When you think of someone born with autism, you might imagine a sad person confined in his own little world, estranged from society and unable to express or describe what’s actually going on his mind. Not so with Daniel Tammet. Classed as an autistic savant, Daniel is gifted with uncanny mathematical abilities. He can calculate answers to long mathematical problems in seconds, and apparently without any real effort – he calls it ‘mathematics without thinking’. And, unique for someone who displays aspects of autism, he can describe how he does it.
(ABC News, June 2005)
Professor Allan Snyder at the Australian National University describes Tammet’s situation thus:
‘Seeing’ number shapes
He sees numbers not as the vague, indistinct values that the rest of us are saddled with. To him they are all three dimensional and unique, with their own shapes and colours and personalities, as they have been since his childhood fascination with counting.
Daniel Tammet ‘sees’ every number up to 10,000 as having a unique ‘personality’. They each have their own shape, colour, texture and feel. He has described some numbers as ugly, others as attractive, pi as ‘beautiful’, and 25 as “the kind of number you would invite to a party”. Number 6, though, he sees as very vague and what he describes as “an almost small nothingness”. These types of descriptions seem outlandish to most of us, but then most of us aren’t high-functioning autistic savants!
When he does a calculation he sees the shapes interacting. If he’s doing a multiplication, for example, he will see the two numbers next to one another and in a few moments, as they come together, he will see a third shape slot neatly into the gap between them … it will be the product of the two he started with.
The Boy with the Incredible Brain
Why can’t we all see numbers like this? Researchers are busy testing Daniel Tammet to try to find the answer. They’re using MRI scans to study his brain in action. Is his brain different from ours in some fundamental way? Was it changed forever by the epileptic fits he suffered as a child? Whatever the answer, Daniel now has the ability to calculate the answer to a mathematical puzzle effortlessly, and faster than an average person could check a grocery bill.
He featured in a television documentary, “The Boy with the Incredible Brain“, in which it was suggested that the work of the two hemispheres of his brain might have become ‘scrambled’ due to his childhood head injury, with parts of one taking over the roles normally associated with the other. This might explain why he ‘sees’ numbers, when to the rest of us they are just … well, numbers. The medical term is synaesthesia, meaning the confusing of sensations in the mind that are usually separate (seeing words as colours, hearing a screeching number, feeling the heat of a sound, that kind of thing).
Of course, we all use colours and highly descriptive phraseology to describe emotional states – I’m feeling blue, red with rage, blindingly obvious, yellow streak of cowardice, wearing a loud tie, black for death/horror/mystery/evil, red or danger, etc – but Tammet takes it to a whole new level. We also use colours to influence emotional states, as in interior décor, where soft pastels can create a relaxed mood, or ‘muted’ tones can calm the patients in a waiting room (and isn’t ‘muted tones’ a phrase blending sound and colour?).
Reciting pi, the ‘beautiful’ number
If you can recite pi to 50 or 100 digits you can rightly look on that as quite an achievement. Daniel Tammet’s achievement in reciting pi is of a somewhat higher level – he holds the European record for reciting pi, and he did it to an astonishing 22,514 digits! This gargantuan task took place on 14 March 2004, and it took him five hours and nine minutes. Even the invigilators checking the reams and reams of printed numbers looked exhausted!
For him, I guess, it was like looking at a fascinating video and describing it, scene by scene, as it unfolded. Somehow, as he was reciting pi, he was ‘translating’ the landscape into strings of numbers. Linking numbers to other, more tactile things to aid memorisation is nothing new, but this is so far beyond the norm that researchers, and even memory champions, are left scratching their heads in wonder at what he does.
As one of the onlookers commented as Daniel was reciting pi,
Not content with already speaking about ten languages (and working on creating his own, which he calls Manti), Daniel accepted a challenge to learn Icelandic … in a week. This was for the documentary, “The Boy with the Incredible Brain”. And Icelandic, as it turns out, is a particularly difficult language to learn, since it has sounds unique to that language, and notoriously difficult for non-Icelandic speakers to master.
At the end of the week he was interviewed on Icelandic television, in Icelandic, and he was able to hold a fairly fluent conversation. Even his teacher was astonished!
Website, paintings, books …
Daniel now has his own website, www.optimnem.co.uk, which in itself is amazing for a person with autistic tendencies. He offers lessons in French and Spanish, and sells prints of his own paintings – number/shape landscapes that he painted to illustrate what he sees in his mind when he is working on a problem. The site also lists details of his books, Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky. From the description of Born on a Blue Day, we glimpse the more usual aspects of an autistic person:
Booklist’s Ray Olson states that Daniel Tammet’s autobiography Born on a Blue Day is “as fascinating as Benjamin Franklin’s and John Stuart Mill’s” and that Tammet wrote “some of the clearest prose this side of Hemingway”. Professor Allan Snyder called his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, ‘an extraordinary and monumental achievement’.
Nowadays, Daniel travels widely and gives lectures, often appearing on TV chat shows to demonstrate his amazing abilities. He has been on 60 Minutes, The Late Show, ABC news, Good Morning America and several others, where viewers are treated to a quick look at what he can do. Far from his early life, when he was immersed so deeply in the world of numbers that he barely interacted with others, he has become a near-normally functioning person, but with almost superhuman capabilities.
Could your memory be improved? Have you thought of challenging yourself with learning a language? Not in a week, but in, say, a year? It’s easy to just be stunned with Daniel’s abilities, but maybe we should also check out our own progress. Ask yourself, is there something I can improve on?
They say we generally only use about five percent of our brain power (or 10%, or 1%, depending on which source you’re currently reading). Imagine what would happen if we could double that percentage. The difference would be astonishing, yet we’d still have so much capacity left to call on (which, in reality, is virtually limitless).
Tammet suggests that the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities. There are something like a trillion neurons in the human brain … who knows what could be achieved if we learn to use more of them … and more effectively.