What does it look like inside your head?
I am asked this very question a lot in interviews, especially by psychologists.
The first time I asked myself this question was when I started watching Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, we see Lizzie, a blonde, bubbly middle schooler played by Hillary Duff accompanied by a cartoon version of herself representing her inner thoughts.
As a fourth grader, I thought this was really cool. I could relate to how on the outside she stayed composed but on the inside her little cartoon self was angry, embarrassed or scared.
So I imagined my own little cartoon character that spoke to what was actually going on in my head. She looked a lot like Lizzie McGuire’s cartoon, only I put her hair up in a ponytail, gave her a lime green tank-top, a jean skirt, and a pink scrunchie on her wrist (because it was 2003).
I remember my little cartoon clone being something entertaining to think about when I was sitting through Tuesday Morning Mass or Stations of the Cross at my Catholic Elementary School. I would picture her complaining about the smelly boy next to me or the parent volunteer at the end of the pew who was singing too loud for her given vocal abilities. Some days my little cartoon would swoon with how excited I was that the boy I liked was sitting in the pew right behind me.
Another, more recent, example of picturing our own thoughts and thought processes comes from Disney Pixar’s animated film Inside Out. In this story, a young girl named Riley moves from Minnesota to California and we as the audience are able to see inside of her brain. Five of the main characters are her emotions: joy, disgust, fear, anger and sadness who journey through her brain. Different sections of this vast land inside Riley’s head include her dreams, imaginary friends, hobbies, knowledge banks, and memories.
Riley’s memories are represented by little balls, each different colors representing the emotions she was feeling when the memory was encoded. They are stored in a large library looking place where memories can be sent up to Riley’s conscious mind at any time.
Looking inside my own head as a child, I had a wild imagination filled with a lot of color, like Riley’s. I was the kid with dozens of imaginary friends, I would make my own picture books- boxes upon boxes full, and I would always make up stories using Beanie Babies or Play Mobiles (of which I created an entire city of in our basement).
However, what really sticks out to me, knowing what I know now, is how I did and still do conceptualize numbers.
I always pictured numbers on a path, almost like a game board with a clear beginning and end (not going in circles like Monopoly). I remember being made fun of once in the third grade for counting on my figures because this was passed the point you should be counting on your fingers apparently. But in my head I wasn’t just counting, I was walking along my path of numbers.
Different sections of my number path are different colors too. One through ten is orange, eleven through nineteen are a deep, navy blue. This leads into the 20s which are purple, 30s green, 40s dark blue again, 50s yellow, 60s orange, 70s green, 80s more of a sky blue, 90s purple and then all the numbers from 100 up are just black.
Not only does my number appear in my head when doing math, but actually when it mostly applied as a kid is when I pictured someone’s age.
I vividly remember being in my granparent’s living room as a four-year-old celebrating my grandfather’s birthday. They lived in a little townhouse in the middle of Hamond, Indiana, and had a living room over decorated with flowers, Catholic worship symbols, and different versions of the white crowned eagle from the Polish flag. So basically picture the Vatican meets Warsaw in a green house.
Sitting next to my dad on their plastic covered couch, I asked him how old my grandpa was turning, and he said “80”.
That was the first time I ever heard of the number “80”. I had never counted that high before. So I started asking my dad questions about numbers, like what came before 80? And what came before 70? And as he listed the numbers for me, my number path began to form. I could see people along the line when he told me that grandma was 74 and mom was 37.
But then when I was 11-years-old something strange began to happen.
My little cartoon, Lizzie McGuire self I had created as a nine-year-old while bored in the pews of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was uprooted from a corner of my brain and dropped in the middle of a number path.
But this was a new number path I had never visualized before– it was a calendar.
This calendar path was just as colorful as my other number path, but it had days and months. And instead of the decades of numbers illuminating colors, the months did instead. February was pink, March green, April blue, May purple, June green and yellow somehow at the same time, July red and blue at the same time, August a golden yellow, September brown, October orange, November maroon and December a bright ruby.
