Although their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. Daniel Tammet is one of them. Over 30 years, the London-born mathematical and language whiz has transformed from an awkward, reclusive boy into a confident adult. His quiet, private life of strict routines gave way in 2006, when his memoir Born on a Blue Day became a best-seller, necessitating travel, self-promotion, and talk show appearances. His latest book, Embracing the Wide Sky, is a scientific exploration of his extraordinary abilities (reciting pi to 22,514 places, learning to speak Icelandic in a week) and a tour of autism.
On August 18th and August 19th, 2009, Daniel was gracious enough to let me peer into his world. I was aware of the great number of interviews with Daniel that already exist, but as a psychologist, I still had many lingering questions, which Daniel was very patient in answering for me. These two days, I left my prior expectations, biases, and ways of thinking at the door and transported myself into Daniel's mind. As a result, I was fortunate enough to be able to share his unique way of seeing the world.
Daniel's insights changed my own way of thinking, not only with regards to Autism and Asperger's syndrome, but also in terms of the full extent to which personal change is possible, the nature and nurture of individual differences, intelligence, creativity, genius, fiction, art, poetry, math, love, relationships, the mind, brain, the future of humanity, and the appreciation of many different kinds of minds. A portion of my interview can be found in the November/December issue of Psychology Today (Numbers Guy: An autistic savant joins the wider world).
Over the coming days I will reveal my complete interview with Daniel, laid out in six parts. I hope you find Daniel's reflections, insights, and ongoing journey just as fascinating and thought-provoking as I have.
In this fifth part (see parts I, II, III, IV, VI, postscript), Daniel talks about creativity, the mind, brain, intuition, late bloomers, the genetics of homosexuality, love, and the effects of the modern information age on how we see the world.
S. I was really fascinated by your hyper connectivity theory of creativity. There are a lot of theories of creativity in the field of creativity but I found yours quite unique amongst the theories out there. Could you please summarize briefly your theory of creativity?
D. Sure. Of course creativity is a mystery. We don't know what drives it or what constitutes it. It's one of those things, like genius, you know it when you see it but it's impossible to define. In my own experience doing the research I did for Embracing the Wide Sky, I saw many examples of creativity within the autistic spectrum. This intrigued me because I had read that scientists had up until very recently believed that autism and creativity didn't go together- that it was kind of an oxymoron to imagine that someone could be a creative person with autism. And that isn't the case.
When you have a brain that has developed differently then of course there will be parts of the brain - perhaps those parts that deal with social interaction and so-on- that develop in such a way that impinges on the person. That's part of the cost that I was talking about. But one can easily imagine in the same way that in other parts of the brain, parts that deal with language or numbers or memory and so on that there is a development that actually enhances those abilities.
My theory is that the connectivity that we see in pretty much every young child up until perhaps the age of five or six- where the brain in essence overdevelops the connections between the cells and then quite literally prunes them back to prevent information overload, psychosis, and so on to make the activity in each separate part of the brain as efficient as possible- perhaps that pruning back doesn't take place or doesn't take place in the same way for the those on the autistic spectrum. And that hyper connectivity is what drives creativity, because it allows the person to draw information and ideas and emotions and experiences simultaneously from different parts of the brain and therefore not to rely so much on categorization of skills, or of ideas and so-on in a way that most people do. Being able to make those kinds of unusual leaps between one idea and another or between one emotion or image or experience and another, most people would agree is a characteristic of creativity. So that strikes me as a very plausible theory.
S. You've argued that your numerical abilities are the result of this abnormal cross communication between the number and the language regions of your brain. In your book you write that for most people, the left parietal lobe which processes numbers and the left frontal lobe which processes language are indeed next to each other in the left hemisphere. So do you think the two areas communicate more in your brain than in "normal" brains?
D. Yes. That's the theory.
D. That is again a reference to the hyper connectivity theory, which says that creativity is the result of increased activity, an unusual communication between regions of the brain that are normally kept separate. What I am suggesting, and it's my best guess, of course I can't know for sure, is that those regions of the brain that are normally close together, are clearly very active in my brain, seeing that I speak many languages, I am a reasonably good writer, write poetry and have a great sensibility for language for as long as I remember and had this ability for numbers and calculation and memory as well. But is there perhaps some kind of symbiosis going on between these two regions that would explain the hyper activity in both? That would make it easy to imagine that these regions are capable of that much amount of hyper activity.
One explanation would be that the numbers part is maybe feeding into the language part, or the language part into the numbers part. And so what I suggest is that the way that I visualize numbers, in particular, has clear analogies with language and how people use language. That when we say words like giraffe, for example, we visualize a giraffe. We don't sound it out in our minds according to the syllables or spell it out according to the individual letters. We take it as a whole. We visualize it as a whole. We don't pick out the ears and the nose and the neck and so on, we can just visualize it as a whole instantly taking all of the different constituent parts and drawing them in together into that particular example.
And in a sense, that's what I'm doing with numbers. When I have a number in front of me, and I am able to visualize it, I am essentially assuming the number is it's composite, and visualizing the constituent parts, the prime factors and each of their shapes and colors and textures is forming a whole in the same way that the torso and the nose, the neck, and the spots and so on is making the image of a giraffe in our mind.
S. What do you see as the importance of intuition and logic in creativity? Do you think they're both about equal measure?
D. I have no idea what the balance would be. I think both are important. Logic obviously is important. You need to be able to figure things out, to go to the end of a particular problem. But intuition is very important because it references things that logic alone cannot. You're drawing on life experience and different ways of approaching a problem and I think those are very important.
When you look at the example, another example I give in the book, a chess champion like Gary Kasparov, squaring off against a computer. He was able to crunch and calculate two hundred million moves per second. What is so startling is that Kasparov isn't wiped off the board straight away, he isn't. He's able to compete. It's not easy for him, and he may lose more often than he wins, but that he's even competitive is astonishing. What he's able to do is just look at the chess board. It's what he's done, pretty much his entire life, since he was a young boy where he was born and raised. He's looking at that board and his whole life is flowing in front of his eyes and he's just visualizing the shapes in his mind, the possible configurations, combinations, all kinds of possibilities opening up to him that other chess players and even a computer alone with its logical step by step approach isn't seeing because computers aren't yet powerful enough to go to the end of every possible combination.
They're having to sift enormously, and in the process sifting out moves that to them look bad because they've been programmed in a certain way to find them bad. In very rare situations it's imaginable that where a move that looks bad in almost every other possible situation imaginable is actually good. The computer won't see it, but someone with the intuitive ability and the life experience of a Kasparov would. That's fascinating and I think that demonstrates the importance of both.
S. A topic I've been interested in is the topic of late bloomers. Are you familiar with that expression?
S. What do you think a "late bloomer" is? Do you see great opportunities for people to bloom later than the typical time for blooming in a domain?
D. I put it in terms of talent plus environment. If we didn't think of environment in those cases as being opportunity, because if you're born in a very poor environment, where you're not given books and you're not given good education and then subsequently doors are closed to you that are open to others who perhaps don't have your talent or your desire to excel in a particular field by virtue of their class or their skin color or whatever, then I could well imagine that throughout our history there are people who have come into their own relatively late in life. Because for the first time they had those opportunities given to them they didn't have earlier on and were able to prove themselves later on.
Of course people often think of age as something that is inherently negative. That it just cuts down on our ability to think, that we're losing neurons all over the place and so-on. But as I explain in Embracing the Wide Sky in the very first chapter on the brain, scientists now know that that isn't the case. It's a very simplistic way of thinking about how the brain works. In fact, connections can continue to grow all throughout our lifetime. People can continue to be creative and contribute to society into their hundreds even, if they live as long as that. I'm very comfortable with the idea of there being late bloomers and for me of course there's no difficulty at all in the way that I think of talent and achievement and so on.
S. The genetics of genius is a controversial topic in psychology right now and there is some really interesting research linking homosexuality to creativity. There's also a lot of discussion on whether homosexuality is genetic or not. Do you have any thoughts at all about these lines of research and their findings?
D. Not really. Probably for the same sort of reasons that I discussed about Steven Pinker's observation about differences and the fact that a phenomenon is much more interesting than the differences within it. And I think that the phenomenon of sexuality or relationships or those sort of things is much more interesting, much more important for scientists to grapple with and understand as far as possible than the differences themselves, which obviously have an importance, have a stake. But from my own, perspective, I'm wary. I find that scientific accounts can often come across as rather dry and stilted.
In my case, the way that I fall in love is, for me, it's a very personal thing. The genetics of it is less interesting for me than the actual experience and the consequences of that experience for my own life. I'm aware of course that creativity is found in many gay people but of course it's also found in many people who aren't gay. So I'm not sure that there is a significant correlation between the two or even if there is any kind of correlation found that it would necessarily prove anything.
S. What do you think are the effects of the modern information age on how we see the world? I know you write a little bit about it in the book, is there anything you want to say about it to me right now?
D. Well there's a chapter in fact in Embracing the Wide Sky.
S. I know, it's your last chapter.
Information is good of course. We need information, we need to have access to it and when you have censorship or a lack of access to it, it can be devastating. At the same time, I think what's important is knowing what is this information, having an ability to understand or give some kind of value to it.
In ancient societies before writing even, a lot of information was passed down orally through song and stories and chants and so-on. This had a kind of value placed on it, because information was shared socially. I can imagine that if someone was passing on information and it wasn't accurate, for whatever reason, then it would be easier to pick out and to judge and to evaluate on that kind of social basis, whereas if you sat on your own in front of a computer and you're surfing the Internet and you're looking on Wikipedia and picking out a fact, you're not necessarily in the best situation to evaluate and to judge whether this is accurate or not. That's a very different situation.
And I think that's one of the risks and the problems. Information now is not filtered in the same way socially as a society. The focus is no longer on a culture as a whole, or community as a whole, but on an individual, and some individuals are very well qualified to evaluate their own place, to evaluate all kinds of information. Others aren't. And even the best qualified, very highly educated doctors and scientists are not necessarily best placed to evaluate questions on faith or the nature of love or what makes good poetry or whatever. I think that this kind of seeing information more and more as lots of data rather than as interconnected stories and ideas that rely on finding connections between individual dots of data, I think that's an important shift and a potentially problematic one that we need to be aware of.
© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet at the top: Rex USA.
Other parts of the series: