Synaesthesia, or: Seeing People Past the Time

“So my mother and I were talking about synaesthesia,” I say as we pull out of the driveway.

“Oh! Debbie has that,” my aunt says.

“So do we,” I say. “Mum said to ask about your calendar.”

My aunt and I have what’s sometimes called spatial sequence synaesthesia: we see time.


I see the calendar as an undulating, multi-coloured ribbon extending in front of me, curving away to the left, rising and falling with weekends. My aunt sees a circle like the clock’s face, with winter at the top and summer at the bottom.

We agree that we both see deadlines.

We’re driving to the airport, the car curving along overpasses at the same angle as time, and somewhere into the conversation, she asks my friends in the back seat if they see time.

As it turns out, they don’t have a visuo-spatial sense of the calendar.

“I think of events,” one friend says. “And people, and the things we’re going to to do.” She explains that she has an emotional sense of time. When she thinks of last summer, she thinks of New York, the places we went together, the museums she saw.

I see New York, too—my flat, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the pillars of my subway station, all rising from the waving curve of yellow summertime off to my left.

So I ask, “Do you see events bounded by time?”

My aunt tells me that I’m misunderstanding, still thinking my friends have a visual sense like I do.

I ask my friend if she sees deadlines. She says no.

I ask what she sees when she thinks of tomorrow.

She thinks of getting home, and of our roommates arriving back at the flat. She thinks of how we’ll hug them and ask how their Christmas was, and of whether they’ll want something to eat.

I don’t think of our roommates at all. I see tomorrow in lines—pale blue 5:30 am, when our flight will land, and then the long blank space of the day, which I plan to sleep away, and the darker line of evening.

I see the limits.

She sees the people.

My aunt and I talk about the lines—the time until things are due, the blank spaces that aren’t blank, because they ride above deadlines. We agree that we feel pressured and annoyed when people demand attention during those spaces, because we focus on finishing things on the lines.

My friends talk about people—about events to come, and people to be met and parted with, and time to be spent over tea and coffee and conversation, and my aunt says that perhaps we should step off the line sometimes.

I have synaesthesia. I see time.


Because of this, I’m good at getting things done. I finish projects. I don’t turn things in late. I see the boundaries of my time and I pack things in, filling the blank spaces.

But I don’t always see people.

People show up in my blank spaces uninvited, and I often brush them away. I can see the lines drawing nearer, and I forget that the people are far more important than the to-do lists that hover along the ribbon of time.

It’s an odd fact of life that the easiest things are seldom valuable, and the most meaningful things are seldom effortless. I see time without trying; it’s a part of my psychology. To see people, I have to try. And maybe having to try a little harder makes seeing people, caring for people, just that much more meaningful.

If you’re interested in reading more about synaesthesia, here are a few great blogposts and articles I enjoyed:

The Wikipedia article, which is actually quite comprehensive and well documented

The blog that first made me realise I might not be totally normal

A rather dense scientific exploration of some benefits of synaesthesia

An even denser discussion of categorising synaesthesia