How is your mind different from everyone else's?

Partially to help reduce the typical mind fallacy and partially because I'm curious, I'm thinking about writing either an essay or a book with plenty of examples about ways by which human minds differ. From commonly known and ordinary, like differences in sexual orientation, to the rare and seemingly impossible, like motion blindness.

To do this, I need to start collecting examples. In what ways does your mind differ from what you think is the norm for most people?

I'm particularly interested in differences - small or large - that you didn't realize for a long time, automatically assuming that everyone was like you in that regard. It can even be something as trivial as always having conceptualized the passing of years as a visual timeline, and then finding out that not everyone does so. I'm also interested in links to blog posts where people talk about their own mental peculiarities, even if you didn't write them yourself. Also books and academic articles that you might think could be relevant.

Some of the content that I'm thinking about including are cultural differences in various things as recounted in the WEIRD article, differences in sexual and romantic orientation (such as mono/poly), differences in the ability to recover from setbacks, extroversion vs. introversion in terms of gaining/losing energy from social activity, differences in visualization ability, various cognitive differences ranging from autism to synesthesia to an inability to hear music in particular, differences in moral intuitions, differences in the way people think (visual vs. verbal vs. conceptual vs. something that I'm not aware of yet), differences in thinking styles (social/rational, reflectivity vs. impulsiveness) and various odd brain damage cases.

If you find this project interesting, consider spreading the link to this post or resharing my Google Plus update about it. Also, if you don't want to reply in public, feel free to send me a private message.

266 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:25 AM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelines: expand_more

It can even be something as trivial as always having conceptualized the passing of years as a visual timeline, and then finding out that not everyone does so.

I visualise numbers in a strange way. All people with whom I have talked about this (there weren't many) said to visualise numbers on a line or a circle. My image, on the other hand, has many sharp turns. I have put it here. The round turns in the picture aren't visualised as such; instead when thinking about numbers lying there, the whole picture turns around to maintain orientation while keeping the curved sections straight.

Whoa, that's awesome.

That also made me realize that I, too, have several visualizations for numbers, all of which are perceived in slightly different ways. The visualizations for generic numbers as well as years mostly resemble sort of horizontal lines, though with many "layers", which I can't fully describe. The ones for hours in the day and months in a year are circles. Temperatures are a vertical line, with differing colors above and below 0 degrees Celsius.

The year timeline is probably the most interesting, as it has several regions: the 1990s look different from the 1980s or 2000s, but it's hard to describe exactly how. The 1980s are pretty dark in color, with the 1990s much lighter. At 2001 there's a kind of an association to images of 9/11 and the day when I heard about it. 2005-2006 has pictures of my siviilipalvelus period. Late 1930s up to 1945 have pictures of Europe and Germany, and 1945-1949 or so have pictures of Roswell/Area 51 and generic US Air Force bases. The time around 0 AD has pictures of the Mediterranean and Rome, while "the time of the dinosaurs" has pictures of the Earth from space. The future is kind of a grey fog. There are a bunch of other years with their own images as well.

There is a differing resolution in the timeline depending on how well I happen to know the period: for the 1990s and the WW2 period I can see each year separately, and they're clearly marked, while e.g. the 1950-1980 period is much more indistinct.

At various points the timeline seems to head in different directions: the 1990s are left-to-right, the 1940s are right-to-left, and 0 AD is down-to-up. I don't actually see the timeline making any sharp turns, however: the regions just gradually fade into each other.

Although the color matching is completely different from mine, it's interesting to know that this kind of trait is not totally uncommon. Any guess about what's originating it?

If you're like me, you played with cube blocks as a child with colored numbers on them. I wonder how we'd go about testing that hypothesis.

I honestly don't remember, but it's definitely a possibility. About testing this hypothesys... well we could create an army of baby clones and when they grow up we can still use them to conquer the world ;)

I also have colors associated to all kind of concepts: time periods, numbers, letters, tastes, music genres, even people.

E.g., my timeline is a ladder, where early universe era is dark blue, dinosaurs time is bright green, human prehistory is brown, 0 AD is yellow/orange and medieval times are light blue. Modern to contemporary era is detailed to a finer scale, e.g. the seventies are purple, the eighties are azure, nineties are yellow and 00s are white.