But one month was missing- January. Where was January?
And this is when I made a strange discovery, my path started on February 12th, 2005. Anything before that is not on any sort of calendar. There are just random dates in my life I knew like my birthday and Christmas floating around in my memory, but no path. Finally, January was only formed when 2006 rolled around, born as a crystal blue with hints of snowy white.
Not only could I see the path, I could also mentally walk along it.
As long as it was in the past, I could get myself to it. In the middle of July, real time, I could mentally walk back to Easter Sunday- March 27th, 2005. Then I was able to run along to other days like our trip to Disney World in May. And when I went to a square on the path, I could dive right in the day. And there I would be on May 13th, flying on a plane to Orlando out of the Green Bay airport (yes they have an airport) sitting next to my cousins Ken and Nick. Ken using a portable CD player to listen to my copy of Now That’s What I Call Music 14, which I told him was “so last year” as the rest of the world was already on Now 18.
As new years began, December would attach to January and a new path would begin to form. And this path was not simply flat numbers like my other path. This calendar came to life with memories.
These things ranged from things in my life to current events I had heard about. When I walk to the end of August 2005 I see flood waters crashing, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina I saw on the news. And if I jumped three years later to August 2008, I can see the summer Olympics in Beijing, China that I watched from my home in Green Bay after we returned from our vacation to the Grand Canyon.
All this happening inside my head, I was the only one who could see this breathtaking, living calendar. So I started to talk about it.
I heard other people reference dates all the time in terms of anniversaries and birthdays. A lot of people remembered the day of big events like graduations or knew specific dates of holidays. But it became clear to me that my mental calendar was unique when I would casually comment, “Easter was on March 27th last year.” People were perplexed as to how I knew that and also seemed very skeptical of my accuracy.
I knew my dates of memories were correct, I could feel it in my bones. But what if for some reason it was not? What if the skeptics were right? What if I was just somehow making it all up? I always had a pretty wild imagination after all.
So in early 2007, I decided to check.
My mom kept a large bin of photos and other memorabilia in our basement. As I dug through the piles of birthday cards, pictures from disposable cameras, and old result sheets from figure skating competitions, I finally found what I was looking for: a paper booklet with the title Swan Synchro Skate 2005.
Why a city named Beaver Dam calls itself “Swan City” is still beyond me. No matter how many pictures of Swans their figure skating club tried to hang up around the ice rink or put on competition apparel, I still picture a large, brown furry animal with buck teeth when I thought of a town named Beaver Dam. Regardless, that was the name of their competition “Swan Synchro Skate”.
This wasn’t just any figure skating competition, many people don’t know there is such a thing as synchronized figure skating. “Synchro” as we call it in the figure skating world is when a team of 12-20 people on the ice are skating in uniform. I lived and breathed synchronized skating for ten years.
The day I was at this particular synchro competition was the first day I could remember so vividly. This was where my memory became different and the calendar path began. And I had to know: was this competition, that took place almost two years ago now, actually held on the days I saw it in my brain?
I could see it all so clearly, arriving at our American Inn hotel that Saturday. Our team skating to The Pink Panther at the competition the next day.
I opened to the first page and there were the dates: February 12th and 13th, 2005.
First I was relieved to find out I was in fact right, but then I was taken back by the power I had, really had.
Other people with HSAM have just reported a simple calendar in their brain, like any ordinary calendar you would see hanging on the wall of someone’s office. I’m not sure exactly why mine involves a form of Synesthesia and looks more like a road of a long journey rather than a page in a person planner. But I feel like without the florescent colors illuminating on my path of memories, remembering would be harder for me.
So I challenge you to think- what does it look like inside your head? What do you see when you conceptualize dates, numbers, and memories? What is unique about the way you think?
Who knows, maybe your perspective will change the world one day? Mine did.