Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Daniel Tammet

The Australian has published an excellent article on British high-functioning autistic savant Daniel Tammet. Excerpts follow:

Daniel Tammet turns 30 today and is quite pleased because he likes that number. Not the age, the number. "Thirty is round but also kind of curvy and shiny and green because three is green so that gives it its colour," he explains in a calm, gentle monotone".

To [Daniel] each number has its own shape, colour and even mood. "I like 30 because it is smack bang in the middle between prime numbers 29 and 31. Prime numbers are fairly rare anyway and numbers that are separated by two are even rarer."

Tammet has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, and is one of the world's most remarkable savants, or people with developmental disorders and extraordinary mental abilities related to those disorders.

Tammet is one the 25 to 50 people in the world who are considered prodigious savants, meaning their abilities would be exceptional even if they did not have a disorder. The best-known representation of one is Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man, who struggled to function independently but could perform amazing mathematical stunts.

Tammet's ability to see each number up to 10,000 as a different shape and pattern helps him to do complex calculations in an instant. If he wants to multiply two numbers their images combine in his mind to produce a new shape, which he instantly recognises as the number he is after. He has a similar facility with words and languages: he learned Icelandic in a week and speaks 11 other languages, including one he invented.

But at the same time he struggles to recognise or express his emotions, has the facial recognition skills of a five to eight-year-old, and has trouble telling his left from his right. He cannot drive a car and has had to train himself to make eye contact, have small talk or recognise jokes.

Tammet argues that savant abilities should be seen as an outgrowth of normal brain functioning and "natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words", which suggests that affected brains might be at least partially retrained and that normal brains might be taught to develop or retain some savant abilities.

"In other people blue is connected with sadness for example, but when you think about it sadness is an abstract concept so why is it blue, why not green or yellow? It makes no more logical sense for sadness to be blue than for four to be blue. So there are certain connections, certain concepts in everyone's brain that are connected that way and mine just takes it to a whole other level."

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