Conversation with Prodigious Savant Daniel Tammet - Part I, Embracing the Wide SkyShare
Daniel Tammet on plasticity, Autism, Asperger's syndrome, and popular myths.
Although their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. Daniel Tammet is one of them. Over 30 years, the London-born mathematical and language whiz has transformed from an awkward, reclusive boy into a confident adult. His quiet, private life of strict routines gave way in 2006, when his memoir Born on a Blue Day became a best-seller, necessitating travel, self-promotion, and talk show appearances. His latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is a scientific exploration of his extraordinary abilities (reciting pi to 22,514 places, learning to speak Icelandic in a week) and a tour of autism.
On August 18th and August 19th, 2009, Daniel was gracious enough to let me peer into his world. I was aware of the great number of interviews with Daniel that already exist, but as a psychologist, I still had many lingering questions, which Daniel was very patient in answering for me. These two days, I left my prior expectations, biases, and ways of thinking at the door and transported myself into Daniel's mind. As a result, I was fortunate enough to be able to share his unique way of seeing the world.
Daniel's insights changed my own way of thinking, not only with regards to Autism and Asperger's syndrome, but also in terms of the full extent to which personal change is possible, the nature and nurture of individual differences, intelligence, creativity, genius, fiction, art, poetry, math, love, relationships, the mind, brain, the future of humanity, and the appreciation of many different kinds of minds. A portion of my interview can be found in the November/December 2009 issue of Psychology Today (Numbers Guy: An autistic savant joins the wider world).
I hope you find Daniel's reflections, insights, and ongoing journey just as fascinating and thought-provoking as I have.
S. I really enjoyed reading your book Embracing the Wide Sky. These issues are at the very front of my mind and the field's, and it was really great to get your unique perspective. What was the most surprising psychological finding you discovered while you were researching the book?
D. One of the things I found very interesting was the plasticity of the brain. There is this mythology that says that when people are born, their brains are essentially fixed very early on and they're not able to change their connections. I was aware that was a myth and that people could learn new skills. From a linguistic point of view, it's possible to learn a second language well into adulthood without it being such a difficult task. The extent of that plasticity was very interesting to me, and was surprising. That people were actually able to control their capacity for happiness. That meditation had such a striking effect on the brain. That just by thinking about an activity, by visualizing it, people were able to improve their skill in that area, whether it was in terms of their goal swing or in terms of playing the notes of a piano. That was very interesting.
S. Most savants as you know aren't able to reflect on their condition let alone write books. What unique combination of personality traits do you think enables you to have such a high level of refection?
D. My autism is a very mild form. It was diagnosed at the age of 25, partly because it wasn't diagnosable as a teenager (this is Asperger's syndrome, specifically). But there were certainly traits within that condition, within the autism spectrum in general, especially at the high functioning end, that I think are best looked at as pluses.
Often autism is portrayed in the media as a very negative condition, as something that prevents somebody from communicating or from socializing or from being able to have any kind of normal, happy life. These are exaggerations - exaggerations to the point of distorting the reality of the condition, which is complex.
In terms of Asperger's syndrome, and those pluses, I'd say there is a great curiosity to understand the world. People going through their childhood who don't have this condition, who aren't on the autistic spectrum, will make friends in general. They will fit in, will go through the routines of society, of school, of family life, and so on, and these things will seem to them natural because they come naturally to them so they don't feel the need to question them or to find them puzzling or unusual enough to want to question them whereas those on the autistic spectrum, myself included, are very puzzled by most things people take for granted- the intricacies of body language, of telling a joke, of having a conversation with somebody.
This curiosity can then develop in all kinds of ways and can broaden out into much bigger questions about the nature of life and death, the universe and the meaning of it all and so-on. So I think curiosity is one of the primary traits that has been a plus and has been a big part of my development and a big part of the motivation for writing Embracing the Wide Sky because of my curiosity for how the mind works and what makes my mind different but also not so different from other people who obviously haven't had the same journey as I've had.
S. In what ways do you think Aspergers has contributed to your extraordinary abilities?
D. I mention this in the chapter on creativity. I quote one scientist Fitzgerald, who is a professor of psychiatry in Dublin. He studied genius as he termed it and believed that many of those people who we would traditionally describe as possessing genius- Newton, Tesla, Mendel, and many others- were likely to have, were they alive today, been eligible for a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome or some kind of autistic disorder. He singles out a number of traits, such as single-mindedness and perseverance.
When things don't come so naturally to you, you want to persevere, you want to keep pushing yourself to overcome obstacles that prevent you from having the kind of life that you want to have. And of course curiosity, as I've already mentioned, is a very important trait in pushing back against ideas that people receive but don't necessarily question and having that insight, or that creativity- the ability to mix ideas up and come up with new ways of thinking of something.
I could very well believe what Fitzgerald had written about them and see clearly in my own case that these traits did contribute a great deal. Of course, these traits aren't unique to the autistic spectrum either. We see examples of course of people achieving many great things who are not autistic at all, but I certainly think that this is helpful in some respects in that it makes it clear that autism is not purely to be seen in negative terms. The brain is an incredibly complex thing and in certain people it develops differently. That obviously incurs certain costs but it might also bring certain benefits as well.