However, this is a very general thing: each time I recall some concept from my mind, my inner google also returns the color associated with it.

You're probably right! I wasn't aware this was a known and reported condition.

I find this amazing. I have no visualization for numbers at all. I do have weak color associations, though:

The associations are stronger for 1-6 than 7-9, and usually only noticeable when appearing as groups of consecutive digits, eg 34. I don't actually perceive the numbers as being those colors when I see them on a page, but they have the colors in my mental imagery.

I'm in an almost entirely similar place with number synaesthesia: absolutely no positional awareness for them, and colours for each digit. If I visualise a longer number I visualise the digits as being different colours.

Interestingly, I have the same colours as you for 1, 2 and 3, then:

4 - green 5 - pink 6 - light blue 7 - gold 8 - dark green 9 - dark orange 0 - grey/colourless.

Unlike you, all my colour associations are equally strong, and very usefully, even digits are cold colours, and odd digits warm colours.

I also have colour associations for some but not all letters (but English isn't my first language), and some but not all music notes. I suspect that these associations arose partly from the number colours, but I have no idea why "w" is the same green as "8", and "f" the colour for 5 and not 4.

It's interesting that you put history on there. I also have a history timeline that's separate from my generic number line, but I don't think I'd seen that mentioned before in what I'd read about spatial-sequence synesthesia (see my reply to jsalvatier).

At some point I realized I had a line like this for just about any sequence of things I've ever thought of. Besides the ones you've mentioned: days of the week, months of the year, grades in school, etc.

My sequence lines are not all totally unique though. For example, on the history timeline the years within a century just follow the pattern of the numbers from 1 to 100, and for me minutes/seconds and temperatures fall on the normal number line.

I have lines for weekdays and months, but they are trivial (the mont sequence turns 90 degrees right in the middle of June, on 1st September, just before Christmas and on 1st January, forming a rectangle. The weekday line turns right before and after the weekend, so two weeks together make a rectangle.

My lines can also have a fractal substructure - if looking in a detail on a particular region, further turns appear, usually inherited from the general number line or another relevant line or part of it. This may not be compatible with the overall structure: for example, from greater distance the stretch from 1910 to 1920 is a straight line, but in detail, any single year has the "closed rectangle" structure, beginning and ending in the same point.

To help understanding the interplay of cultural bias and synesthesia, this is the hopefully full list of turns in my history line when looked at in detail (the probable cause for the turn - a historical event or other thing - is in parentheses)

  1. cca. 220 B.C. uncertain direction, perhaps multiple turns (Punic wars)
  2. 40 B.C. right (end of the Roman republic)
  3. 30 B.C. - 0 A.D. left 180° curved
  4. 0 A.D. or 14 A.D. right (beginning of millenium / death of Augustus; context dependent)
  5. during 1st century left curved
  6. cca. 70 A.D. uncertain, probably left - right - right (end of Claudian dynasty, destruction of Pompeii)
  7. 100 right (end of century)
  8. 110/114/120 left (generic number 20 / conquests of Traian)
  9. 130 left (generic number 30)
  10. 150 - 200 right curved (to return to previous direction?)
  11. cca. 330 uncertain (Christianity official in Rome)
  12. 476 right (fall of Rome)
  13. cca. 500 left (maintaining direction?)
  14. 6th-8th century right curved
  15. 880 left (generic number 80)
  16. 890 left (generic number 90)
  17. 900 right (generic number 100)
  18. 910 right (generic number 10)
  19. 920 left (generic number 20 / assassination of Wenceslaus I)
  20. 1000 right (end of millenium)
  21. 1300 uncertain
  22. 1310 balances the 1300 change
  23. cca. 1350 left and then curved right (battle of Crécy)
  24. 1410 right (generic number 10)
  25. 1415 45° left (execution of John Huss)
  26. 1420 45° left (generic number 20)
  27. 1420-1435 curved right (Hussite wars)
  28. 1492/1500 left, perhaps right-left-left series (discovery of the Americas / end of century; context dependent)
  29. 1526 right (battle of Mohács)
  30. 1530 left (restoring direction / generic number 30)
  31. cca. 1580 right
  32. 1618 / 1620 left (Thirty Years' War)
  33. 1700 right (end of century)
  34. 1789/1790 right (French revolution)
  35. 1800 left (end of century)
  36. around 1810 left-left (for uncertain reasons the generic number 20 and 30 turns are placed here; perhaps the second turn is 1813 because that's when the oldest surviving locomotive was built, but certainly it is before Waterloo)
  37. around 1830 curved right
  38. 1846-1850 curved left - right - right - curved left (revolutions of 1848)
  39. 1890 left, maybe preceded by right - left (generic number 90)
  40. 1900 right (end of century)
  41. 1910 right (generic number 10)
  42. 1914 left-right (World War I)
  43. 1918/1920 left (end of WWI / generic number 20)
  44. 1930 left (Great Depression)
  45. 1933 right (Nazis come to power)
  46. 1938-1940 curved left (WWII / generic number 30 moved here)
  47. 1945 uncertain (end of WWII, usually a month line is put here when looked at in a greater detail)
  48. 1956-1968 curved left - curved 180° right
  49. 1968/1970 left (Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia)
  50. 1990 uncertain (end of Cold War)
  51. 2000 right (end of millenium)

