Friday, April 27, 2007

Daniel Tammet

Lucky numbers


CONVERSATION, says Daniel Tammet, is like a dance: a dance for two people. You have to know the moves. We dance, he and I, in a simple room. A table. Chairs. Big windows. I tread carefully, listening only to the rhythm of the dance. But for Tammet there is competing music, a background cacophony that fills his head against the main track. Colours, sounds, light, textures. Right now he's noticing the way the light streams through the window and hits the door. He's noticing the smooth, polished wood of the table, the noisy hum of the air-conditioning. When I move he even hears the faint jangle of my jewellery. I take my bracelet off, lay it on the table in front of us with a clank, a sprawl of black and silvery grey beads that reflect the light.

Sometimes, when he feels almost assaulted by stimuli, Tammet holds something in the palm of his hand: a stone perhaps, a marble, a coin. It calms him. If very agitated, he walks in circles because the regularity of the movement soothes him. But perhaps I make him sound visibly odd, which would be wrong. You would walk by this gentle, slight, bespectacled figure in the street and not guess at his remarkable possibilities. But if you could open him up, if you could see inside his head and experience the world as he does, then you might be amazed. Tammet has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. But he is also one of the world's few savants, a rare condition highlighted in the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, which makes him capable of remarkable mental feats. A television documentary film later dubbed Tammet 'Brainman'.

Tammet speaks ten languages; he can learn a new one in under a week. He can perform at lightning speed mathematical calculations involving the multiplication of three-digit figures in his head. And he can recite the number pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) to 22,000 places without getting a single digit wrong, a feat that takes five hours. Depending on how you look at it, Tammet represents either the untapped potential of the human mind, or merely a quirk of brain malfunction.

We are all of us to some extent trapped inside our own heads. Most of us can describe what it is like in there, in the way we can describe a familiar room. The nooks and crannies, the hidden corners, the colour of our mental walls. Some of us can even describe our own quirks and eccentricities and neuroses. But while people with autism often seem in a world of their own, ironically they have little sense of 'self' and usually cannot describe their world. Autism has become one of those words, like 'dyslexia', that is overused and misused, a kind of shorthand label to cover a whole range of conditions. "There are as many forms of autism as there are people with the condition," explains Tammet. But, in general, those with both high-functioning and low-functioning autism will have communication problems that, to a greater or lesser degree, make it difficult for them to cope with the normal etiquette of social interaction: eye contact, empathy, listening and responding. Their language may be repetitive, their voices monotone. Signs of affection are often limited. They may have narrow fixations, be drawn to repetitive activity and resist change. But at the same time, they are often more sensitive to sights, sounds and smells than the rest of us.

Autism affects six times as many males as females, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Unit at Cambridge University, believes the discrepancy between the genders may be partly explained by exposure to the male hormone in the womb. "Prenatal testosterone levels, together with as yet unidentified genetic factors, may predispose boys to be more at risk from autism," he says.

Those with low-functioning autism may be affected by low IQ and learning difficulties that make communication difficult. But people with Asperger's will often have normal or above-average IQ. Over time, some, like Tammet, may be able to teach themselves skills they naturally lack. You wouldn't guess now, but as a child Tammet found eye contact almost impossible. "I used to look at the mouth when people talked because that was the part of their face that moved. It was a real effort for me to look someone in the eye because I found it almost a little painful, too intense or uncomfortable. I felt too much inside myself and it was too much of a release to look someone in the eye. You get such a lot of emotion in the eyes."

Shadow man. Emotions, he says, fall like mysterious shadows across him. He cannot always define them. He went to the cinema once and watched five trailers before the main feature, then burst into tears. "My brain couldn't filter them, couldn't cope with that much emotion. If I find something very moving, it won't be a gradual sensation of being moved to tears, I will just burst into tears suddenly."

The brain is the most exciting, most mysterious part of all of us. Tammet's is more mysterious still, even to himself. Savants and people with autism live in a remarkable world. Rarely can they describe it. But at the age of 27, Tammet has reached a stage where he can. It has not been without effort. He remembers as a child the first time that he went into a library and was confronted by thousands of books. All of them had a name on the spine. He spent ages searching the shelves, looking for the book with his name on it. "I thought," he says, "that I would find it and open it and understand who I am."

tammet was different long before he knew he was different. As a child his 'otherness' to his contemporaries was of no consequence. They simply did not exist in his very solitary universe. Even before he could read he loved the books that his parents read. It was not just the silence they prompted, it was the fact that there were numbers on every page. He would take as many books as possible to his room and simply surround himself with them, "kind of like a numerical comfort blanket".

