The Brainman

Excellent documentary on the Science Channel last night about British autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who recently recited the value of Pi to 22,514 decimal places in five hours without a single mistake. After an epileptic seizure as a child, Tammet started seeing mathematics both visually and sensorily, as synesthetic forms and textures with distinctive colors, forms, and sounds.

He can raise large numbers to the power of seven in a few seconds, without calculating a thing. For him, a landscape simply unfolds in his mind. Every number from 1 to 10,000 has a distinctive shape and color, a mood, which he experiences visually. When doing math, he performs no calculations. “The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer.” And yet it’s hard to get your hands on a calculator that has enough precision to even check his work.

Unlike most autistic savants, Tammet is fairly normal in most respects, and is able to describe what he sees, how he does what he does, to the rest of us – a fact which makes him fascinating to researchers exploring the outer reaches of the mind.

His savant abilities also extend to languages – he currently speaks seven of them fluently, and can become fluent in new languages in a week. He undertook Icelandic for the documentary – one of the hardest languages to learn – and was interviewed live on Icelandic TV at the end of the week. The day before the TV appearance, his teacher thought it was going to be a disaster. Then, suddenly, he said he had grasped the “form” of the language. He then sucked up the entire Icelandic lexicon “like a vacuum” and performed flawlessly for the interview.

Stories about savants always bring me back to the same thought: If any human brain is capable of these kinds of feats, it points to the existence of mathematical and musical and linguistic structures flowing just beneath the surface of our lives that are just out of reach for the rest of us. If extreme math can be performed by any person without calculation, if savants are able to visualize and breathe musical structures in the way that they do, it’s like proof of the existence of mathematical and musical lattice-works that run through all of existence. They’re there, just waiting to be grasped by our puny minds. Knowing that those structures are there but out of reach for most of us is almost maddening. Though ironically, we’d all probably go mad if we could.

Nice profile on Tammet at The Guardian.

Music: Count Basie and His Orchestra :: It’s Sand, Man

4 Replies to “The Brainman”

  1. I’m not sure that those things necessarily show so much that there’s some additional lattice-work underlying those mathematics as opposed to showing how much computation a mind can do when left alone by consciousness. That description of the process as seeing colors and shapes shifting sounds more like a projection of the complicated work that’s going on below the savant’s consciousness than it does an actual representation of what work is actually being done.

    Either way, I’m always fascinated by the subject and I wish I would’ve watched the documentary. I’ve got an uncle who’s a savant, as far as we can tell. He knows dates and directions in some weird way that no one can understand. It’s amazing and frustrating — he’s not at all able to clearly explain what he’s doing, he just says he “knows.”

  2. Not to be a kill-joy but I have a hard time digesting his explanation. Math is math. I can believe he has developed very fast ways of computing the things that he does as his brain is wired to do that. I can also believe that a “miswired” brain could have recall like his recitation of pi but I think he is just full of crap in his explanation of how he does these things. Why? There is no sense to them. Yes our brains are “capable” of doing these things but in general doesn’t because it works a different way. When your brain gets hardwired to do these amazing savant things, you undoubtedly are not normal in many other respects. He is performing calculation make no mistake. He may not even be aware of how he is doing it but he is. Not sure I have really made my point but basically I am saying that autism and idiot-savantism are side effects of brains that are wired wrong. They are amazing side effects but side effects nonetheless as you brain is really supposed to work a different way. I don’t think we are seeing something that someday we could all unlock in our own brains.

  3. I’m not really following your thinking here. There are humans in history – and alive – who are able to perceive mathematical reality in what can only be described as a “magical” way. What do you make of a pair of twins who appear otherwise to be retarded, who sit facing each other and rattle off consecutive prime numbers, reaching higher and higher, with no training in mathematics whatsoever. You’re telling me they’re doing very fast computations? That’s not computation – that’s a direct connection to God.

    And you’re saying that Daniel Tammet’s perception of a world beyond this world is “full of crap?” You’ve got to see the guy – Tammet is not a huckster or a con man. He’s a demure, sweet autistic who is experiencing something you and I don’t. Watch the documentary to see what happens to the attitudes of extreme skeptics after they’ve worked with him for a while.

    And open your mind a bit.

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