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).
In this sixth and final part of the series (see parts I, II, III, IV. V, postscript), Daniel talks about the extent to which personal change is possible, his own personal transformation, whether he would still be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome if he was diagnosed today, fiction, "chick lit", his personal goals, his endeavors, lessons he's learned about life, love, and relationships, and the future of humanity. I hope throughout this entire series you have found Daniel's reflections, insights, and ongoing journey just as fascinating and thought-provoking as I have.
S. Can people change their personalities?
D. Yes, I'm a big believer in that. My own story demonstrates that very well. In a few years I have seen a very big change in my own life from the time that I wrote Born on a Blue Day to the time that wrote and promoted Embracing the Wide Sky. I'm now working on my third book, which will be a novel.
S. Wow, that's great!
D. It's very different from either of the two books that I've written to date. And a big challenge because up until several years ago, fiction didn't interest me very much. Or more specifically, most kinds of fiction- the kind of fiction that we see in shops today, Dan Brown or Stephen King kind of thrillers or Jackie Collins kinds of chick lit and so-on. And I think that holds true still. I don't understand the appeal of those books, I don't get them at all. People are more than welcome to buy them and to enjoy them.
But I think I am capable of understanding the bigger themes that fiction tries to tackle about love and purpose and meaning and triumph and sorrow and the themes that each of us lives with in our day to day lives in fact and which fiction through art attempts in a sense to elevate and explore in various ways. I do read a lot and I think in recent years the ratio between the amount of non-fiction and fiction has tipped quite considerably. I did read fiction as a teenager as well, mostly because I was forced to read fiction of course to go through high school.
S. What kind of fiction did you read?
D. Books like Animal Farm by George Orwell. Very good examples of stories that are relatively simple in one sense but profound in another. Today I'm reading more complex works- Dostoyevsky is one example. I find that the way that he describes characters and emotions and events is very dramatic and this appeals to me.
It makes it easier perhaps for me to understand those emotions and those impulses that drive people to certain situations and do certain acts because it's so exaggerated in a sense- it's so strong. And I can well imagine that fiction that is much more subtle would be harder for me perhaps to grasp in quite the same way or to appreciate in the same way. So I'll write the novel and we'll see how it goes. That's just one example of the progress, development, change, and evolution of my own mind in the past three years. So that's just one example of how transformation of our minds is definitely possible and neuro-plasticity is a very good explanation for that.
S. Well, I completely agree. Do you want to comment on any other ways you've changed in the past couple of years?
D. I'm certainly much more confident in my social interactions. I travel much more. From Embracing the Wide Sky, I went to the States, to Canada and to different parts of Europe as well. I gave interviews in several languages. I live today in the south of France in the beautiful city of Avignon, full of culture and history. And that suits me very well.
One of the things that I have mentioned in interviews before is that people with Asperger's often feel growing up that they are foreigners, that they feel so different, that they feel almost as though they were born in the wrong country or with the wrong language. And so they don't necessarily feel the affinity that most people do for where they're born and grew up.
I certainly feel today more comfortable in many respects speaking French, which is what I do on a day to day basis. I speak much more French nowadays then I do English, then I do speak in my native tongue. It's not to say that I don't find English a beautiful language, I do. I still read a great deal of it and I still write in English. But that's another example of taking a plunge. I have traveled before and I have lived overseas before, but only on a temporary basis. This isn't a temporary basis. This is a very definite break and I think it's definitely the right decision for me.
I moved about a year and a half ago to France and prior to that spent a few months in Quebec as well. I feel traveling certainly does broaden the mind. In my case certainly I feel more confident. It gives you a new perspective on the world. You meet people, you mix with people, you put yourself into situations that you wouldn't have had before. The life I describe in Born on a Blue Day was a much more limited one in many respects because that was the one that gave me the most comfort and the most security.
