Synesthesia. While it sounds alarming, it really is just a condition where a person’s brain mixes sensory responses. Some forms of synesthesia mix colors or shapes with senses such as smell, taste, or sight. For example a person with synesthesia might read the word “tree” and see it as green or “ocean” as blue. In another form, a person may view the taste of an apple as a triangle.
I didn’t discover that I, myself, am a synesthete until late high school. The type of synesthesia I have is called “number form synesthesia.” Because of it, I visualize numbers, months, days, and years in my head as being a certain, consistent distance and direction from me.
I will admit that I found it shocking (and still sort of do) when I learned that I am abnormal. (Those of you who know me personally may feel free to laugh at that.) I may not epitomize “normal,” but honestly, it was really weird for me to realize that other people don’t “see” the year like I do. I really did think that everyone knew 237 is bigger than 143 because it’s farther away.
Although it is hard to explain how numbers and dates appear to me, I am going to do my best. This is the part where I disclaim that reading on means attempting to understand the way I think. Ye be warned. Good luck.
When I view numbers, zero is directly in front of me (actually it’s a tad to the right but for the sake of explanation…) Because I can change the direction I am looking at the numbers, it is easiest to explain using cardinal directions. Positive numbers go off to the west as they get higher. Negative numbers and decimals go east from zero. If I am working below the value ten, then I view the numbers from the south (I face north). If I work with numbers higher than ten, I either look directly west or stand in the northeast and look out over the numbers to the west. This makes sense because once I get into the millions the numbers veer off to the south and if I were facing north I wouldn’t be able to see them (as they would be behind me). They turn west again around a billion.
Numbers that big, however, are very far away and hard for me to see clearly. I have trouble reading numbers aloud once they get into the ten thousands. A typical experience for me is this: 127,854. “One thousand. No! One HUNDRED thousand. Wait… One hundred AND TWENTY-SEVEN thousand eight hundred and fifty-four. Got it.” I was always embarrassed about that in school because I am a fast talker but I always had to slow way down at big numbers and hope no one noticed. I just can’t “see” numbers clearly when they are that far away. Also, to me 1,200 is clearly “one thousand, two hundred.” I have a hard time interpreting how much “twelve hundred” is supposed to be.
This picture shows how my mind pictures the year. I rarely see the year from a bird’s-eye view. While I am always above the year, I see it from the angle of a sheet of paper sitting on a high counter and off to the left a bit. The best way I can describe what it “looks” like is an oval-shaped CD. I can zoom in and out to “see” different parts of the year.
Each month looks somewhat like a calendar page when I view it closely, only the first of the month is at the bottom and the end of the month is at the top. Also, I view the page turned, so that if you lined up all the pages the right sides would make up the edge of the inner oval. If I view a specific date, within the context of the year, I typically see it from the current date. So I can understand how long it is until the event will take place based on how far it is around the loop of the year. An example of this is that if I were to think ahead about Christmas today, I would view December 25th as if standing on November 7th. I see Christmas coming over there about thirty degrees to my right. Important dates in between today and Christmas also stand out. So as I see Christmas coming I see my brother’s birthday, Thanksgiving, and my birthday as a few landmarks on the way.
I have always found it difficult to remember specific dates. When I try to recall a specific date, I see an overview of the year as if standing in December (my birth month). I can’t even remember all of my sibling’s birthdays (in my defense: I have seven of them) but I typically can “feel” about what time of year they are. For example, I definitely know that my little sister was born in the spring because her birthday is on my left, but my older brother has to remind me when the actual date is getting close or I would have no idea.
You may also notice the space between July and August. The spring and summer months have always sort of confused me (plus they are all squished together… that’s really how I see them. I have no clue why.) It was devastating when I finally figured out that June came BEFORE July because that left a big gap in my year. Only since I have become aware of my synesthesia have I moved July over in my mind to fill the space. It is still an effort to see it correctly though. And March and May will never be clear to me. I constantly mix them up. They are too close together and both start with “M.” Sigh. I actually do get made fun of for that because I mess it up so consistently.
This oval shows how I view the week. Although the weekend appears as long as the week itself (wishful thinking?) if I look at a specific day, they are all equal in size. I usually see the week as if the oval were a picture hanging on the wall in front of me, but I can see it from the specific day (like the year) if I want to. If I need to think to the weeks ahead, I just count how many times I travel around the loop. “Three Sunday’s from now,” means that I went around the loop three times from the current date and stopped on the correct Sunday. Much like the year, landmark days stick out to me. For example looking ahead over the week, I see that I have a church retreat this Friday and Saturday. It sticks out to me as a unique event on the oval. I can see my regular schedule (church, school, work) or ignore it if I want to and only see one-time events as I look at a given week. Weeks layer on top of each other like a slinky if I want to see many at once without switching to viewing them as a whole month.
So there is a little tour of my brain. If you want to read about how other number form synesthetes think, then you could check out this site: http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Have-Synesthesia/1050896. Reading that site wowed me. It was odd enough when I realized that most people don’t “see” numbers, but even stranger to learn that other people actually do, but… differently! Are any of you a synesthete too? Apparently it is genetic trait so if you are, ask your family. My dad told me today that he has it and he thinks my little sister does too. Perhaps she will forgive me for forgetting her birthday…