Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lively Numbers, Icelandic in a Week, and Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet is an extraordinary young who has been referred to as an autistic savant - his book, Born on a Blue Day has been released and he is appearing on talk shows and news programs. His interview on 60 minutes will be here until the end of the week.

Daniel's abilities are similar to S's in Luria's Mind of a Mnemonist - he has synesthesia which may have been triggered by an epiletic seizure he had as a child. With synesthesia, senses, perceptions, and feelings, are mingled, and letters and numbers may take on specific colors and personalities.

Excerpt from Daniel's book at ABC News:

"Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. The number 11 is friendly and 5 is loud, whereas 4 is both shy and quiet — it's my favorite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself. Some are big — 23, 667, 1,179 — while others are small: 6, 13, 581. Some are beautiful, like 333, and some are ugly, like 289. To me, every number is special."

Many synesthetes may not discover how different their perceptions are until they're adults. From the author of Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens,

"I was sixteen when I found out...I said to my father, I realized that to make an 'R' all I had to do was first write a 'P' and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line."

"Yellow letter? Orange Letter?" my father said. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you know," I said. "'P' is a yellow letter, but 'R' is an orange letter. You know - the colors of the letters."

"The colors of the letters?" my father said.

It had never come up in any conversation before. I had never thought to mention it to anyone. For as long as I could remember, each letter of the alphabet had a different color. Each word had a different color too (generally, the same color as the first letter) and so did each number. The colors of letters, words and numbers were as intrinsic a part of them as their shapes, and like the shapes, the colors never changed. They appeared automatically whenever I saw or thought about letters or words, and I couldn't alter them. Read more here, and buy her book here.

The incidence of synesthesia is not known, but it often runs in families, is not necessarily associated with autism, and often is seen among highly artistic and creative people. Richard Feynman had it (see our previous blog post link below).

In our clinic, we actually follow a handful of children with synesthesia. It can be associated with certain types of photographic or near-perfect experiential memories, but also sensory sensitivities and distractibilities that can be real challenges.

In the 60 minutes video, notice how when Daniel needed to close his eyes and look down when he read back the numbers - that's just what 'S' needed to do. 'S' said that new information was being translated into images, it was very important that he wasn't distracted or received any other sensory information at the same time - the danger would be that - that new item would be lodge in with the string of information he was specifically trying to learn.

You can see the downsides of this sort of perception, and why environment can be so critical. 'S' also spoke poignantly about the exhaustion of his memory performances - once the information had been memorized (for instance people writing or calling out random numbers) - he would never forget it.

Explore Daniel's blog, and many of his other thoughtful reflections in the book, including his struggles with types of information that he can't remember, like emotional expressions on faces.

Tammet has accomplished a lot with this book and his goals are generous: "By writing about my own experiences of growing up on the autistic spectrum, it is my hope that I can help other young people living with high-functioning autism, like my brother Steven, to feel less isolated and to have confidence in the knowledge that it is ultimately possible to lead a happy and productive life. I'm living proof of that."

You certainly are.

Born on a Blue Day Excerpt at ABC News
Savant Syndrome
Scientific American: Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes
EideNL Blog:Autism, Imagery, Synesthesia, and Genius
EideNLBlogSuperior Memory, Different Experiences
EideNL Blog: Trouble Remembering Faces

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