I think now I certainly have routines in my day-to-day life that are important to me and still give me those feelings of security and control. But the capacity to break out of those every so often as I traveled to see the world, to push myself as I did as a child growing up, I think has definitely given me a second wind, a second leash of rapid growth and development. And who knows where it will take me. I certainly hope that the novel will be a good one and will be a success and that it will allow me to continue to write good interesting original fiction into the future.
S. I hope it will as well, Daniel. What do you think set off this transformation? Was it having to promote the book and the travelling?
D. I certainly think Born on a Blue Day was a big trigger because it's allowed me to understand myself much more then I think I had up to that point and the success of the book was really phenomenal and no one expected it. I think the last time I read a figure somewhere it was half a million sales, half a million copies. And it's been translated into something like twenty languages. And the critical reception was extremely positive.
I think this was a big transformation, a turning point, because I realized that I had this ability to write. I had always loved to write and always had this sensitivity for language but to actually write in such a way as to keep a reader's attention and interest, to create sentences that are neat and where the words flow, have a kind of poetry and so on, a kind of music, is obviously not a given so to discover that ability was very enriching for me. I'd always loved creating stories as a young child although they were not perhaps stories that were very focused on emotions at that point. Unfortunately I don't have any of those, so I can't look back on that development. We moved several times in childhood. I have such a large family so my parents weren't able to keep everything. But it's interesting to almost have something you've got to do as a vocation.
I have received so many messages from all over the world in many languages, people from many backgrounds and I think that was very touching and very moving as well. The message in many cases was simply keep writing, you have something to tell, you have a gift and you have a voice and we want to hear it and we want to keep on hearing it. And that was very special for me.
People on the autistic spectrum do find it very difficult, for all the talents that they have undoubtedly, and all of the creativity that is within them, and unique insight that I think they really can lend to society coming from different perspectives and thinking things through in their own way. It's very difficult if the opportunities are not there and if they find it harder to interact, to relate to people, to knock on doors, to make themselves heard. That was certainly my story as well for a long time. I think the success of that first book and the success of Embracing the Wide Sky as well, critically and commercially, it's just very, very empowering.
S. I've been quite impressed by your personal changes over the past few years. Do you think that you'd still be diagnosed with Asperger's if you were evaluated today?
D. I don't know. Obviously, it would depend on the person who was giving the diagnosis, I guess. My understanding is that autism is primary a childhood condition, and in my case, that's certainly the case. The symptoms that I had, the clearest symptoms, were from my childhood. Very repetitive behaviors, great difficulty socializing and making friends, profound long periods of isolation and loneliness, difficulty understanding things that most people take for granted, and a great frustration and confusion at those feelings and inability to understand them and to understand where they come from. What is it that makes me so different. Clearly I've made enormous progress over the years. I'm now 30, so its been a long period of step-by-step progress. And clearly the person I am today has very little resemblance to the person I was 10 years ago and even less resemblance to the person, the child I was 20 years ago.
S. Do you think any person with autism can learn to lead a relatively normal social life, with enough training, as Simon Baron-Cohen is researching, amongst others? (thanks to Daniel Bor for this question)
D. I think it would all depend on the nature of the autism and how it affects each particular person and their life. And then again it would depend on how we define a social life, or what we would define normal as being. If someone is very shy, but is not necessarily autistic, is he more or less normal than someone who's very outgoing and mixes easily with other people? Or vice versa. I think one of the things that fascinates people about conditions like autism is that it makes them question what society teaches us about what normal is. People are incredibly variable in their tastes, in their interests, in how they behave, and I don't know if there is any of one size fits all way of behaving normally, of being happy, of being successful, and so on. I think it really is for every person as far as he or she can to figure this out for themselves. Of course they need help and of course they need encouragement to do that but in the end I think that that ancient datum 'know thy self' is about right.
