In his book, Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant-like Dustin Hoffman portrayed in the movie Rain Man, tells the story of life with his very special brain. In 2004, Daniel memorized and recited more than 22,000 digits of pi, the mathematical ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, to set a new world record. The exercise only took him over 5 hours. Five hours of reciting memorized numbers?!? It makes my brain hurt to even think about it! Also in 2004, as part of a challenge for a British documentary, The Boy With The Incredible Brain, Daniel learned to speak Icelandic, considered a very complex and difficult language, fluently in one week.
What is also unique about Daniel is that he is articulate, social, introspective and self-sufficient. Unlike most savants, he is able to describe how his mind works in vivid detail which is proving invaluable to scientists studying the brain. Daniel sees numbers as shapes, textures, and colors. Rather than making step by step calculations, he solves complicated math calculations by seeing the answer as a shape or mathematical landscape.
Some believe that his and others’ unique, genius abilities may actually be the result of brain damage which allows more resources to be allocated to other parts of the brain which are not damaged. Having suffered severe epileptic seizures in early childhood, this theory would ring true for Daniel.
He is also a synesthete. Synesthesia is when the involuntary joining of the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. For example, letters or numbers may be perceived as different colors or even as having different smells or textures. Daniel’s talents could be the result of Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, joining with synesthesia.
Daniel tells of a childhood in which he was isolated and ostracized; incapable of making friends and prone to tantrums. His behavior included hand flapping, closing his eyes and counting to himself, socially inappropriateness, living in a fantasy world and more. He spent his time alone in his room preferring the company of books and was uninterested in the usual childhood activities. He went on in early adulthood to learn to control himself, be able to successfully interact socially, live independently, fall in love, start a business, and even emerge as somewhat of a celebrity.
In his book, an observation Daniel makes, which I find very profound, is:
It was the strangest thing: the very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood and to make new friends.”
My brain injury was very similar. At first, it was isolating and a source of emotional pain and shame….because I allowed it to be. Now, it is an accomplishment of sorts. It has allowed me to relate and connect to others and to have more compassion and empathy. Its meaning and significance to me evolved and changed as my personal attitude towards it and my relationship with myself evolved and changed. This sentiment makes me stop and wonder what challenge and/or detriment could potentially be a positive in my life if I view it differently? What quality do I see in others that could be positive if I assumed a different perspective?
In my opinion, the opportunity to view the world from a different perspective is the most extraordinary thing Daniel offers us.
Here’s a TED talk Daniel gave on different ways of knowing: