Time Lords walk among us. Two per cent of readers may be surprised to discover that they are members of an elite group with the power to perceive the geography of time.
Sci-fi fans – Anglophile ones, at least – know that the coolest aliens in the universe are Time Lords: time-travelling humanoids with the ability to understand and perceive events throughout time and space. Now it seems that people with a newly described condition have a similar, albeit lesser ability: they experience time as a spatial construct.
To those variants we can now add time-space synaesthesia.
“In general, these individuals perceive months of the year in circular shapes, usually just as an image inside their mind’s eye,” says David Brang of the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.
“These calendars occur in almost any possible shape, and many of the synaesthetes actually experience the calendar projected out into the real world.”
One of Brang’s subjects was able to see the year as a circular ring surrounding her body. The “ring” rotated clockwise throughout the year so that the current month was always inside her chest with the previous month right in front of her chest.
Brang and colleagues recruited 183 students and asked them to visualise the months of the year and construct this representation on a computer screen. Four months later the students were shown a blank screen and asked to select a position for each of the months. They were prompted with a cue month – a randomly selected month placed as a dot in the location where the student had originally placed it.
Uncannily, four of the 183 students were found to be time-space synaesthetes when they placed their months in a distinct spatial array – such as a circle – that was consistent over the trials.
A second test compared how well time-space synaesthetes and ordinary humans could memorise an unfamiliar spatial calendar and reproduce it. Time-space synaesthetes turned out to have much better recall than the time-blind majority.
Brang suspects that time-space synaesthesia happens when the neural processes underlying spatial processing are unusually active. “This enhanced processing would generalise to other functions of spatial processing – mental rotation, map navigation, spatial manipulation,” he says.
Journal reference: Consciousness and Cognition, DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.01.003
Image: Huw Evans/Rex Features