He has synaesthesia, which means he sees numbers in colour and has an emotional response to them. "People with synaesthesia will say four is green or five is black, but what makes my experience of numbers so unusual is that it's much more complex than that. Nine is not just a colour, it's a shape, a size, an emotional content." His favourite number is four because it is shy, just like him. "Numbers were my friends. Before I could relate to other people, I could relate to numbers."

But by the age of eight or nine, some awareness of loneliness kicked in. "I wanted to find a friend desperately." He would sit on his bed in his room and stare at the ceiling, wondering how a person got a friend. He had no idea. Other children were put off by his strangeness, his unusual fixations - at one point it was ladybirds - and his inability to follow the steps of the intricate dance of conversation. And then another unusual boy came to the school. "He was from an immigrant family and very intelligent. He loved numbers and loved language, and we got on for that reason. He didn't care so much that I was different because he was different."

He accepts his condition may be genetic. His grandfather suffered from severe epilepsy, his father from severe depression. Medical science at the time had no answers for his grandfather's condition. He was put in a home and his wife was told to remarry and forget him - he might as well be dead. And very soon he was. "I think," says Tammet, "if my grandfather could have known me, he would have been proud of me."

When Tammet had an epileptic seizure at the age of four, his father's own experience made him quick to act. His speed saved the boy's life. Epilepsy is common among those with autism, but Tammet outgrew the condition and has suffered no seizures since. But it has left an interesting question mark. He has no pre-seizure memories, and therefore no way of knowing if he had any savant abilities at that age. Some scientists believe Tammet may be an 'acquired savant', rather than a born savant, and that his abilities are in some way connected to damage caused by the seizure.

Dr Darold Treffert, clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, author of Extraordinary People and consultant on Rain Man, believes acquired savant skills suggest there may be "a little Rain Man in all of us". He believes savant syndrome may be caused by damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, with dramatic right-hemisphere compensation. "While savant syndrome is a malfunction of the brain," he explains, "perhaps it is that malfunction that releases dormant capacity as a back-up system."

But there is no conclusive evidence about savant syndrome. The idea of dormant brain function in all of us may be "romantic optimism", according to Baron-Cohen, who adds that "there is no consensus" about left-hemisphere damage. His interest in Tammet lies in discovering if there is something in the combination of synaesthesia and Asperger's that has caused Tammet's savantism.

Some savant abilities are remarkable because of the person's general limitations. Treffert describes them as "islands of brilliance" that float in a general sea of disability. The person might have a gift for drawing or for music or for calculation that is remarkable given their other limitations. But prodigious savants, as they are sometimes called, have gifts that would be remarkable in any person. They are very rare. What makes Tammet rarer still is that even prodigious savant skills often exist alongside very low IQ and serious physical handicap such as blindness. Leslie Lemke, for example, is blind, mute and has cerebral palsy. Yet the American can play an entire piano concerto flawlessly after hearing it only once.

It was for an epilepsy charity that Tammet recited pi to 22,000 places. The numbers, he says, rolled in front of his eyes like a moving numerical landscape. I tell him that reading his account prompted a strange sensation in me. I actually felt frightened, almost nauseous. He nods. He understands that? Well, he was too wrapped up in the numbers to have any sense of this himself. But he was told afterwards how emotional people in the audience were. Some were almost crying. Some looked very intense, others were simply fascinated. One who was interviewed afterwards said it was almost like a spiritual experience, like watching someone recite holy scripture from memory.

Tammet is not displeased with the analogy. "I thought, wow. The number pi meant such a lot to me, but it amazed me that the process of reciting it, of making it public, had touched other people as well. Pi is a very private number. Most people only know it to a few places, if that. I was able to unearth to the public gaze 22,000 places, a flow of numbers people had never experienced before."

Perhaps what prompted my fear was some uneasy feeling that it reduced the human brain - and the human condition - to something mechanistic: an accident, a malfunction. We were simply electrical circuits, and if the wiring went wrong strange things would happen. It was a paradox: it was both mysterious and yet it somehow removed mystery. But Tammet says his brain is not a machine. "Numbers are my friends. There is real emotion there. Machines can't have friends."

