Thursday, February 19, 2009

Inside the mind of an autistic genius

Daniel Tammet likes to call himself a high-functioning autistic savant. That means his brain is capable of learning a foreign language in a week and memorising vast chains of numbers perfectly

I would be lying if I said that I didn't expect Daniel Tammet to be at least a little odd. He has Asperger's, a form of autism, and is a savant with a talent for languages and numbers. This is a man who taught himself

Icelandic in a week and once recited the first 22,514 digits of pi - from memory. For those of us who knew pi was infinite but never really got beyond 3.14, it all seems, well, almost alien. He hates that idea. Daniel thinks savants get a bad press and it is true that the only really famous savant is Raymond Babbitt, the hopeless but engaging genius of the film Rain Man. Daniel has been called the British Rain Man but bridles at the comparison. As he has said, he has a partner, a job, friends. “How could I be considered a Rain Man?”
Daniel is 29 (a prime number and therefore, for him, good) and, the moment we meet, I can see he is no Rain Man. He may have grown up in the East End, one of nine children, lonely and odd. But, over the years, he has taught himself, with amazing pertinacity, to behave “normally” and now, I have to say, he's almost cracked it. “Savants have been seen as something supernatural or alien,” he says, almost as we shake hands (a learnt behaviour for him). “We have been marginalised and mysticised. But people like myself are very much human.”

He gives a little smile and, for someone like him (Aspergerians often do not show emotion), this is the equivalent of a church peal. His voice, as light as his handshake, seems continental or, I note, a bit Eurotrash. He doesn't blink an eye (he is looking straight at me, another learnt behaviour). How did that happen to an East Ender? Well, he says, he now lives in Avignon, where the French also think his accent has a continental twang.

Why Avignon? “I fell in love,” he says. He met his partner Jerome while promoting his bestselling autobiography Born on a Blue Day a few years ago. Before its publication Daniel lived a quiet life, a rigid existence aimed at calming his many anxieties. “I was very happy but it was a small happiness,” he says. With Jerome, though, his life has changed. His new book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is, as its subtitle says, a tour of the horizons of the human mind. It is about liberating our brains and he agrees that this also reflects his new life.

I ask first about numbers, which, for many people, including me, make them feel stupid, not free. Daniel imbues all numbers with meaning and he loves primes. “But all numbers are beautiful,” he says. “All have a kind of beauty.”

Well, I say, what about 338. That is the address of his publisher, where we are meeting. That's not prime.

“It's not. It's twice 13 squared.”

Is it? My brain races and comes up with...nothing.

“You can really only understand numbers in the context of other numbers. Numbers belong to clusters of meaning. What I do with numbers, when I am visualising them, allows me to put them into a context. People do the same with language. This is one of the similarities between how savants and non-savants work.”

Hmm, I say, thinking, I have no idea what you are talking about.

“For me 338 is only understandable when in terms of 13. You take 13, which is prime, and you multiply it by itself, which is a square, and that makes 169 and when you double it you get 338. I knew that immediately. I am able to visualise these associations: 13 would be a wavy number, 169 would be like a waterfall. Take that waviness and multiplying it into a waterfall; double a number would be to curl it around in my mind so 338 is like a waterfall that curls and loops in your mind.”

Well, I say, trying to imagine a curly looping waterfall, can we all learn to do this? He nods. He says that nonsavants do the same with language. When we hear the word “giraffe”, we immediately link it with words like neck, tall, animal. “It's exactly the same with me with 338. The only difference, then, really is that you are able to visualise words but not numbers and I am able to do both.”

I like the “only” in that sentence but, still, it is fascinating. But then that's Daniel. He is slight, soft spoken, unemotional. If I were to visualise him it would be as a piece of tin glinting in the sunlight: his ideas are sharp but you can almost see his brain bending at times. But then, he's had to be flexible. Otherwise he'd be living in his own world, not ours.

Daniel Tammet was born on January 31, 1979. He knows it's a Wednesday because he sees it as blue and all Wednesdays are. He calls his childhood “difficult”, a major understatement. As an infant he cried incessantly, as a young child he hardly spoke. At 4 he had an epileptic fit. He was the first of nine children. One of Daniel's brothers also has Asperger's, a high-functioning type of autism, but is not a savant as well. His father was a factory worker who battled with schizophrenia for much of his adult life.

Asperger's wasn't diagnosed until Daniel was 25 and so, at school, he got by as best he could. His talents for maths and languages did not compensate for his inability to socialise. His world was complex, bedevilled by small things: even brushing his teeth was problematical as he couldn't bear the scratchy noise and could only do so in short bursts and with parental help.

