Saturday, March 24, 2007

Daniel Tammet

I read the book Born on a Blue Day, which is about a savant called Daniel Tammet. I got the book after seeing the documentary "Brainman" on YouTube. The name of the documentary is a word play on the famous movie "Rain Man", where Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant. The documentary is over-dramatized, but by concentrating my attention only on the interviews it was an interesting watch.

In the Brain Man documentary Daniel Tammet describes his number synasthesia. "Synasthesia" means the property of associating two seemingly unrelated senses with each other. In the case of Tammet his synasthesia manifests as seeing numbers in different shapes, textures and colors. We might see the number "117" as a boring compination of three digits, but for Tammet it is a very distinct visual object. By using these associations he was able to recite 22,514 decimals of the irrational number pi without a single error. He also has some enrichened sense of words, which enabled him to learn the icelandic language in a week (to some level).

After seeing the documentary I had this image of a super-intelligent person, devoted to mathematics and indifferent to what others thought about him. In his book I discovered a different kind of Tammet however, one seeking acceptance and trying to fit in, all the while having trouble with small issues in life, such as brushing his teeth. A person not single-mindedly devoted to numbers, but one with a personal life with his husband Neil, staying at home cooking meals for him out of materials grown in their own garden. Crying over their dead cat. For Tammet numbers aren't the sole content of his life to the level I had imagined. In his book he hardly talks about numbers, rather concentrating on describing his exchange study in Lithuania and his attempts to be a part of the world which surrounds him.

However precisely because the book was so different from my image of Tammet, it was a very refreshing read. Without realizing it, I had this stereotypical image of what a savant "should be like". Real life is not just numbers, it is about having a daily life which you can feel content with, it is about fitting in, making friends, being accepted. Savant skills for him were not only a gift, but came with significant downsides as well. He had to try hard to make it in the world, but seems that he succeeded.