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Daviel Tammet's 'Born on a Blue Day'

K. Smythe's picture

            The book Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet is the autobiography of a man afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder.  Daniel Tammet is best known for his savant abilities in the field of mathematics.   His most famous feat was his memorization of pi to more than 22,000 digits.  One of the main factors allowing Daniel Tammet amazing mathematical skills is his ability to synesthetically “see” numbers and to visualize mathematical equations in ways that the majority of the population can only imagine.

            In his autobiography, Daniel recounts his life as well as explains his manner of thinking in general and especially about numbers and mathematics.  Tammet describes numbers visually in a way that most of us cannot understand.  He describes nine as tall and blue, three as “short”, one as brilliant white, 11 as friendly and 4 as shy and quiet, prime numbers as extremely smooth and soothing. To him numbers are objects and feelings.  His mathematic skills are entirely mental, visualizations of the without equations etc.  One interesting question is where the difference between a “normal” mind and someone like Tammet’s lies. 

            One theory behind savant syndrome is damage to the brain’s left lobe which may cause the right brain, responsible for numbers and calculations, to compensate.  Tammet was affected by seizures as a child which may have cause or been caused by left frontal lobe damage.  It is interesting to think whether the actual architecture of the brain is different between a savant syndrome individual who sees the mathematical world visually like Tammet and someone like me.  Is the brain’s actual physical makeup different or is it simply the way that information is processed, possibly controlled by a more abstract function, which causes us to view things so differently?  Is something such as the I-function causing a different interpretation of the same information or do we actually have different proteins interpreting the same information?  The relationship that Tammet has with numbers is also particularly fascinating.  I wonder how a processing system which sees numbers as objects with characteristics, such as color, size, personality etc. developed.  Somewhere along the line human attributes and characteristics were passed onto these symbols.  It would be interesting to me to see if this visual thinking is conserved across other mathematical savants and to what extent.  Do they have similar feelings about similar numbers or are the characteristics described by Tammet unique to him?

            Tammet’s method of learning seems to be tied to visual thinking.  This seems to tie into his idea of numbers as mentally visual objects and his ability to see them as patterns in a landscape to solve mathematical problems.  Even spelling is learned visually by the shapes that letters make in a word rather than by what individual letters stand for.  Most things seemed to be learned by visualization which is another common ability among individuals with savant syndrome.  It is possible that this is a structural difference in the brains of these individuals however it is also possible that it is simply a predilection for learning in a certain manner.  Across the general population there are huge differences in the way people learn the same types of material.  Some prefer equations, some need pictures, some have to write it down, and some do it in their heads.  The manner of thinking described by Tammet could simply be an extension of these preferences to such an extent that many of us have difficulty conceptualizing it.

            This is interesting in regard to another theory surrounding autism: the focus on detail.  People on the autistic spectrum tend to focus on the smaller pieces of an object rather than the overall, more general perspective.  One theory is that the autistic brain is simply processing information differently and taking in more raw, unfiltered (or less filtered) data rather than interpret that data into a whole “picture”; this manner of processing is interesting in view of individuals on the autistic spectrum’s attention to, and memory of, details.  This ties into the book interestingly in a few senses.  Like many autistic children, Tammet’s experiences, especially as a child but even still as an adult, are very focused on detail.  Order, structure, routine and patterns are extremely important and if broken are a source of much agitation.  Aside from this general theme throughout Tammet’s autobiographical story, Tammet’s style of writing seems to reflect it also.  His attention to details is astounding and his memory, especially as a young child, of very specific details is unique.  His description of his life is very ordered and his writing in general very tight.  Stylistically we can see the detail and order fascination he describes come through in his writing.

             A work such as Born on a Blue Day­ and other accounts from high functioning individuals on the autistic spectrum are especially interesting and helpful.  The difficulty in communicating with some individuals with autistic spectrum disorder makes our view of the disease highly subjective.  The more we learn about the different ways in which these individuals might be thinking the better we will become at helping to support them.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Autistic thinking

"The more we learn about the different ways in which these individuals might be thinking the better we will become at helping to support them."

And perhaps to support each other/ourselves as well?