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.