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Dr. Neil Theise's Magnificent Time Wheels

A stem cell pioneer's spatial sequence synesthesia

Dr. Neil Theise

Dr. Neil Theise in the lab by Denise Petrizzo.

Dr. Neil Theise‘s time units exist around him as varying sized wheels in space. He is within the wheel in question, like a hamster, be it an hour of the day or the span of a week, a year or even centuries. Minutes are a small wheel; centuries are so large that it's hard to see where they end. When he wants to hone in on a specific unit, he notices the fluidity of this mental projection.

"I flick it and it moves, like an iPad or an iPhone," he says. He observes two things about this experience: one, that it is very difficult to describe (synesthetes all have this in common and note the ineffable nature of everything from colored music to feeling touch when hearing sound) and two, that it creates a little bit of nausea, like a motion sickness. "It's a thing in motion," he says.

"It does explain a few things to me that I'm good at. I never really keep a calendar, because for the most part I just situate things in the wheels at the appropriate location and as that thing starts to rotate towards me, I'm like, ‘Oh, right: Tuesday! I have an appointment at 10!' "

This is not perfectly reliable for time units way out in the future where the label doesn't always stick to a frame he sees within the wheel, like a roll of film. "But within a week's time I can generally keep a week of appointments in my head. It's not a trivial exercise given how busy I am."

Dr. Neil Theise by David Rodgers.

Dr. Theise is a diagnostic liver pathologist and adult stem cell researcher in New York City, where he is Professor of Pathology and of Medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. His research revised understandings of human liver microanatomy which, in turn, led directly to identification of possible liver stem cell niches and the marrow-to-liver regeneration pathway. He is considered a pioneer of multi-organ adult stem cell plasticity and has published on that topic in Science, Nature, and Cell. He is Director of Liver Pathology at Beth Israel.

Dr. Theise is also very aware of spatial relationships - he's really good if you show him a map. "I'm usually the one in a group who knows how to get somewhere or knows how to trace our way back to where we were."

He thinks that flexibility relates to his spatial-sequence synesthesia somehow, "that space is somehow revolveable."

The wheels move in a space that is open in all directions -- he's not standing on something, but is physically within it. It doesn't directly appear to extend infinitely but he doesn't experience any boundaries, just the wheels moving.

When he meditates and loses a sense of his body being a finite form limited by his skin, he feels it is a similar sort of experience. "It's as though I'm in that time-space in my head but now the world around me is feeling like that."

The Kalachakra wheel of time.

Dr. Theise has been practicing Zen Buddhism for 25 years and feels the meditation allows him to understand the time sensations more precisely and clearly. He also feels a bit like a "student-from-afar" of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, every few years encountering him, by plan or happenstance, at one teaching or conference or another. But, interestingly, one of his earliest encounters was when His Holiness did a mass presentation of his signature teaching of the Kalachakra in Madison Square Garden in 1991. "I only recently connected up that my synesthesia is the Kalachakra, which means 'Wheel of Time'! Maybe that's why, despite being a Zen student, I keep coming back to His Holiness in one way or another."

I ask the superior biologist if there are any advantages in human evolution to his synesthesia. "Well, back when people didn't have paper and writing if someone like me could organize the calendar of my tribe and keep it straight, would I become known as the person to turn to find out when's the next holiday? Could that be functionally important for the larger group?''

He has noticed since medical school that his relationship with time extends to waking up five minutes before his alarm clock goes off - very useful given his busy days - and in his present life he knows when a meditation period at the Village Zendo where he practices is going to end. He notes this extends to a sense of rhythm and how he loves to and is good at sounding bells and blocks during meditation sessions. He also plays piano and notices this timing is useful there.

He is known as a creative researcher and wonders if his synesthesia plays a role. "The ease with which I can conjure images and this sense of being in an alternate space in my imagination is part of my creativity."

A young Dr. Theise at work, left.

He became interested in physics as a 12-year-old boy and was captured by Einstein's method of conducting "thought experiments." He realized later the ways he works things out in research now are very similar to that construct.

"When I started doing my stem cell research, in particular how bone marrow cells can circulate through the body and become stem cells for other organs, the night I actually saw the first experiment give results, which proved that bone marrow cells can travel to the liver and become liver cells, which ‘shouldn't' happen according to old dogma, that was a very profound moment of discovery, which very much felt like, to use a Christian term, like a moment of grace. How was I given access to that?"

He then did a thought experiment about what this means. "Einstein famously wondered what it would be like to ride on a light beam, triggering some of his thinking about special relativity. So I saddled up on the stem cell and traveled with it. And the space in which I was traveling was this the same kind of space as the space in which I experience time: open, unbounded, freely rotated."

To learn more about Dr. Theise's work, go to

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