Memory and Spatial-Time Synesthesia

The documentary The Boy Who Can’t Forget contains an interview with a woman (Jill Price) who has an incredible memory of past events. Indeed, Price is burdened by the past. She remembers too much, and forgets too little.

Not surprisingly, Price has some form of space-time synesthesia that helps her automatically structure her past in visual form, aiding in recall. When pressed about how she remembers the past, she grows upsets and says “I don’t know. I just do.” This is common with those of us (yes, us), who automatically, reflexively see time in spatial form.

I’ve attempted to recreate Price’s spatial visualizations of the year and her mental timeline, as shown in the documentary (about twenty minutes in, using the link I provided above.)

She had a cyclical year, oval-shaped, with December at the top, moving counter-clockwise, and a mental timeline that begins to the upper-right of the page, goes left from her birth, until the year 1970, then moves down from there, with particular years as landmarks. The most important landmark dates here tend to be decade markers, but other dates (the documentary does not say) may stand for important events or years in Price’s life.

What to take away from this?  Is there a link between memory and spatial visualization of time? Do these diagrams form first, at early childhood, and then help with recall, or are they formed later, when we find it necessary to provide structure to the events of the past?  Does spatial-time synesthesia make us better historians?

In Price’s case, what is interesting is that she cannot shut off her visualization, it seems.

This reminds me of my navigation sense, which can be particularly acute at time, like when I’m wandering alone in Europe.  Then, it seems like I’m using 90% of my mental processing capacity to find the way. As a result, I become oblivious to other things. However, if I trust a guide to lead the way in some strange city, I shut off my navigation sense. I then have no sense of the compass. If my guide left me, I’d be lost. I would have to turn on my sense of direction, establish North, and triangulate with landmarks.

There are some people who walk through life with no sense of a timeline. Like a lost person, they don’t establish landmark moments in time, or see a path.Some people are fascinated by maps, and all the ways they can show how to go from once place to another. I am fascinated with timelines, and all of the ways that people navigate their experiences.


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