Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Savant Mind At Work

"Embracing the Wide Sky" by Daniel Tammet (book review)....

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet's first book, "Born On A Blue Day" was an international best-seller as an engaging autobiographical overview of his fascinating life and talents. His second book (2009), "Embracing The Wide Sky" is a more scientific look at the way his mind works, and provocatively covers a range of cognitive issues.
Tammet's perspective is utterly unique, as an articulate, thoughtful savant who can introspectively analyze his own mind workings. The book actually includes a lot of references to more standard journal literature as well, but Tammet never blindingly accepts the conclusions of academic researchers when his own intuitive understanding of how the brain operates runs counter to the party-line of academics. Plenty of outside-the-box thinking here on subjects where outside-the-box thinking is welcome, and sometimes difficult to come by.

Although he doesn't go into great depth in any given area, Tammet touches upon a smorgasbord of cognitive subjects including brain plasticity and re-wiring, intelligence testing, memory, language acquisition and processing, number instinct, perception, and creativity. And interestingly, he believes many of the talents of savants are not as special as they appear, in some cases even being accessible to non-savants. He winces at the notion of savant skills as almost machine-like aberrations in the human family. Tammet sees humanity as more of a continuous broad-spectrum of abilities and talents, with savant skills as rare, but not abnormal outliers.

The mathematical capabilities of autistic savants are often among the most difficult parts of their repertoire to understand or explain. These may include lightening-fast calculation or other feats of computation. And oftentimes, as in Daniel Tammet's case, their description of numbers as having color and texture or shape is likewise difficult to grasp. Tammet is famous for reciting pi accurately to over 22,000 digits from memory, a virtually inconceivable accomplishment, that is aided by his sense of pi as not just a number, but a 'landscape' so-to-speak.

Interestingly, in this volume Tammet hypothesizes that his math prowess stems from "abnormal cross-communication" between areas of the brain that govern math skill and those that govern language (and specifically syntactic rules), which normally are separate. He points out that the two areas (left parietal lobe and left frontal lobe) lay physically next to each other in the brain, and that his "numerical abilities are rapid, intuitive, and largely unconscious" very much like the way most people produce and process language. Further, he notes that along with his mathematical talents he has already learned a dozen languages, and very easily picks up new languages to a conversational level. By his own admission he is a lover of words and language, as well as numbers.

Savantism is one of those topics which is so inherently captivating (and rare) that almost anything written on it is automatically fascinating, and several researchers have dealt with it previously. Still, there is something even more entrancing when you have the savant himself calmly, analytically peering into his own mind and communicating what he finds. I don't know if any parts of Tammet's books are ghostwritten or if Tammet composes all the words himself, but if the latter than he can add communicating and educating to his many talents. One hopes to hear much more from him as his life progresses.

More on Tammet here:

His record-breaking 2004 pi performance/recitation reported here:

And lastly, a couple more articles on the relationship between savantism and mathematics:     

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