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First Published Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Daniel Tammet
Daniel Tammet (Image: Toby Madden/Eyevine)

07 January 2009 by Celeste Biever

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet shot to fame when he set a European record for the number of digits of pi he recited from memory (22,514). For afters, he learned Icelandic in a week. But unlike many savants, he’s able to tell us how he does it. We could all unleash extraordinary mental abilities by getting inside the savant mind, he tells Celeste Biever

Do you think savants have been misunderstood – and perhaps dehumanised – in the past?

Very often the analogy has been that a savant is like a computer, but what I do is about as far from what a computer does as you can imagine. This distinction hasn’t been made before, because savants haven’t been able to articulate how their minds work. I am lucky that the autism I have is mild, and that I was born into a large family and had to learn social skills, so I am able to speak up.

When did you first realise you had special talents?

At the age of 8 or 9. I was being taught maths at school and realised I could do the sums quickly, intuitively and in my own way – not using the techniques we were taught. I got so far ahead of the other children that I ran out of textbooks. I was aware already that I was different, because of my autism, but at that point I realised that the relationship I had with numbers was different.

To most people, the things you can do with your memory seem like magic. How do you do it?

The response that people often have to what I can do is one of “gee whiz”, but I want to push back against that. One of the purposes of the book I’ve just written, Embracing the Wide Sky, is to demystify this, to show the hidden processes behind my number skills.

I have a relationship with numbers that is similar to the relationship that most people have with language. When people think of words, they don’t think of them as separate items, atomised in their head, they understand them intuitively and subconsciously as belonging to an interconnected web of other words.

Can you give an example?

You wouldn’t use a word like “giraffe” without understanding what the words “neck” or “tall” or “animal” mean. Words only make sense when they are in this web of interconnected meaning and I have the same thing with numbers. Numbers belong to a web. When somebody gives me a number, I immediately visualise it and how it relates to other numbers. I also see the patterns those relationships produce and manipulate them in my head to arrive at a solution, if it’s a sum, or to identify if there is a prime.

But how do you visualise a number? In the same way that I visualise a giraffe?

Every number has a texture. If it is a “lumpy” number, then immediately my mind will relate it to other numbers which are lumpy – the lumpiness will tell me there is a relationship, there is a common divisor, or a pattern between the digits.

Can you give an example of a “lumpy” number?

For me, the ideal lumpy number is 37. It’s like porridge. So 111, a very pretty number, which is 3 times 37, is lumpy but it is also round. It takes on the properties of both 37 and 3, which is round. It’s an intuitive and visual way of doing maths and thinking about numbers.

For me, the ideal lumpy number is 37. It’s like porridge.

Why do you think you treat numbers this way?

When I was growing up, because of my autism, I didn’t make friends. Numbers filled that gap. The numbers came alive. My mind was able to pick out patterns and to make sense of them. It was similar to how a child would acquire his first language.

Do you make mistakes?

Absolutely. All the time, because of my intuitive approach. In the book I give an example of how another autistic savant thought that 10,511 was a prime number. That’s the kind of mistake I could make, because it looks prime. However, it is divisible by 23 and 457. It’s a forgivable error and not a rookie mistake.

What can we learn from the way your mind works?

The differences between savant and non-savant ability have been exaggerated. Savants are not freaks, cut off from the rest of humanity. The thinking of savants is an extreme form of the kind that everyone has. The aim of my book is to show that minds that function differently, such as mine, are not so strange, and that anyone can learn from them. I also hope to clear up some misconceptions about savant abilities and what it means to be intelligent or gifted.

There is immense potential, and instincts for language and numbers, in everyone. We could train these intuitions – especially at an early age, but also at any age – and learn how to break down preconceptions about how numbers should be thought about or how language works. Then, though people might not necessarily be able to do all the things I can do, they will be more comfortable with language and mathematics, and learning and education in general.

You also excel at learning languages. How do you pick them up so quickly?

I have synaesthesia, which helps. When there is an overlap between how I visualise a word and its meaning, that helps me remember it. For example, if a word that means “fire” in a new language happens to appear orange to me, that will help me remember it. But more significant is my memory and ability to spot patterns and find relationships between words. Fundamentally, languages are clusters of meaning – that is what grammar is about. This is also why languages interest me so much. My mind is interested in breaking things down and understanding complex relationships.

You have created your own language. Why?

My language – called Mänti – is about my love of words. If you have that relationship with words, you will always want to express yourself but not be able to find the word in your native language. I speak many languages and I still can’t always find the right sentence in any language. Mänti is about having that freedom to play with language, to see what would happen if I had a word for this or that.

What can you say in Mänti that you can’t say in any other language?

I like the word “kellokult”, which means “clock debt”. It’s a way of emphasising that when you are late for something, it incurs a debt, you owe someone that time. There is also “rupuaigu”, which means “bread time”. It’s a period of time, roughly an hour, that is the time it would take for bread to bake in an oven. What I like is that it is the same for everyone in the world. It’s a more intuitive way of thinking about an hour.

Do you have a bone to pick with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote about autistic savants?

Oliver Sacks wrote a famous account of autistic savant twins who counted 111 matches in an instant, as they spilled to the floor. Because he is famous, this has gained a lot of traction. People have devised theories to explain how savants might do this. But the likeliest explanation is that savants don’t instantly discern large quantities of objects at all. This ability has never been demonstrated scientifically, nor has it ever been reported in another savant. I think Sacks’s account – which has been so influential – is totally wrong.

Why is it so important to get this right?

The abilities of savants have been pigeon-holed as somehow supernatural, almost inexplicable and certainly not as part of the natural continuum of human talent. This has deformed how the public and, crucially, scientists, view the brain and human potential. It is insulting and potentially dehumanising. The future is an immensely scary place, full of all kinds of challenges. We will need every kind of mind, so why not bring along every kind of intelligence?


Daniel Tammet is 29 and grew up in London as the eldest of nine children. He has Asperger’s syndrome, synaesthesia and had epilepsy as a child. He has taught himself French, Finnish, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Welsh, Estonian, Icelandic and Esperanto. He works as a writer and linguist, and runs online language courses. In 2004 he set a European record for memorising the digits of pi (22,514 digits in 5 hours and 9 minutes). His new book Embracing the Wide Sky: A tour across the horizons of the human mind is out this month by Hodder & Stoughton (UK)/Free Press (US)

Source:   http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126881.800-inside-the-mind-of-an-autistic-savant.html?full=true

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