Saturday, April 30, 2005

A Self-Aware Savant

It's a couple months old now, but The Guardian ran an interview with Daniel Tammet, an English autistic savant who is able to explain the process through which his brain computes so efficiently:
Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn't "calculating": there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think."
. . . .
Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University, is interested in what Mänti might teach us about savant ability. "I know of other savants who also speak a lot of languages," says Baron-Cohen. "But it's rare for them to be able to reflect on how they do it - let alone create a language of their own." The ARC team has started scanning Tammet's brain to find out if there are modules (for number, for example, or for colour, or for texture) that are connected in a way that is different from most of us. "It's too early to tell, but we hope it might throw some light on why we don't all have savant abilities."

Link. It sounds like Tammet's mental process is analogous to synaesthesia, but rather than conflating two sensations of different types (say, a scent and a sound), he's processing abstract concepts like numbers as concrete sensory images.

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