Interestingly, there is a spiritual dimension to his brain. It prompts his one criticism of the best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's. The author, Mark Haddon, made a good job of describing anxiety, the need for repetition and the love of numbers, he says. But Tammet found the dismissal of religion as "illogical", a bit stereotypical.

His own belief in God began after reading the Christian writer GK Chesterton. (He can't help wondering if Chesterton was also a savant and autistic.) "For most people, religion is an emotional thing. For me, it is primarily intellectual, although there is emotion there as well. Life is a magical thing. The explanation of religion is crazy in a sense, but life is no less crazy. The mystery of it is just as weird and wonderful as religion's explanation of it. When scientists try to break everything down there's always a piece missing."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his reverence for numbers, the mystery of the Trinity draws him. One in three, three in one. But what sense does his brain, which makes concrete pictures even of numbers, have of an abstract God? "What is God made out of if he is not made of flesh and bones?" he muses. "He is, by his very nature, love and relationship. The process of loving somebody creates something that is separate from either person, the lover or the loved. Of course, if a man and woman get together they can produce a child, and in a sense that is the human trinity. That is how I conceive of God, as a relationship."

It is not to science but to love that Tammet attributes the biggest breakthrough in his Asperger's. He met his partner, Neil, in 2000. Before that, of course, his parents loved him. But parents have no choice. Neil had a choice. "I had no idea if I was a person who could be loved," Tammet admits. "I had no sense of myself."

Afterwards, he realised how emotionally flat his life had been. His mother, for example, had been the woman who gave him food and kissed him goodnight, but he had given little back in emotional response. But Neil made him see the world differently. "Falling in love really sharpened my emotions, drew them out of me, made me realise emotions weren't my enemies, not things I had to wrestle with, but things that could actually bring me great joy and happiness and peace. They could take away the feelings of anxiety, of not belonging, of being disconnected from the world."

Tammet works from home running an internet-based teaching business. Practically, he is very dependent on Neil, who has to shave him because his co-ordination skills are so poor. But is he emotionally more vulnerable than most? Could he cope with losing Neil? "It's the thing I fear more than anything else. Emotions like grief are so raw, and I am frightened of experiencing them because I don't know how I would cope. Neil understands me totally and has no problem with the way I am. If he was gone from my life I don't know how I would cope. It's a terrifying thought for me."

Tammet's favourite book is The Little Prince. He loves the idea in it that if you looked into a sea of a million people, it is the person you love that your eye would single out. This is how it is for him. "There are so many things going on in here, but if my partner walked in now he is all I would see."

finally there will be a book with Daniel Tammet's name on the spine. And it will explain who he is. In Born on a Blue Day, both his difficulties and his awakening consciousness of himself and others are charted. The miracle is that he wrote it himself.

To scientists, Tammet represents a rare opportunity. "Most savants, you can see what they do," says Treffert, "but they can't describe what they do. Some people look at Tammet and say, 'We can see his ability, but where is his disability?' But when you read his book you see that disability was evident earlier on. The good news is that some autistic features and behaviour can lessen."

Autism is such a sad condition for parents to deal with. Tammet likes giving hope. Just before he was born his mother had a kind of premonition that her son would be different. "Whatever happens, we'll love him, just love him," she told her husband, and then she began to cry.

Now Tammet is proud to be different. "If there is one thing my example can do for people, not just on the autistic spectrum, it is to show that being different is not necessarily a bad thing. Each person to me is unique and amazing," he says.

Life is messy. Tammet's story does not end totally happily. His father's depressive illness has deteriorated sharply and Tammet has been unable to speak to him for many months. "His illness has gone beyond the point where he is rational," he explains. His mother relied on her husband; they had nine children together. Now she, too, has depression. "I do everything I can to help her cope with losing my father, because I don't think he will ever come back." His empathy tells its own powerful story of how far he has come.

He has enough sense of self now to be comfortable being Daniel Tammet. He even sees why he might be loved. Love, he says, has no equation, and when you love someone that person is ultimately a reason for loving. "There is something in me that my partner can't see in anyone else. And it's the same for me." It's like when he recited pi, he explains. People asked why. And the only thing he could say was for pi's own sake: he found the number beautiful. A strange, quiet beauty, like Tammet's own.

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