science of us

I Can’t Stop Reading This Twitter Thread on People Who Literally See Time

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Today is Thursday, which is dark green.

That’s just one person’s perspective, though. According to Hey Ladies! writer Caroline Moss, who tweeted out this chart yesterday, today is actually blue and kind of lumpy:

We may disagree on the specifics, but still, I feel so seen. My week doesn’t have shapes, but each day does have a color: Monday is red, Tuesday is bright green, Wednesday is magenta, Thursday is a slightly darker hue than Tuesday, and Friday is orangey-yellow. (Saturday and Sunday, for whatever reason, don’t get their own shades.) A co-worker asked me this morning how long it’s been that way, and the answer is … forever, I think? Long enough that I’ve never considered that these colors could be anything but settled fact: Grass is green, the sky is blue, Wednesday is magenta.

It’s the same way for Moss, who told me the visual she posted has been with her for her whole life. “I remember asking my mom when I was five if Wednesday was weird pink shape in her head,” she told me, “and she was like, what?”

Based on the responses to her tweet, it seems like we’ve got plenty of company: Scroll through the thread and you’ll see drawings depicting months of the year as segments in a multicolored hula hoop or plots on an oval, or years as a spiky graph.

All of these are examples of synesthesia, the phenomenon in which ordinarily distinct mental or sensory processes blur into one another (the term comes from the ancient Greek words for “sensation” and together”). Some people taste sounds. Others experience specific emotions whenever they touch certain textures. In one fascinating variation, people literally see their past and future stretched out in front of them. And some, like Moss, have specific visual representations for units of time (in addition to the days of the week, she said, “I see the months of the year in a line of colored squares”).

There are too many weird specific manifestations of synesthesia for scientists to meaningfully study them all — one person tweeted in response to Moss that he sees musical keys as different colors — but wrapping certain traits around units of time seems like it touches on a few of them. The first is spatial-sequence synesthesia, in which people literally see time in various forms (they also tend to have crazy-impressive recall when it comes to dates, something Moss told me she’s “freakishly good” at). The second is ordinal-linguistic personification, or OLP, in which different parts of a sequence — days of the week, but also things like letters of the alphabet and months of the year — are each imbued with their own unique personalities. And the third, one of the most common and well-studied forms, is grapheme-color synesthesia, in which numbers and letters are associated with certain colors. (A 2006 study in the journal Neuroscience found that OLP is often linked to grapheme-color.)

Researchers still aren’t exactly sure why some people have synesthesia when others don’t — in recent years, some scientists have bucked conventional wisdom around synesthesia to argue that it’s teachable, rather than innate — or what makes a person experience a specific form. One dominant theory, though, is that the brains of synesthetes have more connections than usual between different areas designated for different functions.

It’s a theory centuries in the making. The first documented case of synesthesia was in 1812, when the German scientist Georg Sachs described a man who heard colors in music; in 1893, psychologist Mary Whiton Calkins, the first woman to become president of the American Psychological Association, published “A Statistical Study of Pseudo-Chromesthesia and of Mental-Forms” in The American Journal of Psychology. Calkins logged cases of “month-forms” and “day-of-the-week forms,” among other things, but my favorite data points may be the descriptions of OLP: “Q is odd and stands by himself as rather an eccentric middle-aged man,” one study subject explained. “4 is honest, but mathematically angular and ungraceful,” another said, while “3 I cannot trust, though it is fairly good-looking in personal appearance.”

They have competition, though, in the person who simply wrote, in response to Moss’s tweet: “Sunday is Rhode Island.” Some food for thought to carry you into Friday — which, depending who you ask, could be a green rectangle, or it could be a sunny shade of tangerine.

I Love This Twitter Thread on People Who Literally See Time