Daniel Tammet is able to recite 22,514 digits of pi from memory. An author with autistic savant syndrome, he thinks such astounding abilities are not due to some cerebral or genetic fluke, but based on an associative form of thinking and imagination.
He thinks differences between savant and non-savant minds have been exaggerated, to the detriment of how most of us value our own abilities and develop our talents.
In his new book, Tammet explains that people may consider his kind of extraordinary ability as just that – extraordinary, out of the realm of possibility for non-savant people, but he thinks that is a wrong presumption.
He says it is a “surprisingly common conclusion: that individuals with very different minds must use them in some fundamentally different, almost magical way.
“As one of the world’s few well-known autistic savants, I have received all manner of strange requests: from being asked to predict the following week’s winning lottery numbers, to requests for advice on building a perpetual motion machine. Little wonder then that conditions such as autism and savant syndrome remain poorly understood by most people, including many experts.
Not supernaturally gifted
“It is not only savant minds that are considered somehow supernaturally gifted and therefore set apart from those of most other people: the success of outstanding individuals in numerous fields, from Mozart and Einstein to Garry Kasparov and Bill Gates, has been attributed by many to minds they regard as unearthly and inexplicable.”
Tammet thinks “this view is not only erroneous but harmful, too, because it separates the achievements of talented individuals from their humanity; an injustice both to them and to everyone else.
“Every brain is amazing. Researchers know this after many years of studying the minds of highly gifted people, as well as those of housewives, cab drivers, and many others from all walks of life.
“As a result, today, we have a far richer, more sophisticated understanding of human ability and potential than ever before. Anyone with the passion and dedication necessary to master a field or subject can succeed in it.
“Genius, in all its forms, is not due to any mere quirk of the brain; it is the result of far more chaotic, dynamic, and essentially human qualities such as perseverance, imagination, intuition, and even love.
“Such an understanding of the human mind enriches, rather than detracts from, the popular appreciation of the accomplishments of highly successful individuals.”
From Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, by Daniel Tammet.
Rain Man ability probably in all of us
In his article Is There A Little Rain Man In Each Of Us?, Darold Treffert, MD declares that “some Rain Man ability — savant-like skill and capacity — probably exists in each of us.”
He explains, “There is evidence that some savants, because of prenatal, perinatal or postnatal central nervous system damage, from a variety of genetic, injury or disease processes have substituted right brain capacity in a compensatory manner for left brain dysfunction and limitation.
“Simultaneously, because of those same injurious factors, these savants have come to rely on more primitive cortico-striatal (procedural or habit) memory rather than higher level cortico-limbic (semantic or declarative) memory.
“This combination of right brain skills coupled with procedural memory produces the constellation of abilities and traits that is savant syndrome.
“But that more primitive memory circuitry, and right brain capacity, both still exist in each of us.”
The image is from his book Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome.