Daniel Tammet: biography of the mathematical savant
An epileptic seizure endowed Daniel with special abilities for calculus. We review his life.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder whose clinical expression can be very disabling, since it presents cognitive, communicative and behavioral alterations. In addition, all of them frequently coexist with some degree of intellectual disability.
In a small percentage of cases, those who suffer from it (generally males) live with the aforementioned difficulty but also with some extraordinarily developed capacity. Those with this combination are known as savant (savant syndrome).
In this disorder the person usually maintains his verbal ability, so they are considered high-functioning autistic (Asperger's in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual). In fact, quite a few people have the ability to learn multiple languages effortlessly and in record time.
In this article we will discuss Daniel Tammet, one of these infrequent savants.. His case is extremely particular, as his extraordinary aptitude is oriented towards both mathematics and languages.
Who is Daniel Tammet?
Daniel Tammet is a British mathematician born in 1979, who was identified as a savant at the age of 25 years by the prestigious Simon Baron-Caroni Tammet. by the prestigious Simon Baron-Cohen, professor at Cambridge University. He is an exceptional case of prodigious savant, of which only a few dozen have been documented worldwide, and who is characterized by the extraordinary development of more than one cognitive function along with the preservation of intelligence (often exceeding the upper limits of normality).
He grew up in London and is the first of nine children from a humble British family that for years was forced to subsist on the charity of acquaintances and charities. His childhood was marked not only by the social limitations inherent to autism, but also by the onset of other serious pathologies (such as epilepsy) that persistently changed the way he thought and processed his reality.
A lot has been written about his life and work, even though he is still a very young person. For many years he has been visiting different universities in Europe and North America, sharing his experiences with hundreds of students and giving a faithful testimony of his divergent thinking. Several documentaries about him have also been filmed and aired on television, emphasizing his life and the particular way in which his childhood brain developed.
Getting to know Daniel Tammet involves discovering the particular way in which his mind works. We will therefore proceed to deal with the question in the following, with special emphasis on a key concept for his understanding: synesthesia.
1. The early years
Daniel Tammet's birth was an event for his parents, as he was the first of many children to follow. Their financial situation was not the best, but they harbored a vibrant longing for parenthood, so it was a gratifying and long-awaited event for this young couple. However, they were soon surprised that their son seemed to cry incessantly, and that he did not respond to their attempts to alleviate the grief that apparently overwhelmed him.
This was apparent from almost the first moment he came into the world, and involved regular visits to pediatric specialists. Undoubtedly this was an early sign of his autism, although it could not be diagnosed by the doctors of the time. It is necessary to consider that at twelve months he had developed the expected motor milestones and was formulating his first words, something that did not fit in with the way this disorder was conceived at that time (limited to Leo Kanner's criteria).
Little Daniel Tammet's play activities lacked any symbolic aspect.By the time he entered kindergarten, he tended to withdraw into a solitary space and engage in behaviors that his teachers would judge to be repetitive and without apparent purpose. He would spend many, many hours frolicking in a sandbox on the playground of that center, engrossed in each of the grains that slipped through his tiny fingers. The rest of the children were only the background for his restrictive interests, so he did not notice their presence.
Also at that time she expressed self-stimulation behaviors such as gently banging her head against the wall at home or in the nursery, as well as rhythmically rocking whenever she felt happy or joyful. During this chapter of his life he developed a certain rigidity in the way he acted, as he could not use any cutlery other than his own or hang his coat on any coat rack other than the one he had assigned to himself at school.
His younger siblings, who were gradually coming into the world, were of no joy or interest to him. Although he came to share a room with several of them over the years, Daniel Tammet always seemed to feel distant from the life that the rest of the family was building together, showing a strong preference for solitude (looking through colorful picture books or simply watching the way in which the white sunlight broke into a thousand colors as it passed through the crystalline prism of his window).
