Synesthete

My illustration of time-space synesthesia.

A post has been making the rounds, illuminating the fact that not everyone hears an inner monologue. It confirms what we already know: human beings are wildly neurodiverse. It brought about many interesting conversations about perception, including the topic of synesthesia. Here is an excerpt from my book which deals with my personal experience with Time-Space Synesthesia.

My best friend Janie and I used to sit in the canal at the bottom of my street and ponder the imponderables for hours on end. There were so many things in my experience that I wanted to capture with words. The way my memories seemed to be physically catalogued away, for instance. Did everyone see the past like that?

Janie tossed a rock into the slimy green water in the canal; it hit cement. Its ping reverberated up into the sky. A pair of startled blackbirds flitted from a nearby tree; the sound of their wings roused an unrelated image in my mind: bone dry laundry on a clothesline. We watched the birds disappear into the sea-blue California sky above us. I’d never see them again, yet I could see them again anytime I liked. A strange juxtaposition I wanted to explore with Janie.

But how would I explain it?

I thought hard and tumbled a perfectly tangible, sun-warmed rock in my hand. I contemplated the way the birds connected to that mental picture of laundry. I could see dry clothing hanging in our yard, the afternoon shadows cast upon the toys scattered across the patio. I could hear the shushing sound of thousands of bamboo leaves quaking in the gentle breeze. 

Entire days and years of my life lived vibrantly in my mind like that, snipped up into little bits that could surface and fade again and again. My memory of the San Francisco of the 80s remained palpable; a mental diorama of smells and sounds, drab colors and boxy cars. The muni buses would drift around in my head, powered entirely by their web of synapses. Like the laundry, and the birds, and that day in the canal, I could see an imprint of my experiences––not unlike pictures projected upon a screen––wholly invisible to my eye, yet somehow visible to my mind.

But it was more than just pictures. Time itself seemed to somehow unfurl and occupy the space to the left of me, and it went everywhere with me: An invisible appendage. Any time I thought of a moment, or a day, or a period of my life, a section of time seemed to rise and glow on a screen in my head, and when it did, I had the overwhelming urge to place the memory in a chronological position. I wondered whether it looked like that to Janie, or whether her time-appendage was different.

 “How do you see time?” I asked Janie.

 “What do you mean?” she asked.

“What do you see inside your head when you think about yesterday, or last week, or years ago? A calendar? A row of boxes?”

Janie appeared to think about my question, but after a long time, she simply said, “I don’t see anything.”

§

I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing a form of synesthesia, a neurological circumstance that causes a person to perceive more than one sense simultaneously. I’d heard of people who could hear colors or taste sounds, but that was never my experience. What I was struggling to describe to Janie is sometimes called calendar synesthesia or time-space synesthesia. It was causing me to experience time as a spatial construct, and to recall three times as many details surrounding a memory as a non-synesthete.

Because of the synesthesia, I had always been unusually fixated on the past, especially sections that weren’t crystal clear. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was instinctively driven to restore the missing facts of my early childhood so that my time-appendage would feel and appear complete.

So that I would feel complete.

Do you experience synesthesia? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

3 thoughts on “Synesthete”

  1. I feel pretty confident that your synesthesia is, at least, a part of what makes you such an amazing writer. You paint a very vivid picture with your words and they literally transport me to the place and time you’re describing. You are able to recall things with such detail but it’s not the detail that moves me, it’s the emotion behind the detail. At first I thought it was probably because I had been to your house with your sister, or because I’m from the same city, but I realized that wasn’t the case when I read your post about your roommate in the forest house at Caritas Creek, where I have never been .I could literally see and hear everything in my mind. As I read, I experienced. That’s crazy amazing to me. I think my own synesthesia might also be why I can experience your writing like this. I hope you never stop writing, I’m buying all your books! 🙂

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  2. Yes, I experience synesthesia too! I get sounds with tastes, tastes with color, and color with sound. I have never really thought about a time-space version until now but that does make sense, too. I can’t think of any examples but I feel like it may be there. I always just thought it was “an artist’s mind” – ?

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  3. I have always wondered how much synesthesia i really experience, if any at all. This made me realize I do. This and realizing I smell things even when they supposed don’t have a smell. But memories-yes I feel my memories.

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