In the mind of
Daniel Tammet, Wednesdays are blue. So is the number 9,
which also happens to be tall and to evoke feelings of
enormity. He prefers multiplication to any other
mathematical calculation, though he can divide a sum
to nearly a hundred decimal places almost instantly. His
favorite number is 4 because it's both shy and quiet,
89 reminds him of falling snow, and 5 is loud like a
thunderclap. The word thunder is orange--as is
any word beginning with the letter t--but orange is
actually clear and shiny like ice.
Suffice it to say
that Daniel Tammet's brain doesn't work like
he's a savant, which by definition means he possesses
an extraordinary brilliance or talent coupled with a
developmental disorder. Darold Treffert, clinical
professor of psychiatry at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison Medical School and author of
Extraordinary People, explains that there are three
levels of savant syndrome: Splinter skills include
obsessive preoccupation and memorization of facts and
trivia--which suddenly explains that guy we've
all met who can list every Beatles song ever written,
including track length and album of origin. The
talented savant is someone who has an expertise in music,
art, or math that's particularly remarkable
given his disability. But a prodigious savant, of whom
Tammet is one of perhaps 50 in the world, has skills
so outstanding that they would be amazing even without the
contrast to his handicap.
the disability, we'd call a prodigious savant a
genius," says Treffert, who served as a
consultant on the movie Rain Man. "It's a rare
condition within an already rare condition."
particular developmental disorder is Asperger's
syndrome, a mild, high-functioning form of autism.
Statistics on how many autistic people live
specifically with Asperger's are inexact, but if you
consider that more than half a million people in the
United Kingdom (where Tammet lives) have some form of
autism, his disorder is the one thing about Tammet
that isn't so unique. One out of 10 people with an
autistic disorder shows some type of heightened
talent. People with Asperger's often have
normal to high IQs and good language and learning ability.
However, like those with other types of autism, they have
difficulty with social interactions, insist on
routine, and exhibit a tendency for obsessive
behavior. For Tammet, that means he weighs his morning
cereal to exactly 45 grams and counts every item of
clothing he's wearing before leaving the house.
Friends popping by without warning can cause a
meltdown, as can a trip to a large, crowded supermarket.
Actually, if the last two serve as criteria, we might
all be a little autistic.
As for his
prodigious talents, Tammet can calculate numbers in a blink
of an eye. He's recited the number pi to more
than 22,500 decimal places from memory. He speaks 10
languages, one of which he learned in a week.
It's all remarkable, of course. But it's how
he does it that makes Tammet so rare, even amid the
extraordinary circle he runs in.
numbers (and, to a certain extent, words) as shapes, colors,
textures, movements, even emotions--a condition known
as synesthesia. He has a unique visual response to
every number up to 10,000. When doing multiplication
he sees two distinct shapes spontaneously create a third
between them, which he understands as a new number.
Multiplying any number by 11 is accompanied by the
sensation of numbers tumbling downward in his head.
"It's like doing math without having to
think," he writes in his memoir, Born on a
Daniel Bor of the
Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit of the Medical
Research Council in Cambridge, England, along with colleague
Jac Billington of Cambridge University's Autism
Research Centre, studied Tammet's ability to
process sequential numbers and remember them in
correct order. Tammet can recall a series of 12 digits,
compared to about six for most people.
"Daniel's ability to remember numbers and
possibly also his ability for calculations, though
that's far more of a mystery, are due to a
combination of two factors," says Bor. "First,
his Asperger's syndrome allows him to
concentrate more deeply on one thing and so excel in
an area he chooses to obsess over. Second, we think
Daniel's very unusual form of synesthesia causes him
to convert those numbers into something even more
structured and ordered, making it easier to
beautiful--and oddly enviable--when you think
about it. Tammet's autism could have left him
detached and isolated, but his unique relationship
with numbers provides him with a dynamic community of
personalities and intrigues that may actually exceed the
experiences of the average person. "Many
savants retreat into their rituals and expertise when
they're anxious and upset, and to that extent their
abilities become a comfort," explains Treffert.
"Daniel's experience is richer.
It's a place for him to wander and explore; it colors
the mind. It's more than just a comfort,
So, the question
remains: Does your brain have the same, albeit dormant,
capacity as Tammet's? Yes and no, says Treffert.
"We're finding that some hidden
potential exists in us all, but we're not all hidden