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Daniel Tammet: Brainman

By Darold Treffert, MD

Daniel Tammet first came to worldwide attention in March, 2004 on international Pi Day (3/14 of course) when he recited, from memory, Pi to 22,514 decimal places. It took over five hours and set a new European record. The event, which Daniel named “Pi in the Sky,” coincided with Einstein’s birthday and took place in front of Einstein’s blackboard at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England.

Daniel used that event to raise funds for the National Society for Epilepsy because it was after a series of childhood seizures that his extraordinary number and memory abilities began, aligning him with that rare circumstance of the “acquired savant” in which such exceptional skills surface following some central nervous system injury or disease. He is proud of the monies raised on behalf of this organization, and certainly gave this worthy cause a good deal of visibility.

In addition to number and massive memory skills, Daniel has exceptional language skills as well. He speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Esperanto and Icelandic. He learned the difficult Icelandic language in seven days, which was carefully documented in the one-hour film about Daniel titled Brainman.

That documentary, Brainman, which also goes by the alternative title of The Boy with the Incredible Brain, has been shown in both the United Kingdom and the United States on various channels. Whenever that film appears in this country on the Discovery Channel it generates a number of inquiries to this website about Daniel and his remarkable abilities. In one scene Daniel is asked to calculate 37 raised to the power of 4. He gave the correct answer of 1,874,161 in less than one minute. Then asked to divide 13 by 97 he outdistances the interviewers computer calculator 32 decimal places with the ability to go to over 100 decimal places if one wanted him to recite that long string of digits. The film also shows Daniel’s ability to memorize the position of all the chess pieces on a particular board at a point in time, and, as mentioned, documents Daniel’s acquisition of the Icelandic language in only a seven day time span.

Presently Daniel maintains a website at www.optimnem.co.uk, which offers a variety of educational courses for “promoting key skill areas such as literacy and number through spatial learning strategies for English, Math, French, German and Spanish. The Optimnem website provides the following description of Daniel:
“Daniel Tammet was born in London, in 1979, with congenital childhood epilepsy. A series of seizures as a young child changed forever the way Daniel saw the world around him. For one thing, Daniel was able to literally ‘see’ numbers in his head as if they were images. Not surprisingly, he quickly became proficient in number patterns, able to figure various roots, powers; even the decimal expansions for prime number fractions—often quicker than a friend with a calculator.”

“A high-functioning autistic savant, Daniel outgrew his disability. His astonishing mental skills however remained. As an example, following an invitation from organizers, he attended the largest ever ‘Memory Olympics’ in London in 2000. He won a gold medal and was subsequently invited to London’s Institute of Neurology to undergo tests for a landmark study of prodigious mental ability. The summarized data, cowritten by some of Britain’s leading brain scientists, appeared in the New Year 2003 edition of the highly prestigious Nature neuro-scientific magazine.”

While filming Brainman, Daniel had the opportunity to meet and interact with Kim Peek. Both Kim and Daniel have massive memory capacity quantitatively, but the nature of that massive memory differs somewhat qualitatively. Kim has a huge store of factual material, but disqualifies himself a bit when it comes to math simply saying that is not an area of interest or strength for him. Daniel’s strength, on the other hand, is not in factual storage, but rather the ability to faithfully recall huge strings of numbers (or other items) which he literally “sees” before him as if on a tapestry of images, and in his ability to manipulate those numbers with incredible speed in various calculations and derivations. Both Kim and Daniel, however, are continually flooded with data within their areas of interest and expertise, vacuuming up such data instantly, and massively, storing it for later retrieval with incredible speed and seemingly bottomless depth.

I had the opportunity to meet Daniel at the Calatrava Art Center in Milwaukee while filming Brainman. His digit span memory exceeded that of anyone I had ever tested before and other tests of recall were, of course, entirely accurate. Daniel is a very polite, soft-spoken, gentle person; preoccupied at times and shy, not boastful about his enormous abilities. He described to me how he assigns a shape and color to each number, reaching into the thousands. As he remembers, or computes, these images appear as just that—images and colors—which he “simply” recites as he views them. When computing, the images merge together and out comes the new, correct combination for his instant inner viewing.  At the Calatrava art museum  there was a very tall tree-like structure composed of variously shaped and colored blown-glass composite pieces, positioned together like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  Daniel identified with many of those shapes and colors, each representing, as it were, one of the numbers and images continually present in his head. While it is difficult to image exactly what Daniel is experiencing as he “sees” numbers and objects flowing before him, that tree-like composite of colors and shapes provided, for me, some reference point, at least to better sense what that colorful, moving tapestry must be like imbedded as it is, with the huge store of numbers which have become, by his own description, Daniel’s friends.

Daniel’s first book—Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind—was published by Hodder & Stoughton in London in 2006. I had the opportunity to write the Foreword to that book.  The book was subsequently published in the United States by Free Press and became a New York Times best seller. It has been translated now into 18 languages. That book provides a great deal of insight into his very unique number, language and memory skills, and into his life overall.

It was a very pleasant visit. Daniel summed it up this way: “The line between profound talent and profound disability is really a surprisingly thin one.” The narrator concludes, correctly, that “The way Daniel can describe his inner world is giving scientists a window into the brain that they have not seen before. But the narrator also comments, correctly, that “this journey of explanation is just beginning.”

Daniel’s second book—Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind—was published by Free Press in January, 2009. In this book Daniel explores and summarizes the science surrounding special skills such as he possesses. Since most articles and books are written by others about savant syndrome and other persons with special skills, it is particularly insightful to have a book written by a person with special skills at the prodigious savant level.  His first hand account of his extraordinary number, language, memory abilities, along with his synesthesia capabilities, coupled with his  ideas as to how those interrelate causally, represent a truly  unique, and particularly insightful, viewpoint and perspective.

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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac
Wisconsin Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com
E-mail: daroldt@charter.net