Daniel Tammet: Thinking in Puns, Daydreams, Similes

Having been confirmed as one of the IdeaFestival 2010 presenters, prodigious savant and author of Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky, Daniel Tammet, recently took some time to answer five questions about his amazing mind.

Make plans today to hear Daniel and all the fantastic and accomplished people who will be in Louisville this September!

In your books you've talked about the synesthetic landscapes you encounter. Can you describe synesthesia and how it has contributed to your ease with language and math?

Synesthesia is a rare phenomenon in the brain. Individuals experience a mixing of the senses caused by unusual cross-communication between brain regions. Some synesthetes can taste words, or 'see' musical notes as colors or hues. My own synesthesia is similar to that of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita among many other novels. Nabokov said that letters of the alphabet had different colors, and it is likely that this tangible and intuitive experience of language played a role in his remarkable writing. In my case, letters and words have their own colors and textures and like Nabokov I make use of these in my own writing (for example, for such techniques as alliteration and metaphor). The ability also helps me to learn foreign languages, by visualising the connections between words. Numbers, too, have their own colors as well as shapes which I can manipulate in my mind to produce the solutions to sums.

What relevance do our "language" and "number" senses have to learning?

We all know that language learning starts when we are very small. By age five, most children are able to produce grammatically correct sentences in their native language with ease and fluency. Sometimes these sentences can be amusing, and more often than not, quite creative as well. This shows that children do not simply parrot the words they hear; something much more interesting is happening in their brain. In my book Embracing the Wide Sky I propose that children acquire their mother tongue by way of an intuitive relationship between sound and meaning that is similar to what happens in synesthesia. Words, according to this view, are not abstract puffs of air, but the result of a long cultural evolution which makes them intuitively graspable and highly learnable. One famous example is the gl- sound in English, which produces sensations of light or vision in the English speaker's mind: glow, glimmer, glitter, glass, gleam, glance.

Regarding our number sense, it may come as a surprise to know that this occurs very early as well. As with language, studies have demonstrated that babies have an intuitive grasp of numbers. Infants are capable of distinguishing between two circles of the same size, but with differing numbers of dots. They also seem to know that sums like 1 + 2 = 1 are impossible. Pre-school children are able to solve more complex sums, before any schooling in arithmetic. For example, given a question like: "John has 17 candies, and is given 12 more. Anne has 51 candies. Who has more?" two-thirds of these children are able to give the correct response. It is as though their minds are able to intuitively 'weigh' the two quantities and know which is the 'heavier' without any conscious calculation.

In your latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky, you write that differences between savant and non-savant minds have been exaggerated. Can you briefly describe why that is and what it might suggest about how we view thought and creativity?

Savants are rare and their personal testimonies were, until quite recently, considered of little interest to researchers. Today we know that savant brains are not very different from those of any one else. They are not necessarily heavier, or bigger, or structured in some radically different way. Rather, the connections between brain cells show subtle differences from those in non-savants. These differences are a result of both biology and environment.

Earlier ignorance and indifference toward autistic savants has had an unfortunately lasting effect on how scientists and the public view them. Oliver Sacks famously described a pair of twin savants as capable of instantly counting 111 falling matchsticks. His study however was marred by errors and demonstrates how researchers once viewed savants as strange and almost supernatural. In fact, savant abilities are the result of natural processes within the brain. Technological advances (such as brain scans) and savants' own reports help to clarify these processes. In Embracing the Wide Sky I state that my abilities are not so different from the creation of puns, daydreams, and similes - all activities that are fairly common in the non-savant.

Given your life experiences, what myths about autism would you like others to know aren't true?

The biggest myth is that autistic individuals cannot be creative. Many, for example, have suggested that savant abilities are 'merely' the product of recall and obsessive practice. But many recent studies have shown that this is not the case. People with autism can be highly creative in a wide range of domains. In my own case, I have written two prize-winning international-bestselling books (Born On A Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky). I am currently writing my third book, a novel, and have also composed some poetry. Other autistic savants have produced albums of original jazz music, and beautiful drawings and paintings. Altered connectivity in the brain is one explanation for the enhanced creativity that can occur within the autistic mind. Another is the passion with which many learn and play with new ideas and information.

If the well-asked question is half-answered, what's the most interesting question you've encountered lately?

Was Emily Dickinson an autistic savant? (Answer: Definitely maybe!)