S. I thought that was very important how you dispelled some myths of autism in your book.
D. A key theme running all the way through Embracing the Wide Sky is that autistic people in general but savants in particular are not so different from anyone else. This Oliver Sacks kind of mythology that says that savants are robots, or memory machines, or aliens, or some kind of strange creatures, doing things that are almost supernatural or mystical is I think dehumanizing and distorts scientific understanding of the condition and also how the brain works and how it is possible to calculate in a different way and to learn languages in a different way. We don't require supernatural, Oliver Sacks kind of explanations.
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, probably the most famous study done on autistic savants to date, certainly in the public sphere, Sacks met savant twins who he claims were able to count 111 falling matchsticks. The same claim was made years later in the adaptation Rainman, where matchsticks were changed into toothpicks, and the number increased dramatically as well.
There is no mechanism by which this can be achieved. No savant has been tested or has demonstrated this ability under scientific conditions. All of the materials Oliver Sacks accumulated in his informal study he claims to have lost so it's impossible to verify. That is unfortunate, because I think he was mistaken. I think he was trapped by his own misconceptions of autism and savantism. And this one myth, I think even to this day, is responsible for both the public's and many scientist's conception of how savant's minds work and perhaps more generally how every mind works because if we make it hard to believe that there is some mechanism by which it would be conceivable to count 111 falling matchsticks in that space of a blink of the eye, then that would be revolutionary and there is no evidence for it whatsoever.
S. Do you think you'd still have displayed your savant abilities if you didn't have Asperger's? Are there cases of savants that don't have Asperger's?
D. I guess it comes down to how you define a savant. It's a rather ambiguous term. It comes from French savoir, which means to know and can be described more loosely as any very knowledgeable person. What is interesting in the case of autistic savants is that there is simultaneously extraordinary ability in one or more skills but also disability in other skills.
Now in some cases like Kim Peek who I met back in 2004, the disability is very obvious. Kim has to rely constantly on the care of his father. He is not able to dress himself or to take care of himself and so on. Having said that, he is fairly high functioning in that he's able to have a conversation, he jokes, he sings, attained eye contact and so-on. In other cases where the autism is more linked with Asberger's Syndrome, the milder form of autism, the high-functioning form of autism, the disability is much more subtle.
People with Asperger's syndrome are aware of the fact that they are different. They do not want to stand out necessarily from the crowd and do everything in their power, which is considerable in my own experience, with my brother Steven who also has Asperger's syndrome, and the many others I've spoken to who also have Asperger's syndrome. They're smart. They're smart in the sense that they can learn quickly, they can watch other children play. They can learn from the mistakes that they do make, the things that don't come as easily to them. So they work around things they find difficult so that they don't dwell on their disability, but on their ability. So their disability becomes less and less important in their life. And in some cases, mine included, the disability in the end is very small, fortunately. But that is not always the case unfortunately.
S. What are some of the most difficult challenges you've personally had to deal with as a person with Asberger's and what techniques have you used to compensate over the years?
D. One of the things that people know me most for is my autobiography I wrote four years ago, Born on a Blue Day. In that book I described growing up with Asperger's syndrome and savant syndrome and not knowing growing up what it was that made me so different from everyone else. And this journey of self-discovery and also will power to push myself constantly to want to be capable of having the kind of life that I felt I was capable of having. That was of course a very difficult process.
I would have to watch the other children, I would have to learn from the mistakes that I made, I would have to push myself very hard to overcome things that most people don't have to think about. Brushing my teeth was very difficult because of the noise of the brush, which was very scratchy and very uncomfortable for me. So it took a great bit of effort and time to learn to do that. Today I'm able to use an electric toothbrush. The sound is repetitive and isn't irritating in the same way as a manual brush.
So little things like this, things that people take for granted in everyday life. Because my brain has changed and evolved differently over the years, those are the things I had to work around. And making friends as well was very difficult. Perhaps part of the reason I feel very close to numbers is the emotional content I have with them. Growing up, those were the things that I understood very well, whereas the other children I didn't understand in the same way. Whereas the children were playing with other children, I was playing with numbers in my head, visualizing the shapes and the colors that I saw with them and seeing how they change and how they interacted, and doing sums and enjoying the rhythms and the colors and the kind of dance. As I've said, I'm able to dance with numbers, whereas the computers crunch them.
And this ability to dance with them and to play with them was very positive. As a consequence, my confidence was such that when the opportunity did eventually arise to make friends, situations that I describe in Born on a Blue Day, where children from other countries would come to our school, and because they were different in their own way- a different culture, a different background, a different skin color and so-on- perhaps that awareness of difference, that sensitivity to what it means to be different from everyone else, made it much easier for them to reach out a hand to me and to make friends, and for me to make friends with them.
Many little challenges like this that over the years I've had to overcome. I think today one of the biggest challenges is just to keep pushing back against the misconceptions of the kind that I address in Embracing the Bright Sky about what autism is and about the potential for an autistic person to have a happy life, however you would define that or to have a successful career, however you would define that. I think it's entirely possible for someone with autism to have both.
© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet: Rex USA.
Other parts of the series: