Number Form Synesthesia

This is related to a post by The Nightingale about whether people who are attracted to memory techniques are naturally visual thinkers.

I was reading about synesthesia the other day and saw this page on number form synesthesia:

A number form is a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers. Numbers are mapped into distinct spatial locations and the mapping may be different across individuals.


These number forms can be distinguished from the non-conscious mental number line that we all have by the fact that they are 1) conscious, 2) idiosyncratic (see image) and 3) stable across the lifespan.

I never thought about it until I saw this picture in Wikipedia:

Galton number form

It looks like these arrangements aren’t something the person was born with because 1-12 is a clock face, and it’s a base-10 number system. I’m not sure why it’s called synesthesia if it is culturally learned. (Can it really be “stable through the lifespan” if it was learned from a clock face? One would expect it could be relearned or modified at some point.)

In any case, does anyone visualize numbers something like this?

I don’t know if it is as strong as the number forms that the Wikipedia article is describing, but I’ve always had a spacial arrangement for the context of numbers and dates. The perspective on the arrangement varies depending on where I am in the path. If I am trying to call up a date from March to June, it slants sort-of down to the right until around August-September, then up. November is to the left and below December – I don’t think November ever appears above December.

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I also stumbled upon this Wikipedia article I think two years ago, and I experience numbers in space. The example picture could be a projection, or some people see the forms in two dimensions, but my number forms exist spatially. The forms are context-specific. I have different forms for integers, human history timescale spanning from approximately 2000BC to this day and extending into the future, annual cycle with months, a week (a month doesn’t have its own independent visualization but is part of the landscape of the year, whereas a week is a separate entity that doesn’t attach to it), and usually sequences I memorize spontaneously set down in a three-dimensional space with more or less arbitrary distances and angles between the items. The perspective also sometimes changes, for example I see a person’s age on the same form as integers, but from a different angle and distance than if I were to think of a random number. The point of view is, of course, closer to myself. When I try to recall, for an example, the birth year of a historical figure, I always see the form. Some time ago I had memorized a sequence of numbers, and every time I was playing them back, I was moving along the three-dimensional number “line” (though there are no lines, just floating items), but it took me probably weeks to become aware (conscious) of its existence!

When I first saw the above diagram reproduced in the best selling book “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland”, my jaw hit the floor. It is almost identical to the way that I envisage numbers. The only difference is that after the 1-12 “clock” my pattern goes off to the right instead of the left. It is also 3-dimensional. I could build it from wire! I also see months of the year as an ellipse. I have tried to explain this to many people over the years and everybody thought I was crazy. It has remained unchanged for most of my life (I am now 63).

I recently asked some people about how they picture numbers, and they said that they don’t experience this at all. One person told me that he just sees the number itself, but it doesn’t appear anywhere in space.

I usually don’t see an individual number in space unless it is assigned a meaning or is being related to other numbers or dates – then they both appear in space. The angles change depending on the number. A number like 1,979 is viewed from a different angle and is in a different location than the year 1979. Strange… I never thought about it until seeing that Wikipedia page.

As I was going through this forum I found this portion on synesthesia, so I looked it up on wikipedia which led me to ask a question about goosebumps.

I know that goose bumps are caused by some sort of chemical and scientist don’t actually know what chemical is causing this. An interesting ability that I have obtained is to willingly make myself to have goosebumps. At first I started listening to music and causing myself to have goose bumps and as time went on I no longer need to recall a feeling or even listen to a song. I don’t know if this is an ability or not because as far as I have been concerned goose bumps is an involuntary response. I also don’t know what chemical is getting released into my body during this process because I feel as if I am in a state of bliss and my emotions become so much stronger.

If there is any sites or if you have any info. at all on this thanks because even my personal doctor thinks I am making this up.

Additionally speaking directly in terms of synesthesia, I think I have experienced something like this. When i was reviewing the images for the major memory system(using a deck of cards), I noticed that I might only be able to recall the picture as if I were looking at it from the right. I tried to look at it from the left which was hard, but the hardest thing was to look at it from the exact center. An example would be like you having a person in front of you standing to left of you hence you would see a little of his left side. And most often there would always be a designated background to the image, yet sometimes it didn’t (as far as I was concerned) correlate to the images itself.

I only see numbers in groups of hundreds. Mine are similar to the example, but I have hard edges - no curves. I tend to place myself somewhere on the number scale and then I can see backwards and forwards. For example, if someone asks what is 97 minus 15, I can see 82 to my upper right; same goes for 197, 297 … 1097 etc. Alternatively if someone asks what is 18 plus 36 I can visualise 54 in the distance but to the left and downwards. I adjust for anything over 100, 1000 etc.

That’s interesting… I don’t really see strong curves, but the angles change. At 100,000, I visualize numbers going off sharply to the right, where they are closer to vertical below 100,000. I never really thought about it before, so I’ve never mentally traveled the entire line from start to finish. It would be difficult to draw, because it isn’t completely 2-dimensional.