2. An unexpected event
When he was barely two years old, Daniel Tammet experienced an event that would change his life forever. While at home, he suffered an epileptic seizure, with a focus of activity located in the temporal lobe of the left cerebral hemisphere.. This problem is more common in children with autism than in the general population, but it was a serious setback that almost cost him his life.
The hospital admission lasted several days. After examination, carbamazepine (an Anticonvulsant drug) was prescribed and he was diagnosed with a severe epileptic seizure that had restricted his oxygen supply (he already had cyanotic lips in the emergency room). The accident could have been a turning point in the way Daniel Tammet processed information. Fortunately that was his first and last seizure, but something had changed forever in a deep corner of his nervous system.
3. An extraordinary ability for numbers
Studies to date, concerning the way the brain of people with savant syndrome works, indicate that a lesion in the temporal region of the left hemisphere could be at the basis of neuroplastic changes aimed at the right hemisphere assuming greater control of the situation.. Although the exact mechanism is largely unknown, it seems that this triggers novel ways of articulating neurological processes that result in a superlative development of compensatory cognitive functions.
In this sense, Daniel Tammet began to live with synesthesia. This is a rare symptom that consists of the perception of a specific stimulus in a sensory modality other than the one that would correspond to it by its physical properties (such as seeing sounds or hearing objects). In this particular case, the phenomenon would involve numbers in particular, in such a particular way that it was (from that time to the present) the basis for an extraordinary capacity for arithmetic calculation and mathematical reasoning.
Daniel Tammet is able to assign totally unique physical properties to each number, differentiating them from one another. Thus, some would be very large (like nine) and others tiny (like six). There would also be elegant (such as three) and full of edges (four). He even manages to distinguish numbers according to the way their surface feels to the touch, being rough and smooth. In this way, each number awakens in him a totally different set of emotions.
It is important to note that this ability is not limited only to simple numbers, but to all possible numbers in the known universe. For example, he would find 333 beautiful, while 289 might be unpleasant (to the eye, ear or touch). His preferred numbers would be the primes (which can only be divided by themselves or by unity), for he would feel them as smooth as the "polished pebbles of a stream". He would also find those with decimals pleasant, to the point that today he holds the European record for the recitation of pi (with 22,514 digits).
All these sensations contribute to the fact that he can make mathematical calculations impossible for ordinary mortals, since he performs a concatenation of mental operations (fusion, dissolution, etc.) in which all the physical properties that he assigns to numbers participate. In this way he "feels" them even before he has calculated them, recognizing them and pronouncing them within a landscape that he himself is able to generate inside his head.
4. Exceptional verbal ability
Daniel Tammet, in addition to being a mathematical genius, is fluent in eleven languages, is fluent in eleven different languages (and has even designed one of his own, known as Mänty), of which his favorite is Mänty.of which his favorite is Estonian (because of its richness in vowels). Its synaesthetic ability also extends to the words themselves, to which it attributes properties (color, sound, etc.) according to the way in which their graphemes are organized. Thus, a word can completely change its sensation when a suffix or prefix is added.
This ability also originated in Tammet's childhood, for there was a particular period when he wrote compulsively on rolls of paper. The activity kept him away from reality for hours at a time, and for him it was a rich stimulus full of nuances to delight in. There is an anecdote about how in his adult life he learned to speak Finnish in just seven days, in order to pass a test that was prepared for a documentary he starred in.
He currently teaches language classes and has a website dedicated to this purpose. It is also very important his literary production, as he has written or collaborated in a total of six works to date: Born on a Blue Day (2006), Embracing the Wide Sky (2009), Islands of Geniuses (prologue, 2010), Thinking in Numbers (2012), C'est une chose sérieuse que d'être parmi les hommes (2014) and The Conquest of the Brain (2017).
- Hughes, J., Ward, J., Gruffydd, D., Baron-Cohen, S., Smith, P., Alison, C., & Simner, J. (2018). Savant syndrome has a distinct psychological profile in autism. Molecular Autism, 9:53.
- Treffert, D. A. (2009). The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present and future. Philosophical Transactions B, 363(1522), 1351-1357.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)