read left to right. While this bothered me a little as a child, I don’t much notice the discrepancy any more.
As well as the horizontal direction, there is some vertical variation. Years form shallow dips, with peaks around Christmas and a long, low, flat area around August. If you’re really struggling to follow, picture Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, a huge track floating in space. It’s something like that, but black-and-white and with fewer banana skins.
For me, it was the most natural thing in the world. How else would you understand something as complicated as time?
Scientific interest in synaesthesia has grown over the last few years, but there are records of the condition going back much further.
“The vast majority of people with synaesthesia never realise that others don’t experience the world in that way,” says Professor Julia Simner of the University of Sussex, who runs the university’s synaesthesia research centre and co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia. “It’s a challenge to reality – you have your reality, I have mine, and who would have thought that they’d be different?”
It was only after studying synaesthesia for about two years that Simner realised her own mother was a synaesthete. “I explained I was studying people who think days of the week are coloured, like Tuesday might be yellow," she says. "My mother said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Everybody knows that Tuesday is grey with that tweedy texture.'”
This resonates. It took me years to learn that what I was experiencing was actually synaesthesia. As far as I was concerned, it was the most natural thing in the world. How else would you understand something as complicated as time?
To help identify synaesthetes, Simner is putting together an online test that, through various tasks, can assess and help people understand their synaesthesia.
We already know that synaesthesia can influence people’s talents and weaknesses. Abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky is thought to have painted music as he heard it, in explosions of colour and line, and musicians as diverse as Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, and Kanye West all also have music-colour synaesthesia.
For us timelords (it isn’t an official term but I propose we make it one), the benefits are slightly more mundane. A study in 2009 found that synaesthetes were better at remembering specific dates, and could also plan their diaries better.
“All these advantages make sense,” she says. “If you take two people, one carrying around a diary and one not, the same advantages of carrying around a diary were carried by people who have time-space synaesthesia.”
I can attest to this. My day will be blocked out as I make plans, and unless I’m being unusually forgetful I won’t double-book myself. It’s hard to do when you can literally see your diary. I once tried to use it to help revise for history classes, but sadly nothing was able to overcome my lack of interest in the Tudors, and the metaphorical pins I tried to put in my mental map didn’t stick.
As well as the spatial aspect of time, synaesthesia can also give rise to perceptions of colour, personality, light and dark, and more within these "maps". Some people, Simner says, might consider days of the week to have personalities, while others see months with an innate colour.
“The most common forms are coloured days," she says, "and we’re not talking standard metaphorical colours such as 'I feel bad, it’s a blue Monday', but truly synaesthetic colours.”
While less well-known than other forms of synaesthesia, Simner says time-space may be the most common of all. Some estimates say it and other forms of sequence-space synaesthesia affect as much as 10-15% of the population.
Additionally, in non-synaesthetes, teaching can produce a similar mental number line to that seen by those with time-space synaesthesia. “I, as a non-synaesthete, have an implicit knowledge of numbers running left to right,” Simner says, “simply because I’ve been exposed to it all my life.
“There’s a test called a SNARC [spatial numerical association of response codes] test, which works like this. You’re sitting at a screen, and numbers flash up in a random order. The task is to press a button with one hand if it’s odd, and the other hand if it’s even. Even non-synaesthetes will be faster to respond to high numbers with their right hand, and faster to respond to low numbers with their left, because we have learnt this number line that runs from left to right.”
So, if non-synaesthetes can learn to connect timelines and/or number lines with spatial awareness, what sets synaesthetes like me apart?
Well, for starters, if you have one form of synaesthesia, you’re likely to have another. Maybe someone’s map would be coloured, so that Tuesday is to their left and purple, or has a distinct personality. Additionally, while non-synaesthetes can find their number lines if they’re tested, for synaesthetes it is a constant awareness. Any mention of time, and I’m immediately placed back inside my map.
The shape of my map is completely my own, distinct even to other synaesthetes.
But perhaps the most important distinction is how unique a synaesthete’s experience is in comparison with that of the general population. The shape of my map is completely my own, distinct even to other synaesthetes. While many people will learn to perceive numbers as going left to right through years of maths lessons, nothing seems to alter my experience. If it grows, it grows organically and subconsciously.
My map hasn’t grown in a while, though. Like the hands on a clock, I move calmly into the next day, only aware of my alternative world when I’m making plans or looking at a calendar. It is so natural, so clear and so permanent, that the idea of losing it feels like changing a part of myself.
My perception may be unique, but so is everyone’s. We all read the world around us in different ways, shaping it and interacting with it in a way that makes sense to us. It fascinates me to think that if I hadn’t discovered research on time-space synaesthesia, I may never have recognised the infinite variety of human perception.