Yeah, mine have that substructure-available-on-zoom too. It seems pretty clear that our brains are doing the same thing here. Out of curiosity, do you feel that you read more quickly or more slowly than others? I'm a very slow reader -- my silent reading speed is about on par with my reading-aloud speed, and I've sometimes wondered if this is connected at all to my tendency to visualize things, or is completely unrelated.

On the other hand, I think having a detailed timeline helps me to remember when events took place. I've noticed on movie rounds at pub trivia that I'm often able to make more use than some of my teammates of the year a movie was released, if that information was given, to rule out possible answers -- not because I know the exact dates of when many movies came out, but because if I'm familiar with the film at all, then I have a general sense of where it should go on my timeline. (Disclaimer: it's quite possible that this is all just confirmation bias on my part.)

Out of curiosity, do you feel that you read more quickly or more slowly than others?

I have no idea how quickly others read. My silent reading is generally faster than reading aloud, but the speed depends on what I am reading and I am not sure how big the difference is.

One of the Seattle LessWrong meetup attenders described his mild synesthesia in the same way you've described and claimed he read a book about people having similar number lines (with cultural differences).

It was these essays (The Visions of Sane Persons and Visualised Numerals), linked from the number form wikipedia article.

I think the cultural differences thing was just my conjecture, because the recorded number forms (as well as my own) often had turns at twelve and then subsequently at the decades, which led me to believe that they were probably based on the cadence of counting in English (one, two, three... ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen... nineteen, twenty, twenty-one... twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, etc.). Whereas a Spanish speaker might be likely to develop a number form with a turn at 15 instead of 12, and a Chinese speaker to develop one with turns just at the decades.

(Sorry if my English comes across as odd or bland; I'm tired and my feel for the language might be off.)

Here's a bit of a confession, because I feel like it.

I was diagnosed with encephalopathy of some kind when I was 19. Can't recall the specifics right now, but the gist of it is, I was born with brain damage. Due to that I've been suffering from a severe attention deficit, frequent emotional turbulence or periods of apathy, and rather unpleasant failures of willpower throughout my life, growing particularly troublesome around the last year of high school. I used to be rather disfunctional socially and emotionally, and found myself growing very nihilistic, neglectful and careless of myself and others.

I used to had a few good, true friends at school - despite being very introverted and getting tired of any company easily - but they all drifted away after graduation. Entering a state university and coping with most classes was trivially easy for me (my IQ is 135, and I simply enjoy reading up on a broad range of humanities on my own), but I flunked after my first year for three times in a row (due to hardly attending at all after the first month, neglecting to study for finals and failing to hand in papers). Didn't make any permanent acquaintances at uni, in part because of my prosopagnosia, in part because of my becoming rather callous to people.

As a child I had a great deal of empathy, but it hurt me, so my shell grew way too tough and I eventually started taking comfort in not caring for anyone; I frequently dreamed of my family/parents dying and me inheriting their small fortune, I lied to my parents habitually and took a sadistic kick of them being hurt by it, I hated the very thought of anyone being dependent of me and looking to me for aid, etc.