Plus he was gay. He says that from the age of 11, he knew he was attracted more to boys than girls but, perilously shy, he did not act on it. His first real relationship did not occur until after he'd left school and spent a year teaching English in Lithuania. He met Neil, his first love, on the internet.

Since adolescence, Daniel had set his mind to be normal. This was a leap of faith and, for him, acutely uncomfortable. It helped to have a large family but, at school, he also watched children in the playground “like David Attenborough, trying to look at a world that I didn't belong in yet”. It is this that sets him apart. There are about 50 other savants like him in the world, but Daniel, rarely, can tell us about it. This is what he started to do. He did a documentary. He met scientists. He did his pi feat (it only took a few weeks, he visualises such incredible number chains as landscapes). Famously, he learnt Icelandic in a week (he knows 12 languages and speaks English, French, German, Icelandic and Esperanto fluently). So how did he do it? “I immersed myself. I was given a tutor. I had lots of books. I wouldn't recommend it for most people. It was for a documentary.”

I make a small joke about Iceland's current predicament. He looks at me blankly. Humour is not natural Aspergian territory. Nor is embarrassment. At one point, when he tells me how pleased he is that a book reviewer has said he writes like Hemingway, I say that most people would be too embarrassed to say that. “I don't have any embarrassment. This is a trait, perhaps, of Asperger's.”

There is a quantum leap between the Daniel of his autobiography, published in 2006, and this book of ideas and insights. Then Daniel had been living in a Kent cul-de-sac, his life quiet and ordered. He ate exactly 45g of porridge every morning (weighed on an electronic scale) and counted the number of items of clothing he wore. When stressed, he closed his eyes and began to count (multiplying by two was especially calming). At the end of the first book, he writes about how much he enjoys cutting recipes in half.

“That feels a bit like a past life,” he says. And it is. He looks back on the pi feat as part of a “performing seal” phase. His life is much less prescribed, his coping skills improved (but, again, he has worked at it). He forces himself to endure being uncomfortable: even his interview with me would have been difficult. He gives falling in love with Jerome, a photographer he met in Paris on a publicity shoot, the credit. Buoyed by the response to his autobiography, he has embraced writing. It's an intellectually questing life, beyond recipes.

Our conversation keeps coming back to numbers. He says that maths is taught badly, rigidly. We are obsessed with achieving the “right” answer. We should estimate more, trust our instincts. Apparently we are born with an instinct for counting. If you tell pre-school children that John has 15 sweets and is given 17 more and that Susan has 51 sweets, three out of four will give the right answer when asked who has the most. Daniel believes his abilities are an outgrowth of such natural instincts.

As Daniel talks about numbers, they emerge like Mr Men characters: 4 (his favourite number) is shy like him as a child; 6 is cold and small. This process of giving numbers personalities is similar to the revolutionary teaching methods of Stella Baruk who, in France, is known as the “maths fairy”. It sounds more fun than all those sums.

Daniel insists that we all start with “great minds”. But does he really think so? Aren't some people just thick? “I totally disagree. I think everyone has amazing abilities. It is just a case of context. If you think about gossip. If you think about recognising faces. People on the autistic spectrum find that very difficult. We have been led down the wrong path that the mind is more and more like a computer. But it is completely opposite. Savants, rather than exemplifying the computer likeness of the mind, do the opposite. I love numbers. I love language. I dance with numbers rather than crunch them. Similarly with language. When I think of language I think of beautiful architectures of meaning. A computer can't do that.”

He is restless and ambitious. He likes the idea of turning 30. “Twenty-nine is prime. Thirty-one is prime. I like being between primes.” He is writing a book on faith (he is a Christian) and then he wants to write a novel. He knows that he is gifted but that is not enough: it is his desire to be ranked among the great minds. “But that's for me to demonstrate. I've made a good start but I'm very young and I've got many things to do.”

He stops, his eyes fixed on me. “I know that people can take the wrong impression. I don't mean to say how amazing I am but I've always been stung by the idea that I am a performing seal and I'm only interesting in terms of my ability to learn things quickly. I think people underestimate savants, but they underestimate themselves as well. If I can do amazing things, it's because I'm human. It's because, as Shakespeare said, we're all the stuff of dreams.”

1 comment:

Catana said...

Thanks for such an interesting post. I just finished Born on a Blue Day last night, and was longing for more of Daniel's insights. On to the next book. What was fascinating for me about his autobiography is how different we are in most ways (I have very mild Asperger's and numbers are a complete mystery to me), but alike in a few very subtle ways in areas that seldom come up for discussion.