Have you ever wondered how reality feels to a mathematical savant? One person in particular would like to help you with that.
Daniel Tammet is an unusual guy for several reasons: he’s a “high-functioning” autistic savant who can recite pi to more than 22,000 digits, he’s got a talent for translating his subjective experiences into words, and he’s dedicated to explaining his synethesic perception of numbers to lucky listeners and readers.
In this fascinating TED talk, he shares some insight on how his mind works:
In my books, I explore the nature of perception and how different kinds of perceiving create different kinds of knowing and understanding. … I believe our personal perceptions, you see, are at the heart of how we acquire knowledge. Aesthetic judgments, rather than abstract reasoning, guide and shape the process by which we all come to know what we know.
Tammet goes on to describe how numbers are far more than just abstract concepts to him – they have colors and shapes, and even personalities. In fact, he explains, he’s able to perform complex calculations in his head because they don’t feel like calculations at all – instead, he intuitively fits numbers’ shapes and colors together in a beautiful harmony, which “translates” back into the problem’s solution.1
In a way, this invites comparisons with the method computers use to perform calculations: by taking advantage of the physical properties of electricity, circuit boards turn electronic switches on and off, and the resulting binary sequence (i.e., sequence of “on/off” switches) can be translated into a number. By shuffling huge amounts of these numbers around, computers can check the spellings of words, or render beautiful pictures.
But what’s mind-blowing about Tammet’s brain is that he’s doing this in reverse: he uses his aesthetic sensibility to perform numeric calculations, and sense whether the results are accurate.
There on the left is a painting Tammet made of the first few digits of pi. The colors and shapes, he says, represent various numbers, and the landscape reflects the way they fit together in his mind. But if I understand him correctly, the image isn’t metaphorical – it’s a literal depiction of the way numbers look and feel to him.
As Tammet points out in his talk, though, this ability isn’t limited to those with autism - to some extent, most of us have some related talents. One example is phonemes, the sounds that compose words: most people seem to have an intuitive sense for what feelings or ideas certain sounds should correspond to.
Take, for instance, words for “butterfly.” In the Amharic language of Ethiopia, it’s “birrobirro.” In Icelandic, it’s “fífrildi.” In the Native American Sioux language, it’s “kimimi.” The list goes on and on – in hundreds of completely unrelated languages from all over the world, people choose sound-sequences that call to mind the light flapping of tiny wings.
Thus, in some sense, we’re all synesthetes, able to correlate one kind of pattern (sounds we make) with a totally different kind (visuals we see) – and to somehow feel that this matchup is “right.”
How exactly these sorts of intuition work on the neurophysiological level is a question that’s still wide-open for investigation. One promising set of avenues for research are the unusual functional connectivity preferences in the brains of autistic people: local connectivity is much higher, and distant connectivity much lower, than in non-autistic brains. Intriguingly, these are similar to functional connectivity patterns that emerge in non-autistic people when they focus intently on a task, such as memorizing or recalling a string of numbers.
As brain imaging technologies become more precise and feedback-oriented, the relationship between autistic functional connectivity and synesthesia – as well as other attributes of savantism, such as extraordinary memory – promises to yield some incredible insights not only into autism, but into the ways all of our connectomes form complex heterogeneous associations.
1. As a complete side-note, this range of colors and feelings is very similar to the way I’ve always experienced phonemes and letters. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing, reading, and learning new languages so much.