Then, in one winter week, things changed. I watched the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and my shell was utterly shattered. It was a moment of utter catharsis for me. My fears, shames and anxieties were all laid bare in Shinji, and in following his story I learned of a way to remake myself. During a month of internal strife, I reconsidered my core values and found a new sense of ethics. My social anxiety is also gone; whereas previously I was hesitant to initiate any social contact, now I'm unafraid to try, occasionally fail and lose status, yet learn and suffer virtually no embarrassment. I'm often seen as eccentric, to put it generously, but it's still a hell of a lot better than what I used to resign myself to.

That was about 3 years ago, and in that time I have reforged the bonds with my immediate family (some considerable issues remain, like fits of hysteria or times when I lie pathologically, but it's nothing like the giant cold-hearted deception on my part that it used to be). I also realized my bisexuality and got into a relationship with an awesome guy who's greatly creative and truly sympathetic of me. (it's long-distance sadly, we only met a couple of times so far, but the total contact and connection between us was the best thing that ever happened in my life). All that helped me get my life moving; I'm finally making an honest effort to get an education in a field I enjoy (social work). I still have a lot of issues, and I'm going to need more professional help with my condition, perhaps more medication too, but what I'm certain of is that NGE was a helping hand when I needed it most and expected it least. No wonder I became a rather obsessive fanboy :)

I was intending to write a bit more, but I'm falling asleep. Damn, this ramble is unlikely to earn me much karma, and I'm being way too forthcoming about myself. Eh, I wanted to confess about all that to people that are high-status in my eyes, so here you go.


Maybe someone should do some study about that peculiar group of depressed and/or psychopathological people who were significantly mentally kicked by NGE. Of course it's all anecdotal right now, but I really have the impression (especially after spending some time at EvaGeeks... ) that NGE produces a recurring pattern of effect on a cluster of people, moreover, that effect is much more dramatic than what is usual in art.

NGE produces a recurring pattern of effect on a cluster of people, moreover, that effect is much more dramatic than what is usual in art.

The funny thing is, the more I research Evangelion - interview people, translate or transcribe obscure interviews and articles, etc. - the less I find any real depth to it but the more I admire Anno & co.'s intuitive skill with cinematography and improvisation.

What do you mean by real depth? In cinema, isn't skilled cinematography included in that? If I recall correctly, I've read from you somewhere that you think most of NGE's narrative/mythological background is an impromptu, leaky mess (which I mostly agree with), so you might mean that by lack of real depth, but that doesn't subtract much from NGE's overall success at thematic exposition, so I'm still not fully getting it.

In cinema, isn't skilled cinematography included in that?

I'm not a cinema person, so I don't really know. I approach my anime from essentially a New Wave SF literary standpoint.

Yeah, I posted about my experience on the Evageeks forums once, and quite a few people expressed something similar in response.

I don't imagine it would have nearly as much of an effect on people who aren't familiar with anime. But I would read that study in a heartbeat if it existed.

I'm not sure how common or rare this is, but the visual images I recall are stunningly lacking in detail. For example, in the case of people, even with someone I know very well, it is rare for me to be able to report so much as their hair color on the basis of the mental image I call up when I try to think of them. I don't seem to have any unusual difficulty recognizing people, or any tendency to confuse my various mental images with one another, and the mental images don't seem incomplete until I start thinking about questions like how to describe them. I'm sure I would be completely useless to a police sketch artist if I were ever a witness to a crime.

I don't know if this is fair, because it's not me, but a family member of mine credibly claims to have no conscious visual memory. For example, when she drives down a highway which she has driven many times before, she doesn't automatically recognize the different parts of the highway as I do, without effort; she has to remember specific facts about where things are (like, I take exit 102 to get to place X, which is after a radio tower and then a curve) and then apply those facts to know where she is. She cannot picture her house in her head; she recognizes it by remembering salient features of its exterior. In contrast, her semantic memory and general cognitive ability is exceptional.

Some tasks, like playing games or solving problems that lean on visual and spatial imagination (e.g. the IQ test problems where you fold shapes up) are very difficult for her, although some of those can also be hacked around by remembering relationships (the dot is on the side clockwise from the square, etc.) According to her, she didn't even realize that other people had this capability in a different way until she was college-age or so.

