Daniel Tammet’s Superhuman Feats
20/20 premiered its fascinating show entitled “Superhumans” last night on ABC. One of the “superhumans” that 20/20 featured is Daniel Tammet, a mathematical genius empowered by a condition known as autistic savant. Before we learn what exactly autistic savant is let’s take a quick peak at what Daniel Tammet can do:
1) Tammet recited the mathematic constant Pi (3.14…) from memory to the 22,514th decimal place. It took him 5 hours and 9 minutes to do it, but he got every single digit right in setting the European record for reciting the number Pi from memory (most of us would be doing exceptional if we could remember the first 100 digits).
2) Faster than you can type it into a calculator, Daniel Tammet can tell you what 27 to the 7th power is (that’s 27 multiplied by itself seven times). The answer? 10,460,353,203.
3) Tammet can speak 9 languages. He learned Icelandic (one, if not the most difficult language on earth, to learn) in only one week and has even created one of his own–Manti.
Tammet has savant syndrome, a very rare condition in which people are exceedingly brilliant in a particular area. Only .9 percent of American children have autism and 10 percent of people with autism have savant syndrome. Tammet’s form of autism, called Asperger’s syndrome, makes him unnaturally obsessive and focused. As a result, Tammet, one of nine children from a family in England, experienced cruelty at the hands of his peers. According to abcnews.go.com, “Children would tease me. I would have gestures…flapping of the hands, walking in circles,” he said. “The other children would repeat that back to me, call me names.”
Growing up, he felt severely limited by repetitive patterns of behavior, and like most savants he found normal life and social interaction extremely difficult. It’s a tragic downside for people with autism that often results in isolation and ridicule. However, unlike so many people with autism, Daniel Tammet forced himself to acquire healthy social skills. Tammet trained himself to make friends and tell jokes.
Personal Experience with Autistic Client
Unless you have ever been around someone like Daniel Tammet or a person with autism, you will never fully appreciate their amazing abilities or their struggles. When I was in college I worked with people with various developmental disorders. One particular client I worked with had autism. The first day I met him the other staff members wanted to impress me with his remarkable ability to calculate numbers and birthdates. I remember walking away incredibly fascinated by his remarkable gift. My first test was to give him my birthdate to see if he could calculate the actual day of the week I was born on. I said, “Sid (not his real name), I was born on this date (I gave him the month, day and year. No sooner had I given him that information he spitted back out, “…uhhh…Sunday.” He was dead on. I then reeled off a series of numbers for him to add, “34+455+56+89+321”. Again, no sooner had I finished the last number and quicker than you could punch it into a calculator, he spitted it out.
Superhumans? Sure. If by that we mean someone who is gifted in a superior and extraordinary way compared to the majority of humans.
Daniel Tammet and his latest work
Currently, Daniel Tammet enjoys using his gift to share with both scientists and amazed audiences alike, traveling that comes with that sharing, and lecturing. Tammet has produced two books, an autobiography entitled “Born on a Blue Day,” which is a bestseller and has been translated in 20 languages and “Embracing the Wide Sky,” which details how our brains really work and how Tammet overcame autism.
Tammet says he was born with the ability to experience numbers in an exceptional visual way, called synesthesia, where regions of the brain associated with different abilities are able to form unusual connections. Unlike Tammet, in most people’s brains, the identification of colors, the ability to compute numbers, or learn languages all work differently in separate parts, and the information is generally kept divided to prevent information overload. But in synesthesia, the brain communicates between the regions. Tammet is able to see and feel numbers. In his mind’s eye, every digit from zero to 10,000 is pictured as a 3-dimensional shape with a unique color and texture. For example, he says, the number fifteen is white, yellow, lumpy and round.
“The numbers are moving in my mind,” Tammet says. “Sometimes they’re fast, sometimes they’re slow. Sometimes they’re dark. Sometimes they’re bright. That emotion, that motion, that texture will be highly memorable for me.”
Daniel Tammet, one of the Superhumans featured on 20/20, definitely has amazing abilities that is rarely found on planet earth. It’s too bad that rather than embrace such giftedness in others and encourage our peers, we too often treat diversity as a curse. If only our world would enjoy the beauty of people like Tammet early on instead of ridicule people like Tammet. Who knows, one day these “superhumans” may save our lives in the ER or through a cure.