This week, 60 Minutes did a fascinating piece on a remarkable young man named Daniel Tammet:
Twenty-four years ago, 60 Minutes introduced viewers to George Finn, whose talent was immortalized in the movie “Rainman.” George has a condition known as savant syndrome, a mysterious disorder of the brain where someone has a spectacular skill, even genius, in a mind that is otherwise extremely limited.
Morley Safer met another savant, Daniel Tammet, who is called “Brain Man” in Britain. But unlike most savants, he has no obvious mental disability, and most important to scientists, he can describe his own thought process. He may very well be a scientific Rosetta stone, a key to understanding the brain.
Tammet has a condition known as synesthesia, which is when the brain gets its wires crossed, and two or more senses overlap. In some cases, days of the week might seem to the afflicted to have their own personalities (as they do here at Shakespeare Teacher). In other cases, particular years might, for an individual, occupy specific locations in space. In Tammet’s case, he can actually see numbers.
“I see numbers in my head as colors and shapes and textures. So when I see a long sequence, the sequence forms landscapes in my mind,” Tammet explains. “Every number up to 10,000, I can visualize in this way, has it’s own color, has it’s own shape, has it’s own texture.”
For Tammet, 289 is an ugly number. He describes 333 as very beautiful. Pi is “one of the most beautiful things in all the world.” In fact, Tammet holds the European record for reciting the digits of pi from memory, rattling off 22,514 digits without error in just over 5 hours. In my very best attempt, I have not been able to recite half that many.
Fans of the blog know me as an armchair brain science researcher, so I’m naturally fascinated by the idea of synesthesia. What other forms might it take? Could there be people who can smell the letters of the alphabet? Would a metaphor have a different taste than a hyperbole? Could you fall in love with a time of day? And would all people with the same kinds of synesthesia map their senses out the same way? We all know what a green square looks like, but would another person with Tammet’s brand of synesthesia agree with him about what 2,192 looks like? In other words, does 2,192 have an inherent visual representation and he’s the only one who can tell us what it looks like, or is his mind inventing its own unique schema to help it make sense of a neural configuration that was never supposed to happen? And if it’s the latter, what is the logic behind that system? Every question leads to more questions. But for scientists – um, real scientists – some of the answers may lie with Tammet himself.
There are maybe 50 savants alive today. These abilities generally go along with some kind of autism, making it difficult for researchers to interview the subjects and learn about the condition. But Tammet’s autism is very mild, and he’s able to articulate his experiences and provide researchers with a unique insight.
Tammet’s abilities, and disabilities, are described in much greater detail in this article in the Guardian from about two years ago, as well as some insight on what brain science researchers hope to gain from working with him:
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University, is interested in what Mänti might teach us about savant ability. “I know of other savants who also speak a lot of languages,” says Baron-Cohen. “But it’s rare for them to be able to reflect on how they do it – let alone create a language of their own.” The ARC team has started scanning Tammet’s brain to find out if there are modules (for number, for example, or for colour, or for texture) that are connected in a way that is different from most of us. “It’s too early to tell, but we hope it might throw some light on why we don’t all have savant abilities.”
The clip below is the second of two from a British documentary about Tammet. You can view the first one here if you’re interested. The clip below is just over eight minutes long. I’m including it here so you can see the first four minutes, where Tammet describes how he “sees” numbers. If you want to watch the last four minutes, though, you can see Tammet meet Kim Peek, the real-life person on whom “Rain Man” is based.