If you have seen Rainman with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, then you know what an astounding phenomenon an autistic savant is.
Daniel Tammet is such a man, one of only about 50 living in the world today.
He is exceptional even for a savant: he is a high-functioning autistic savant. This means that unlike most savants, he has normal social relationships with other people.
Tammet has linguistic, numerical and visual synaesthesia, which means that his perception of words, numbers and colors are woven together into a different way of perceiving and understanding the world.
What makes him special and very fortunate for us is his ability to share the way he perceives the world in a very eloquent manner. He speaks clearly and plainly about his extraordinary way of perception that creates for him a world completely different from the one you and I perceive – a world infinitely richer and more expansive than ours.
His superhuman brain can learn a new language in one week and recite the mathematical constant Pi (3.141…) from memory to 22,514 decimal places.
Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, explains why Tammet is of particular, and international, scientific interest. “Savants can’t usually tell us how they do what they do,” says Snyder. “It just comes to them. Daniel can. He describes what he sees in his head. That’s why he’s exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone.”
An extraordinary window into the mind of an “autistic savant”
Tammet began writing in 2005. His first book, Born On A Blue Day, subtitled ‘Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant’, was published in the UK in 2006 and became a Sunday Times bestseller. The US edition, published in 2007, spent 8 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
In March 2011 Tammet took to the TED stage to give the audience a glimpse into his exploration of the nature of perception. He believes different kinds of perceiving create different kinds of knowing and understanding.
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He explains how in his world words and numbers blur with color, emotion and personality, because of the condition synesthesia, an unusual cross-talk between the senses. He shows the audience a slide with the numbers one to 12 as he sees them — every number with its own shape and character. One is a flash of white light. Six is a tiny and very sad black hole. The sketches are in black and white here, but in my mind they have colors. Three is green. Four is blue. Five is yellow.
Amazingly, every single number he sees has a different shape, so 233 looks different from 333.
He paints as well and expresses his love for numbers in his paintings. One painting he shows is a multiplication of two prime numbers, represented by three three-dimensional shapes: the two numbers and the space they create in the middle, the answer to the sum.
In the TED talk above you can see his painting of the first 20 decimals of Pi. Quite magnificent. “I take the colors and the emotions and the textures and I pull them all together into a kind of rolling numerical landscape’, he explains.
In Tammet’s world numbers and words can have colors and emotions, emotions and textures, creating an infinitely rich inner world. He has a most unique way of perceiving the world, and we could probably learn from him to also look at the world with new eyes.
Scientists believe Tammet could unlock door to memory recall in everyone
In the documentary below, titled “The Boy with the Incredible Brain”, scientists study Tammet’s unusual mind in a series of experiments. They believe that Tammet’s experience of being an autistic savant and unique ability to talk about it could provide a window into helping everyday people realize an inherent ability for memory recall.
The documentary sees Tammet undergo many experiments and is well worth watching. You’ll be truly inspired.