Daniel Tammet: The Boy with the Incredible Brain

This is a little documentary on Daniel Tammet, a savant man who can perfectly recite the sequence of pi up to the 22,500th decimal point, who seems to be able to beat the house in Vegas (at least once), who passes scientific tests conducted by the great V.S. Ramachandran, and who can learn new languages in a week.

Tammet's memory, however, does not seem to be what we normally think of as memory: storing massive bits of information in our brain. It seems Tammet's ability might be partially explained by synaesthesia, a condition in which two or more sensory neural pathways work together to produce novel kinds of experiences: associating specific numbers with colors, tasting sounds, feeling smells, and so on.

For instance, what ordinary people would see as the black and white picture on the top right might be seen by a synaesthete as the green and red picture below it. For many forms of visual synaesthesia you can apply exactly the same logic used for color blindness tests to come up with an interesting and revealing set of possible findings.

So, instead of 'remembering' bits of information, as it superficially appears, it seems Tammet's mind travels through a mental landscape of shapes and visual cues that order his experience as some sort of organized whole.

This condition might help us understand in some cases why some people are as successful and brilliant as they seem to be in particular situations. The great physicist Richard Feynman, for instance, seems not to have explicitly known he was a synaesthete, but he did wonder how other people might experience equations differently from him. In What Do You Care What Other People Think?, he mentioned the following:
When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde's book, with light-tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.
Makes you wonder about other historical geniuses, doesn't it?

I might be a bit of a synaesthete myself: when confronted with complex mathematical equations I have a very vivid experience of absolute fear, ha ha ha

Click here to take a test from the BBC to see your own level of synaesthesia, and here for the regular BBC page where the test came from.

Click here and here for professional papers on synaesthesia by V.S. Ramachandran.
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