Personally, I have what I think is above-average visual and spatial imagery -- I play chess and see the pieces moving in my head, I read fiction and imagine the settings and characters, and so on. I guess it takes all sorts.

I have 5 distinct experiences of vision. They are each qualitatively very different.

  • Seeing - When my eyes are open, I see the world around me. I believe this is the standard sense "vision".
  • Static - When my eyes are closed, my visual field is mostly colored static, not very bright. Like static on old TVs, but definitely colored.
  • Eddies and Afterimage - I can create extremely limited pictures out of Static, nothing more complex than the union of a few very simple shapes. Blobs or occasionally lines.
  • Mental Imagery - Bright images as distinct as Seeing, but fleeting and not directly caused by photons.
  • Imagination - No visual change, but I "know" what the object looks like or how it is moving. If my coffee mug were to grow legs and walk away, aside from the visual phenomena I would know I was seeing my coffee mug growing legs and walking away and that that was really happening. Imagination is just the middle - the knowing what I am seeing, without any of the visual phenomena or the really-happening sense.

When my eyes are open, Static is still present, but in most cases my brain edits it out and reports only Seeing. When I am looking at a solid color or just paying careful attention it is clear Static is still present. I did not realize this before making an effort to investigate what I am actually Seeing.

Until I read Yvain's Generalizing from One Example post I believed that what I'm calling Imagination is what everyone did when they said they were visualizing. I only have Mental Imagery rarely: sometimes when on the boundary of sleeping and waking or after minutes of effort during meditation. These images are distinct and lasting enough to, say, read about half a line of text from a Mental Image of a page of a book. My memories of the experience of Mental Imagery and of the experience of images seen while dreaming seem to feel the same. I have not been able to focus on these long enough to tell if they have background Static, as paying much attention to them leads directly to their disappearance and the realization that I am now seeing Static and Eddies while looking at the back of my eyelids.

"Static" might be visual snow. I have it, and in my case it's probably due to lots of staring at computer monitors over the years.

The description of visual noise on Wikipedia describes my "Static" fairly accurately.

Your descriptions of 'static' and 'eddies and afterimage' match my younger experiences, and I just realized that I no longer have these visual phenomena. I used to see them as vivid blue and red dots when I closed my eyes.

I do this too, but only for faces. I have detailed mental images of things like buildings and circuit diagrams, but I don't have good mental pictures of people's faces. I don't have too much trouble recognizing people (though I suspect I am below-average at it), but I can't visualize or describe anyone's face when I'm not near them.

Likewise, when I'm reading fiction, I don't have clear mental pictures of what the characters' faces look like.

I have very limited ability to visualize images or to imagine/remember sounds.

The weird thing is that sometimes with fiction, I'll feel as though I know what a character looks like, even though I can't visualize it. This is strong with Tolkien (the movie hobbits were wrong, wrong, wrong), while with Bujold, I simply have no idea what the characters look like. Having a sensory experience with fiction is so rare it seems like a miracle.

At the same time, if fiction has too few sensory cues, I'm apt to feel disconnected and uninterested. This is especially notable with military science fiction-- and it may be related to my having more problems with telling people apart if they're wearing uniforms.

I've wondered if what fiction people like has something to do with brainwave similarities between the author and the readers.

The weird thing is that sometimes with fiction, I'll feel as though I know what a character looks like, even though I can't visualize it. This is strong with Tolkien (the movie hobbits were wrong, wrong, wrong

So they were, and Galadriel was even more wrong.

It may be the reverse spirit of the post, but voted up for putting to words what I've best said as "I can't describe person X, but if you have them in a crowd I can find them."

I have this too, though I've moderated it some by explicitly practicing the skill. I essentially never see people's faces when visualizing what they're doing, nor when I'm dreaming.

I'd already learned that, to be able to remember's people's names later, I had to make an actual effort to repeat their name to myself while I was looking at them. So, I then started consciously trying to notice details about people's appearance when I first met them - what's their hair color, what color are their eyes, what are they wearing and carrying. Eventually, this effort became a habit. Now, I usually do this automatically when I first meet someone, and I remember more of those details.

