People who 'see' numbers have better memories for dates

December 15, 2009 by Lin Edwards, Medical Xpress weblog
The automaticity of synesthetic experience. The panel on the left is how a non-synesthete perceives the matrix, while a given synesthete might perceive it like the panel on the right. Image: Wikipedia.

( -- A new research project has shown that people who perceive numbers visually, and who see sequences of numbers as visual patterns, have better memories for dates and events in the past than people who do not.

The condition is known as time-space synesthesia (also called spatial-sequence synesthesia), a in which the senses combine in unusual ways. A person with the condition sees numbers as existing in three-dimensional space, so for example, the year 1980 may seem further away visually than the year 1995. Others may see years as a 3D shape such as a spiral staircase, or months arranged in an circle. The visual responses to the numbers are involuntary, and the synesthete may be unaware for years that their experiences are not shared by others.

There are many types of synesthesia, such as the most common type, grapheme-color synesthesia, in which numbers or letters are always associated with colors, so the number eight might always appear orange, for example, or the word train may always look blue. Other synesthetes may associate words with taste, or sounds to color or images.

Recently, scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland decided to try to find out if people with time-space synesthesia had better memories than people who do not. The researchers, led by psychologist Dr Julia Simner subjected 10 volunteers with spatial-sequence synesthetes to a series of visual/special and temporal tests requiring rapid recall of the dates of over a hundred events that occurred in the period 1950-2008.

The time-space synesthetes were out, on average, by four years, whereas a control group of non-synesthetes were wrong by eight years on average. The synesthetes could also name almost double the number of events from specific years in their own lifetimes than could the control group. The synesthetes were no better than the controls at tasks that were not related to their mental calendars.

The research also suggested there is a connection between time-space synesthesia and the savant-like hyperthymestic syndrome, which is a condition in which people have perfect recall events occurring at any time in their lives.

Dr Simner said the findings, published in the journal Cortex, suggest anyone who can visualize timelines may recall historical events better than others. Most synesthetes consider the phenomenon as a gift they would not want to lose. Simner agreed, saying that synesthetes have a "subtle, extra gift."

More information: A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits, Cortex, Volume 45, Issue 10, November-December 2009, Pages 1246-1260; doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2009.07.007

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Electrical implant reduces 'invisible' symptoms of man's spinal cord injury

February 19, 2018
An experimental treatment that sends electrical currents through the spinal cord has improved "invisible" yet debilitating side effects for a B.C. man with a spinal cord injury.

Brainwaves show how exercising to music bends your mind

February 18, 2018
Headphones are a standard sight in gyms and we've long known research shows listening to tunes can be a game-changer for your run or workout.

Newborn babies who suffered stroke regain language function in opposite side of brain

February 17, 2018
It's not rare that a baby experiences a stroke around the time it is born. Birth is hard on the brain, as is the change in blood circulation from the mother to the neonate. At least 1 in 4,000 babies are affected shortly ...

To sleep, perchance to forget

February 17, 2018
The debate in sleep science has gone on for a generation. People and other animals sicken and die if they are deprived of sleep, but why is sleep so essential?

Lab-grown human cerebellar cells yield clues to autism

February 16, 2018
Increasing evidence has linked autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with dysfunction of the brain's cerebellum, but the details have been unclear. In a new study, researchers at Boston Children's Hospital used stem cell technology ...

Fragile X syndrome neurons can be restored, study shows

February 16, 2018
Fragile X syndrome is the most frequent cause of intellectual disability in males, affecting one out of every 3,600 boys born. The syndrome can also cause autistic traits, such as social and communication deficits, as well ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
i feel like everyone does this in some form or another. there's a reason why we commonly represent dates as a "line" in graphical visualizations. because most of us see dates this way in our minds.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
I thought this technique was already identified and used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming ...
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
Do myopic synesthetes have to wear their reading glasses to recall dates?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.