Inside the mind of an autistic savant
* 31 December 2008 by Celeste Biever
Autistic savant Daniel Tammet shot to fame when he set a European record for
the number of digits of pi he recited from memory (22,514). For afters, he
learned Icelandic in a week. But unlike many savants, he's able to tell us
how he does it. We could all unleash extraordinary mental abilities by
getting inside the savant mind, he tells Celeste Biever
Do you think savants have been misunderstood - and perhaps dehumanised - in
Very often the analogy has been that a savant is like a computer, but what I
do is about as far from what a computer does as you can imagine. This
distinction hasn't been made before, because savants haven't been able to
articulate how their minds work. I am lucky that the autism I have is mild,
and that I was born into a large family and had to learn social skills, so I
am able to speak up.
When did you first realise you had special talents?
At the age of 8 or 9. I was being taught maths at school and realised I
could do the sums quickly, intuitively and in my own way - not using the
techniques we were taught. I got so far ahead of the other children that I
ran out of textbooks. I was aware already that I was different, because of
my autism, but at that point I realised that the relationship I had with
numbers was different.
To most people, the things you can do with your memory seem like magic. How
do you do it?
The response that people often have to what I can do is one of "gee whiz",
but I want to push back against that. One of the purposes of the book I've
just written, Embracing the Wide Sky, is to demystify this, to show the
hidden processes behind my number skills.
I have a relationship with numbers that is similar to the relationship that
most people have with language. When people think of words, they don't think
of them as separate items, atomised in their head, they understand them
intuitively and subconsciously as belonging to an interconnected web of
Can you give an example?
You wouldn't use a word like "giraffe" without understanding what the words
"neck" or "tall" or "animal" mean. Words only make sense when they are in
this web of interconnected meaning and I have the same thing with numbers.
Numbers belong to a web. When somebody gives me a number, I immediately
visualise it and how it relates to other numbers. I also see the patterns
those relationships produce and manipulate them in my head to arrive at a
solution, if it's a sum, or to identify if there is a prime.
But how do you visualise a number? In the same way that I visualise a
Every number has a texture. If it is a "lumpy" number, then immediately my
mind will relate it to other numbers which are lumpy - the lumpiness will
tell me there is a relationship, there is a common divisor, or a pattern
between the digits.
Can you give an example of a "lumpy" number?
For me, the ideal lumpy number is 37. It's like porridge. So 111, a very
pretty number, which is 3 times 37, is lumpy but it is also round. It takes
on the properties of both 37 and 3, which is round. It's an intuitive and
visual way of doing maths and thinking about numbers. For me, the ideal
lumpy number is 37. It's like porridge
Why do you think you treat numbers this way?
When I was growing up, because of my autism, I didn't make friends. Numbers
filled that gap. The numbers came alive. My mind was able to pick out
patterns and to make sense of them. It was similar to how a child would
acquire his first language. Do you make mistakes?
Absolutely. All the time, because of my intuitive approach. In the book I
give an example of how another autistic savant thought that 10,511 was a
prime number. That's the kind of mistake I could make, because it looks
prime. However, it is divisible by 23 and 457. It's a forgivable error and
not a rookie mistake.
What can we learn from the way your mind works?
The differences between savant and non-savant ability have been exaggerated.
Savants are not freaks, cut off from the rest of humanity. The thinking of
savants is an extreme form of the kind that everyone has. The aim of my book
is to show that minds that function differently, such as mine, are not so
strange, and that anyone can learn from them. I also hope to clear up some
misconceptions about savant abilities and what it means to be intelligent or
There is immense potential, and instincts for language and numbers, in
everyone. We could train these intuitions - especially at an early age, but
also at any age - and learn how to break down preconceptions about how
numbers should be thought about or how language works. Then, though people
might not necessarily be able to do all the things I can do, they will be
more comfortable with language and mathematics, and learning and education
You also excel at learning languages. How do you pick them up so quickly?
I have synaesthesia, which helps. When there is an overlap between how I
visualise a word and its meaning, that helps me remember it. For example, if
a word that means "fire" in a new language happens to appear orange to me,
that will help me remember it. But more significant is my memory and ability
to spot patterns and find relationships between words. Fundamentally,
languages are clusters of meaning - that is what grammar is about. This is
also why languages interest me so much. My mind is interested in breaking
things down and understanding complex relationships.
You have created your own language. Why?
My language - called Mänti - is about my love of words. If you have that
relationship with words, you will always want to express yourself but not be
able to find the word in your native language. I speak many languages and I
still can't always find the right sentence in any language. Mänti is about
having that freedom to play with language, to see what would happen if I had
a word for this or that.
What can you say in Mänti that you can't say in any other language?
I like the word "kellokult", which means "clock debt". It's a way of
emphasising that when you are late for something, it incurs a debt, you owe
someone that time. There is also "rupuaigu", which means "bread time". It's
a period of time, roughly an hour, that is the time it would take for bread
to bake in an oven. What I like is that it is the same for everyone in the
world. It's a more intuitive way of thinking about an hour.
Do you have a bone to pick with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote
about autistic savants?
Oliver Sacks wrote a famous account of autistic savant twins who counted 111
matches in an instant, as they spilled to the floor. Because he is famous,
this has gained a lot of traction. People have devised theories to explain
how savants might do this. But the likeliest explanation is that savants
don't instantly discern large quantities of objects at all. This ability has
never been demonstrated scientifically, nor has it ever been reported in
another savant. I think Sacks's account - which has been so influential - is
Why is it so important to get this right?
The abilities of savants have been pigeon-holed as somehow supernatural,
almost inexplicable and certainly not as part of the natural continuum of
human talent. This has deformed how the public and, crucially, scientists,
view the brain and human potential. It is insulting and potentially
dehumanising. The future is an immensely scary place, full of all kinds of
challenges. We will need every kind of mind, so why not bring along every
kind of intelligence? Profile
Daniel Tammet is 29 and grew up in London as the eldest of nine children. He
has Asperger's syndrome, synaesthesia and had epilepsy as a child. He has
taught himself French, Finnish, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Romanian,
Welsh, Estonian, Icelandic and Esperanto. He works as a writer and linguist,
and runs online language courses. In 2004 he set a European record for
memorising the digits of pi (22,514 digits in 5 hours and 9 minutes). His
new book Embracing the Wide Sky: A tour across the horizons of the human
mind is out this month by Hodder & Stoughton (UK)/Free Press (US) Issue 2689
of New Scientist magazine
* From issue 2689 of New Scientist magazine, page 40-41.