Conversation with Prodigious Savant Daniel Tammet- Part III, Nature and NurtureShare
Daniel Tammet on the role of nature and nurture in sculpting abilities.
Although their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. 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. What are some of your earliest memories? Did they relate to numbers?
D. Not numbers, not straightaway. I think my very earliest memory was falling down the stairs. Something as quotidian but traumatic as that, and seeing colors as I fell. And not crying out loud, not realizing that I should cry in order to bring my parents out to look after me.
And when I went to kindergarten (nursery, we would say in Britain) I would love playing with sand and taking grains of sand in the sand pit and putting them through my fingers and playing with sand timers and watching the sand slow and just experimenting with this incredibly strange, weird, but strangely beautiful thing we call reality, this world. The fact that if you take a tube and you put a ball in one side it will come out the other side. It's just an obvious thing to most people but to me growing up during early childhood it wasn't obvious that if you put a ball in one side of a tube, it will come out the other side. All these kinds of little experiments to discover the laws of how this strange but beautiful world actually worked.
S. The stairs incident, did that cause your synesthesia, or was it the seizure?
D. I don't know, I don't think so. My best guess from the research that I've done and the scientists that I've spoken to is that I would have been born with the autism and synesthesia. Some media reports state that the abilities that I have for numbers and language and so on emerged after epileptic seizures as a young child. It's certainly true that I had seizures as a young child. But my understanding in fact is that those seizures are linked to the autism and that they would not have caused the abilities that I subsequently have but they were simply, as far as I can tell, inborn. That they were always there and that the epilepsy was one of the costs in terms of being an autistic savant.
Around half of the people on the autistic spectrum will have epileptic seizures by the time they reach adolescence and that's probably to do with the differences in the development of the brain's wiring. So you have this hyper-connectivity, but also have this extra vulnerability to electrical activity in the brain which in many cases unfortunately does bring off seizures. Luckily, I grew out of those seizures.
S. You didn't have to hone the synaesthesia over the years, it always came naturally to you, right?
D. Yes, that would be a fair categorization. For as long as I can remember my mind has worked in this way. This way feels very normal and natural. Which took me a long time to realize wasn't as normal and natural I presumed it to be for other people.
S. And that also goes for the strategies that you used to remember numbers, or languages, or to do arithmetic? These strategies were always there, you didn't have to learn them, is that right?
D. The way that I approached numbers, think about them, the same as for language as well- acquiring vocabulary, understanding the grammar, the structures of languages, the rhythm, the music and so-on- these things obviously evolved. I wasn't born speaking ten languages for example. I wouldn't have been born with the ability in the cradle to multiply, to calculate numbers very quickly or to recognize a four digit or five digit or six digit prime number. But the underlying synesthesia and the hyper-connectivity and the creativity is inborn and there is good genetic evidence I think for that, as well from the studies that scientists have done with me and from my own family history-my father's schizophrenia, his father's, my grandfather's very severe epilepsy, and my brother's Asperger's syndrome like my own. Although he isn't a savant, he does have abilities I think for music and possibly for language learning, although not in the same way as I have. But that's very suggestive of the fact that there is a genetic link there.
But of course there is also environment, there's also culture. My family supported me. I wasn't hot-housed at all as a young child, I didn't go to any kind of gifted school. They didn't exist in the very poor parts of England when I grew up in the 1980s. I had a great time to learn, had access to libraries and teachers who were patient and enthusiastic when I showed ability in some subjects. So I was unlucky in some respects but I was lucky in others. But certainly there's a big gallop of talent there, which I don't think any amount of learning or repetitious practice would have got me to.
I make the case with regard to chess for example and the Polgar sisters and the idea that these three sisters became such great chess masters simply because their father hot-housed them and gave them nothing but chess to do almost for many hours every day throughout their childhood and they became these great chess masters. But we forget all the other families who are essentially hot-housed by eccentric fathers who didn't become grand masters and therefore we don't actually know of them. So it's another example of the logical fallacy of looking at one piece of evidence and ignoring all of the silent evidence against an example.
So I think genetics is a big part of this story as well.
S. Do you think that if I laboriously, through deliberate practice, took the time necessary to memorize each of the visual associations that you see, if you could somehow write out for me the ten thousand associations and I memorized them, do you think that I could eventually automatically do what comes so natural to you because of your unique brain wiring? I'd be willing to try.
D. The suggestion just seem so strange to me, I almost have no way of conceiving it. My whole philosophy of life and the mind is that every person is unique, every person has their own strengths and weaknesses, every person has their own way of seeing the world and rather than trying to copy anyone else's way of doing something, they should make the most of their own, because they may surprise themselves in that process of doing so.
Someone who copies a Van Gogh does not therefore become Van Gogh and the same would go for Mozart or anyone else who contributed something that was original. Certainly in the way that I described visualizing numbers in abstract, meaningful shapes. And the way my intellect forms solutions to arithmetic and pi numbers and characterizations is unique and it's also relatively simply. It's amazing that no one has thought of it before.
There are of course people who come up with ways of remembering numbers. I'm very aware of the systems - touching random objects, where number one is a candle and number two is a swan and so-on. These are very effective but there's no emotional content and they're not meaningful, they don't relate to what the numbers actually represent, whereas the essence of how I visualize numbers is that they're meaningful, that the interactions represent the underlining arithmetic of the numbers. So I'm able to make sense of how the numbers relate to each other.