As to what they're wearing and carrying, I'm practising to avoid relying on this too much now. I've gotten into trouble before by remembering people by what they're wearing when I'm introduced to them instead of by their faces. :/

I have abnormally good memory in some respects. Dates, time-passed-since, and sources are hard to remember, but stories, phrases, quotes, noteworthy or unexpected events, and some portions of conversations are accessible word-for-word years later - an example would be telling an amusing story to a friend who'd been the original source of the story, and using the same words they did to describe it to me years ago, which more than a little unsettled them.

As far as I can tell I have no feeling of this kind of memory as opposed to any other; it all feels constantly available, there's no 'lookup' or 'let me think' feeling at all. Up until recently I have never had the 'tip of the tongue' phenomenon (it's either available or not and I automatically know which without question), but I've been practicing trying to remember things I think I can't, and I think I've had this feeling once or twice.

If I may ask: how old are you?

I used to have the same ability (and am still well above average) but it's lessened over the past 3 years or so. I've been trying to work out whether it's due to a) age (greater number of life experiences and/or memory naturally less good), b) studies (prioritising studied material over episodic memory), c) greater socialisation (I used to be fairly isolated, so it's possible that there were just fewer noteworthy things to remember), d) some other factor.

And relatedly: do you also have that sense of frustration when people keep repeating themselves over multiple conversations? It took me a long time to realise that they weren't doing it on purpose and that not everyone can remember what they've said to who in the past.

I can live with repetition over multiple conversations, but prefer it if the person will let me mention that I've heard and remember what they said.

What drives me crazy is the extent to which most people repeat themselves in the same conversation. I may not be doing anyone a favor by pointing this out-- but if you listen, you'll find that the real world sounds rather like Waiting for Godot, though the topics are more varied.

I have concluded professionally that I am far more effective when I repeat myself often in conversations: I get more evidence later that the information I was conveying actually gets across.

I have yet to decide whether it's because people mostly don't understand and/or forget what I've said, so repeating myself increases the odds of a particular message getting across, or because people understand repetition to be an indicator of importance, or for some other reason.

It frustrates me, but I try to do what works rather than what I think ought to work.

That's a good point. Do you have a way of telling whether what you're saying has registered, or do you use a heuristic that a certain number of repetitions is likely to work?

My impression is that a lot of repetition isn't strategic, it's nervousness (I think people are more likely to repeat themselves when they're looking for support and feel unsure of getting it) or making sure they get more time in the conversation.

I came to the conclusion that repetition is valuable by looking at how often, after giving a presentation in which I convey certain facts, the audience subsequently follows up in ways that make it clear that they neither retained the facts nor the awareness that I'd presented those facts. When I started making a point of repeating my key points several times during a presentation, tying it back to multiple different topics and multiple different questions, the incidence of that sort of followup question dropped.

That said, I haven't done a careful study, and I could easily be misattributing the result to the wrong cause. For that matter, I could easily be perceiving a result that isn't actually there. Humans make those sorts of errors all the time.

I agree that a lot of repetition is nervousness, and that a lot of it is an attempt to grab floor-time. (I'm not sure I'd call the latter nonstrategic.)

I also think a lot of repetition is an attempt to maintain control of the attention of the group. (As in:
A: "X"
B: "Y"
C: "NOT(Y)"
A: "X."

Looking back at this, it occurs to me that I may have misunderstood your question and thus answered a different one that you meant to ask. There are things that I take as real-time indications that what I've said has registered -- for example, being able to answer questions or to ask sensible ones -- and things that I take as indicators that it hasn't, such as asking questions I've already answered. When I'm talking to groups I often get neither, unless I've done enough prep to create exercises specifically intended to obtain them,

If the person you're talking to is distracted by another task or has a short attention span, they may appreciate repetition, for example if the person you're talking to is distracted by another task or has a short attention span. (I have accidentally sounded like this in LW comments before.)

Currently 22. The effect was present and seemingly unaffected moving from early school (no study) to final few years of school (lots of study) to university (some study) to current day (very little study). I've always been highly social, can't rule that out.

And yes! It's not quite as frustrating for me as it is for them, because I finish their stories for them, sometimes in the words they were going to use. I'm guilty of the same thing, though - I find it hard to remember which stories come from where. It's only once the person begins the story that the rest of the story becomes available.