I’m trying to figure out what the relationship is between 0-9 and something like the years 2000-2009, because they are at similar angles, while the numbers 2,000 to 2,009 are on a completely different angle (up and to the right). The year 2000 is well below the number 1,000. It seems to be related to meaning, similar to what Kannas wrote.

I’m trying to think about it now, and even different kinds of years are viewed at different angles. 1861 in Europe is imagined from below and to the left, because I’ve spent time learning about European composers starting from Medieval times up to the early 20th Century – but 1861 in the US (Civil War) is viewed from a later date and looking back.

I don’t really picture a number on a spatial line unless I’m doing certain things with it, like trying to understand it. Seeing a number like “34” by itself doesn’t necessarily send me to a location until I try to find out it’s meaning within a sequence. If I hear something about the year 34, I will mentally go to the location of year 34 and that gives me an idea of how to understand it based on what else is nearby.

Sometimes I go to the locations in addition and subtraction or I mentally block off one section of the line to represent certain numbers, but other times I add and subtract just by using a mental calculation technique of going left to right. 18+36 is just 3+1, then I subtract 2 from the 6 to bring the 8 to 10, and put the remaining 4 on the end: 54. Things like 3+1 and 6-2 are already well-memorized.

I’m just realizing that my 00-99 images are visualized on the same line. 00 is treated as 0, 01 is treated as 1, etc.

I’m going to think about this more, because it’s very interesting.

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My pattern does not change at all after 100. I see 200, 2000, etc in the same way. However this does not apply to decimals. I lose the curved pattern when I visualize 12.34, for example. It’s just on a straight line. Perhaps I need to work on it!

I see negative numbers in the same pattern but going backwards around the curves. Does anyone see negative numbers, fractions, decimals in a special way?

I’ve never thought about it. I haven’t done anything with negative numbers or fractions in a very long time. The line goes below zero though.

Seeing a number by itself like 12.34 has no meaning to me, and I think that I only see the numbers with a spacial relationship if they have a meaning.

I might see numbers like $12.34 or $49.99 as just “12 and a little” or “basically 50”, and they are in a spacial relationship if I am trying to process what the quantity means.

I’m thinking about it now, and card memorization scores have a relationship that is kind of like the line from 1 to 10. So a memorization time like 1:27 is sort of like a zoomed-in location above 1, and once it goes below 1 minute, it goes into an area kind of like negative numbers. 40 seconds has an “under” feeling (because it is under 1 minute), and it goes down to about 20 or 18 seconds. I’ve never visualized anything lower than that on a “timer” view, because I don’t think anyone has ever memorized something faster than that.

The angles for card times are similar to the angle for years. When I say “under”, it’s kind of like the “over” and “under” between the 20th century and the 19th century or 99 and 100. It is divided, or the perspective shifts.

This is very weird. I wonder if the spacial feeling could be strengthened and then used mnemonically in some way. They are essentially loci. When I zoom into a card time like 1:27 (Ron White’s previous US record) that is basically a locus. Since the shape of the line depends on the meaning, numbers with different meanings could form different “journeys”. Just brainstorming out loud… :slight_smile:

I’m thinking about card times, because I remember when Nelson Dellis broke the US record with “63 seconds”. I had to translate that into 1:03 for it to fit onto my line.

Maybe I will borrow your idea of the wire model, and try to build a representation of the number lines and then actively try to strengthen the spatial feeling.

If there are this many people that see spacial relationships between numbers out of an online community of 1,400, it can’t be that uncommon…

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I guess that using them mnemonically might not really do anything, since they would essentially function like pegs. The only difference is that attaching a different meaning would make a different kind of spatial relationship. I need to think about it more… :slight_smile:

I was just rereading the Wikipedia page, and took a look at the talk page and this sounds right:

I just thought I'd point out a couple of things about this topic from personal experience. Firstly, different "types" of numbers each have a different form, for example prices do not form the same shape as years. Also, the phenomenon is not restricted to numbers, as I am also able to imagine a form for the alphabet.

I never thought about it, but the alphabet is also on a diagonal line. I don’t know if that is typical. Someone also mentions that they think that 5% of people see spatial relationships in numbers.

Ed Hubbard left a comment that says:

In fact, as the scientific community studies the various manifestations of synesthesia, we keep discovering that the prevelance rates we thought were true (1 in 2000, for example) were off by two orders of magnitude (the most recent estimates is more like in 20; Simner et al., in press see the main synesthesia article). Noam Sagiv and colleagues showed that something like 60% of grapheme-color synesthetes have number forms, while perhaps only 10% of lexical-gustatory synesthetes have number forms. My own (in progress, original) research suggestst that there are many synesthetes with number forms that do not experience other forms of synesthesia, so the estimate cited by the BBC is likely to change with more research. Edhubbard 14:51, 26 October 2006 (UTC)
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" … different “types” of numbers each have a different form"

Certainly true in my case and not just numbers. Clock-like for numbers, ellipses for months and a sine wave for the alphabet. I would like to make my number pattern out of wire but I want to try a 3D CAD package first. If I can produce a rotatable image, that would work for me.