When you think of a giraffe, you instantly think of the torso, the legs, the spots, and the height and so-on and if you were not able to put all of those different elements together into the complex that we call a giraffe, you would not know what a giraffe is.
And in the same way to be able to take a number and to visualize the things that constitute it or to be able to visualize it in some kind of aesthetic way if it's a prime number as I seem to be able to do for some reason. That obviously gives me an understanding of numbers that most people don't have, a feeling for them, a relationship to them.
I'm not really sure that it would achieve very much to try to artificially teach that to anymore. I certainly think though that people can learn from what I describe and the way that I think about numbers. I would certainly encourage teachers to come up with ways of encouraging the young students to think about numbers as shapes and colors and so-on that helps them understand that ten is twice five and five is half of ten, the powers of two and how they go out in a very monotonic fashion across the number line. I think that would certainly be very effective but I don't think there's any point in someone trying to artificially memorize pi to 22,500 places. I think people have better things to do with their time.
S. Does all of your thinking, both rational and intuitive, happen automatically? For instance, even when you're trying to do a deductive chain of reasoning, does the answer just pop into your head or do you have to think the problem through methodically?
D. It would depend on the problem, I'd say, my overall interest or motivation, how interested I am in the subject, all kinds of different things. In some instances I guess the answers always come pretty much instantly, quickly in any event. I found a very good example of that, as a child in school being taught techniques that everyone is told for figuring out a sum, and I found these so intuitive, so cumbersome, so boring that it slowed me down enormously just trying to learn and apply them as I often did. I often visualized them in my head and get the answer and write it down. Of course then I got into trouble because I couldn't share my working out.
So that's one example. If we go to another example, 6943. If you ask most people to multiply 53 and 131 then they will have to use step by step reasoning. They can say ‘okay the 3 and the 1, the final digits, when 3 multiplied by 1 is 3, so the last digit will definitely be a 3 and 5, that's the first digit in 53 and 13 in 131, that makes 65. So it's going to be a little bit more then 65, so we're looking in the high 6000's, 67, 6, 69. So it's 6 something, something 3.'
And you can go on from there and obviously get to the solution eventually. Or you can in my case visualize 53, visualize 131, see the shapes, work out those contours and that particular 3-dimensional shape that emerges, and you recognize it. You know what it is in the same way that you recognize when you think of a giraffe and see a spots, and you see a height, you say it's a giraffe. You don't have to figure it out in a sense. You're not having to say to yourself ‘okay height plus spots, plus neck equals giraffe'. You're just saying ‘hey, that's a giraffe'. It's something that's visual, it's something that is perceptive and it's a similar process for me when I'm doing a sum.
Now for other kinds of problems, it may be something closer to the kinds of techniques that we all have to learn at school for working out sums, I should say more like a step-by-step process. I described in the chapter on mathematical thinking for example how in high school a student worked out that any sheet of paper could be folded in theory more than seven or eight times. This is something that even mathematicians had fallen into saying that that is a maximum number. And it wasn't at all the case. I can't visualize that straight away. I can't see that straight away. So like she did, I would have to figure it out step-by-step. So that's one example. And in that case, as I said in that chapter, what you need is a little peace and a lot of patience whoever you are.
Most mathematicians have a tendency when they recount their discoveries to smooth out the process by which they came to their solutions or their conclusions or their theorems. So people listening in perhaps get the idea that they happened upon them. And sometimes that happens, but it is very rare. Even the greatest mathematicians, the ones that we would put into our mythology of great mathematicians, had to do a great deal of leg work in order to get to the solution in the end. So I think genius is as Thomas Edison said, a lot about perspiration as well as inspiration.
S. But you certainly think genes play some role, yes?
S. In genius, yeah?
S. Yes. That's the presumption that I make in Embracing the Wide Sky. That talent is partly biological and partly environmental. And I think you need both. I don't think you could have one or the other. But I'm very skeptical as I explain in the book of the idea put forward by certain researchers that talent is primarily almost exclusively a result of hard work. So where I say leg work is important, for certain kinds of problems and certain kinds of thinking, I don't think you could then apply that uniformly to thought itself or creativity more generally.
Of course writers, Hemmingway or others, have to go through many drafts and will write a sentence, cross it out, write it up many times over, but the point is they still have a talent in the first place to write that sentence however many times they need to write it until they get it just right. They're capable of writing that sentence.
You give a piece a paper to most people who maybe don't have that particular talent, maybe they have another talent but not that particular talent, and no matter how many times they would try to write out what they consider a very good sentence, it maybe wouldn't have that same fluency or flow. It wouldn't have the same effect.
Examples I've seen arguing for the importance of the primacy of practice over talent are very unconvincing. As I mentioned, the example of the Porgar Sisters is very often used- the idea that this eccentric father pushed his three daughters until they became grand masters of chess. It's a beautiful example of course, a very interesting one. And as I said, it ignores all of the cases that aren't reported for obvious reasons of the eccentric fathers pushing their children, male or female, to become chess grandmasters and they don't. They just can't get there and of course for that reason, they never get heard of.
So I think as some scientists who study that, as I mentioned in the book, it's a coincidence that these two particular girls were able to achieve what they did, by a mixture of talent and hard work I'm sure. And not one or the other. You need to keep in mind that equation. It's both, it's not one or the other.
© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Other parts of the series: