What if every number had its own color, texture or sound? Maybe the number 11 is bright and shiny, five is loud like a clap of thunder and 37 is lumpy like oatmeal. That's how 29-year-old Daniel Tammet interprets numbers. He has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, and is what many call an autistic savant. Daniel has the ability to calculate and memorize large sums of numbers as well as learn new languages with little effort. Dr. Oz talks to Daniel about his rare abilities and the way his mind works.
When he was 4 years old, Daniel says he suffered from near fatal epileptic seizures, which he has now outgrown. He says the seizures, along with his mild form of autism, could be the cause of his unique way of processing information, called synesthesia. "Synesthesia is when wiring in the brain is a little bit different in some people and the consequence in my case [is] the senses are interrelated and mixed together," he says. "Different numbers have different shapes or different colors."
By seeing numbers in such a way, Daniel says he was able to break a European record by memorizing and recounting the mathematical constant Pi to 22,514 digits in just five hours. "All of the different colors and shapes and textures and individual numbers, they flow together in my mind and they're forming a numerical landscape," he says. "It is something that is incredibly memorable for me and so it helps to recite these numbers back."
Numbers are not the only subject that Daniel says he interprets differently than other people. He can learn new languages very quickly as well. In fact, while filming Brainman, a documentary about his life, Daniel says he learned the very difficult Icelandic language in just seven days. He says he learned Icelandic mostly by reading books in the language. "When I read sentences in another language I am able to work out what words mean from the context of the page," he says.
Scientists say Daniel's ability to articulate how his mind functions is much better than many other autistic savants. Daniel says he's working with scientists to figure out exactly what makes his brain so unique. In the meantime, he says his book Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant is a way for him to share his story and help others understand the autistic mind. "Little by little I think together, individuals like myself, scientists, researchers—we are getting a little bit closer to understanding what it [means] to be autistic, and more importantly, what it [means] in the end to be human," he says.
Published on January 01, 2008