Daniel Tammet: biography of the mathematical saint

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder whose clinical expression can become very debilitating; because it works with cognitive, communicative and behavioral alterations. In addition, they all often coexist with some degree of intellectual disability.

In a small percentage of cases, those who suffer from it (usually men) live with the difficulty mentioned above, but also with extraordinarily developed abilities. Those who have this combination are known as scientists (sage syndrome).

In this disorder, the person usually maintains their verbal ability, so they are considered high level autism (Asperger’s in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual). In fact, few of them have the ability to learn multiple languages ​​effortlessly and in record time.

In this article, we will discuss the figure of Daniel Tammet, one of those rare scientists. His case is extremely special, as his extraordinary aptitude is oriented both towards mathematics and languages.

Who is Daniel Tammet?

Daniel Tammet is a British mathematician born in 1979, identified at 25 as a scientist by the prestigious Simon Baron-Cohen, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. This is an exceptional case of a prodigious sage, of which only a few dozen have been documented in the world, and which is characterized by the extraordinary development of several cognitive functions alongside the preservation of intelligence (which often exceeds the limits higher than normal). .

He was raised in London and is the first of nine children, from a humble British family who for years were forced to make a living on knowledge and charity charity. His childhood was not only marked by the social limits of autism, but also by the emergence of other serious pathologies (such as epilepsy) which constantly changed his way of thinking and dealing with his reality.

Much has been written about his life and work, although he is still very young at the moment. For many years, he visited different universities in Europe and North America, sharing his experiences with hundreds of students and faithfully testifying to his divergent thinking. Several documentaries about him were also shot and shown on television, in which the focus was on his life and the particular way his childhood brain developed.

Knowing Daniel Tammet involves discovering the specific workings of your mind. Therefore, we will proceed to deal with the issue in the future, especially abounding with a key concept for its understanding: synesthesia.

1. The first years

The birth of Daniel Tammet was quite an event for his parents, as he was the first of many other children to come later. The economic situation they were living in was not the best, but they had a strong desire to enter the fatherhood scene, so it was a rewarding and long-awaited event for this young couple. However, they would soon be surprised that her son seems to be crying incessantly, and that he does not respond to his attempts to lighten up the whole thing that seems to overwhelm him.

This circumstance arose practically from the first moment he came into the world and assumed regular visits to specialists in pediatrics. It was certainly an early sign of her autism, although it could not be diagnosed by doctors at the time. It should be noted that at twelve months he had developed the planned motor milestones and formulated his first words, which did not fit with the way this disorder was conceived at the time (limited to the criteria of Leo Kanner).

The playful activities of little Daniel Tammet had no symbolic aspectAnd by the time he entered kindergarten, he tended to retreat to a solitary space and display behaviors his teachers would deem repetitive and without apparent purpose. He spent many hours frolicking in a sandbox in the playground of this center, absorbed by each of the grains that slipped between his little fingers. The rest of the kids were just the backdrop for their restrictive interests, so I didn’t notice their presence.

Also at this time, she expressed self-stimulating behaviors such as gently banging her head against the wall of her house or nursery, as well as rocking rhythmically when she was feeling happy or cheerful. During this chapter of his life, he developed a certain rigidity in the way he acted, because he could not use cutlery other than his own or hang his coat on a hanger other than the one to which he had assigned himself. at school.

His younger brothers, who were gradually coming into the world, were not a source of joy or concern for him. Although he had come to share a room with many of them over the years, Daniel Tammet always seemed to feel estranged from the life the rest of the family built together, showing a very remarkable preference for just solitude. looking at how the white sunlight shattered into a thousand colors as it passed through the crystal prism in her window).

2. An unexpected event

When he was only two years old, Daniel Tammet experienced an event that would change his life forever. At home, he suffered an epileptic seizure, with a focus of activity located on the temporal lobe of the left cerebral hemisphere.. It’s a more common problem in children with autism than in the general population, but it’s a serious setback that nearly cost him his life.

The hospital admission was extended for several days. After the corresponding examination, carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant drug) was prescribed and a seizure of great pain was diagnosed which had come to restrict the supply of oxygen (because already in an emergency, she presented cyanotic lips). The accident could have been a before and after in the way Daniel Tammet handled the information. Fortunately, it was his first and last attack, but something had changed forever in a deep corner of his nervous system.

3. An extraordinary skill for numbers

Studies to date of the functioning of the brains of people with scholar syndrome indicate that damage to the temporal region of the left hemisphere could be the basis of neuroplastic changes targeting the right to better control the situation. While the exact mechanism is largely unknown, it appears to trigger new ways of articulating neurological processes that result in superlative development of compensatory cognitive functions.

In this sense, Daniel Tammet began to live with synesthesia. It is a strange symptom which consists of the perception of a specific stimulus in a different sensory modality than that which would correspond to its physical properties (such as seeing sounds or hearing objects). In this particular case, the phenomenon would particularly concern numbers, in a way so peculiar that it has provided (from that time to today) the foundation of an extraordinary capacity for arithmetic calculation and mathematical reasoning.

Daniel Tammet is able to attribute totally unique physical properties to each number, differentiating them from each other. Thus, some would be very large (like the new one) and others tiny (like the six). It would also have them stylish (like the three) and full of edges (the four). It even distinguishes numbers based on how their surface feels to the touch, making them rough and smooth. In this way, each number awakens in him a completely different series of emotions.

It is important to note that this ability is not limited to simple numbers, but is limited to all possible numbers in the known universe. For example, the 333 would look good to you, while the 289 might be obnoxious (to sight, hearing or touch). Their favorite numbers would be the first (which they can only divide by themselves or individually), because they would feel as soft as the “polished pebbles of a stream”. Those with decimals would also find him nice, to the point that he today holds the European pi recitation record (with 22,514 digits).

All these sensations contribute to the fact that he can make mathematical calculations impossible for ordinary people, since he carries out a concatenation of mental operations (fusion, dissolution, etc.) in which all the physical properties he attributes participate. to numbers. In this way, he “feels” them even before having calculated them, recognizing them and pronouncing them. in a landscape that he himself is capable of generating in his head.

4. Exceptional verbal skills

Daniel Tammet, in addition to being a genius of mathematics, he is fluent in eleven different languages ​​(and even designed one of his own known as Mänty), Whose favorite is Estonian (for the richness in vowels). And this is because its synaesthetic capacity also extends to the words themselves, to which it attributes properties (color, sound, etc.) according to the way in which their graphemes are organized. This way a word can completely change its feel when a suffix or prefix is ​​added to it.

This skill also originated in Tammet’s childhood, as there was a specific period in which he compulsively wrote on rolls of paper. The activity took him away from reality for hours, and for him it was a very rich and nuanced stimulus to revel in. There is an anecdote about how in his adult life he learned to speak Finnish in just seven days, aiming to pass a test that was prepared for him for a documentary he starred in.

He currently teaches language courses and has a dedicated website for this purpose. His literary output is also very important, as to date he has written or collaborated on a total of six works: Born on a Blue Day (2006), Embracing the Wide Sky (2009), Islands of Genius (prologue, 2010) , Thinking in numbers (2012), It’s a serious thing to be among men (2014) and The conquest of the brain (2017).

Bibliographical references:

  • Hughes, J., Ward, J., Gruffydd, D., Baron-Cohen, S., Smith, P., Alison, C. & Simner, J. (2018). Savant’s syndrome has a clear psychological profile in autism. Molecular Autism, 9:53.
  • Treffert, DA (2009). The learned syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present and future. Philosophical Transactions B, 363 (1522), 1351-1357.

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