Wow,What interesting discussion!

I see years very much the same way I see numbers. Months are another matter altogether - more like an inverted triangle rotated 45 degrees with January at the base and December at the apex.

I have never really thought about visualising decimals or negatives that much - but \i think I use 0 and 100 as similar reference points visually for most things.

My daughter has grapheme colour synesthesia, but not number form. I have heard some people also related colours to musical notes and tones - has anyone heard of this?

I’ve heard of that, but I don’t know much about it.

I just bought some wire earlier this evening, but I think it is too thin for the task.

Gee Josh,

I have read lots of your posts on other fora, are you always on line?

I think your mind is amazing by the way/.

Brain structure shows affinity for numbers:

The structure of the brain shows the way in which we process numbers. People either do this spatially or non-spatially. A study by Florian Krause from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen shows for the first time that these individual differences have a structural basis in the brain. The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience published the results in an early access version of the article.

People who process numbers spatially do this using an imaginary horizontal line along which the numbers are arranged from low to high, left to right. A non-spatial representation is also possible, by comparing numbers to other magnitudes such as force or luminosity.

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I remember something similar from Dominic O’Briens book, quantum memory power. He said when he pressed people on how they remember history, some of them replied that they have a horizontal line, in a sort of environment that they have stuff on.

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My form of synesthesia is that the timbres of sounds produce different colors and shapes. It is so natural to me that I hadn’t considered that people could process auditory information without a visual counterpart. I don’t even know what that would be like. But if some people can’t even visualize visual information, then obviously my condition is not universal, and may even be rare.

I remember being in elementary school and wanting to ask what instrument made this sound in one of the songs in the Nutcracker Suite. I now know that it was just violins slurring up the scale quickly (can’t remember what piece it was, sorry). But quick slurs like that aren’t easy to hum or reproduce with your mouth, so I remember wishing that I could draw this green and yellow cone extending upwards and to the right, as if that would have helped. When you are so young, your psychology is always egocentric like this. (Think “chinese yoyo.” It looked a lot like that). Interesting that it moved up and got thinner as the notes got higher. Is this because of my early exposure to the terms “high” and “low” referring to pitches? It would have been a subconscious connection, because it never crossed my mind that it was a run of notes getting higher in pitch. I kind of imagined that it was just like a button you could press that would produce that entire five-second long sound.

I used to see letters and numbers as colors, but that only is true for some letters and some numbers these days. I am almost certain that these colors were vestiges from flashcards or refrigerator magnets that I first learned letters with. The only reason that they’re gone is because I haven’t seen those flashcards in so long. But that ought to be considered synesthesia in a true sense. So that was one example of acquired synaesthesia.

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I’ve always been good at remembering years of historical dates and arithmetic facts, which I believe is because of my numerical synesthesia. I perceive digit groups and decades of each century as a colored semicircle in my mind’s eye. It’s not as complex as what Josh has, and I don’t have colored letters or individually colored digits. 45 is in the same spot and has the same color no matter what numbers precede it, whether it’s the number 45, the year 45, or the year 1945. The forties are always dark red, so when I learned that WWII ended in 1945, it was mentally placed as being in the middle of the most recent dark red decade.

54 is not the same color as 45, since the fifties are silver. Negative numbers and BC years are located to my left but do not have an exact location nor a specific color. Numbers/years 2000-2010, and numbers/years 100-110 are past the 90s/1990s on my far right. After that, each century/hundred-number increase loops back to where 11/1911 is. Future years, like 2030 or 2100, get fuzzier the farther into the future I imagine because they haven’t had any events happen yet.

I imagine months in a curvy vertical colorless line, with June-September curving to the left, then October-December returning to the center of the line. Months don’t have specific colors, and days of the week have neither spatial location nor colors.

If I were to compete in a memory contest, I’m guessing my synesthesia would provide me with a natural technique for the historical dates discipline, at least for events that would’ve happened between 1 AD and the current year. I wouldn’t have to teach myself any new techniques for that like I’d need for other disciplines.

More women report having synesthesia than men, whereas the majority of memory athletes are male. I wonder how common synesthesia is for memory athletes and whether they think it helps them if they have it. I’m guessing it wouldn’t ever help with card disciplines or binary digits, but I can imagine it would help with random words, poetry, fictional dates, and decimal digits if someone was competing who experienced letters and numbers as having colors.

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I’m not sure it’s a synaesthetic thing, but I see groups of numbers in colour, depending on the general shape of the group.

Binary is always black and white and leaves me feeling slightly nauseous.