S. Have you taken up any skills later in life? Do you have any talents in music or art?
D. In terms of my own example, I studied a little bit of art. I've painted a couple of paintings in the past year or so of the pi landscape for the first twenty digits, the colors and shapes and so on that I see as a landscape and more recently that particular sum that I mentioned in this interview- 53 multiplied by 131 and was the product of 6,943. I've painted that and painted the shapes and how they go together and the results of that as it emerges between the two prime numbers. So who knows, one day it would be an interesting possibility to have an exhibition of pieces where I produce enough art to exhibit and people can get a better idea, a further idea in any event, of how I'm able to visualize numbers, how I visualize sequences of numbers, how I do certain sums. And for sculpture as well, perhaps to work with an artist, with a sculpture on an exhibition where I display my paintings and with their help I'm able to work out sculptures of some of my numbers in three-dimensions, so people can really see them in three-dimensions.
S.Can you do life drawings?
I've never tried that. As a teenager I had classes, and I generally got very good grades because I did have that attention for detail. But whether it would be considered a talent as such I don't know.
S. Can you please walk me through a typical day in your life these days?
D. Obviously, it depends. At the moment, I'm at home and as I mentioned, home is in Avignon. I've an apartment with a beautiful view over the region and I spend most of the time on writing the novel. The chapters are fleshed out, the characters, the story line, my ideas and influences from my own experience but also from my own travels -- to Iceland -- where I have good friends, speak the language fairly well and have some knowledge of the culture. And so in that sense, I have a pretty quiet life for the time being. I'm writing most of the day. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or doing typical stuff like most people like watching TV or listening to music or going for a walk or riding my bicycle. Stuff like this. But of course, earlier in the year it was much more hectic. I was promoting Embracing The Wide Sky and with that I went to various countries and was travelling quite regularly. And occasionally, I've been invited to speak at certain events, and I've done so, and I've always been very pleased with the response from that country.
S. What are some personal goals for the future that you've set for yourself? Also, in terms of your new language that you've invented, what are the goals for the language and do you have any plans for circulating it around the world at any point?
D. In terms of Mänti, no I don't have any plans for it, or for circulating it. I have at various times in the past thought about the possibility. For the moment I just don't have the time to work on it and to make it viable as a kind of spoken language among different people. For the moment it's more about playing with words, playing with ideas and having fun, and so in that case it's just a very personal project that I'm happy to talk a little bit about as I do in both of my books, sharing in a bit of that fun, that poetry, but I don't take it much more seriously than that. That may change in the future, but for the moment that's how I feel about it.
In terms of other goals, obviously the novel is a big goal and potentially an important one because it would then be an interaction in my writing and in my writing career as a whole and I would certainly then envisage writing other novels in the future. I've written some poetry in the past, and it's very difficult to publish poetry, even poetry others might consider good poetry- it's a very small market. But who knows, it might be interesting to publish if I can. I might do that one day and let people see that. There's one of my poems in Embracing the Wide Sky and there is another that I've published a while back on my blog about pi and how I see pi, the first digits of pi in a poem.
[Interviewers note: Here is Daniel's poem, re-printed from his blog:
Three, One, Four, One, Five, and On
The numbers recount their endless tale.
Three - Barefoot green, a silent voice.
White as hunger, One is twice
Bright like babies' eyes.
Four is timid, envious of E.
Five, Punctuation or a pregnant sigh
Precedes proud Nine, colour of falling night.
Two, an unfastened knot,
A wayward wind, the hollow of Six resounding.
Nearby, Eight, a cloud of fireflies above a lake
Over which I skim Sevens
Remembering that Zero is nothing but a circle.]
S. Any other personal goals?
D. Just to continue to be true to myself. I know that there's a lot of interest in my story and in my abilities and in my future. And it's very positive and I take it with a lot of gratitude and understanding, but I understand that of course a certain amount of that interest inevitably could be negative in wanting me to say certain things or do certain things or behave in certain ways. Perhaps obviously there are perceptions of me, as there are of everyone else. But I think in my case being a high functioning autistic person, well known for certain unusual abilities, people often have an assumption that this is who I am and that's it and, you know, this is what defines me. And they kind of imagine that this will be my life to design numbers or whatever. And I have no interest at all in reciting pi ever again for example or doing calculations in front of a canvas.
My interests are much broader, much richer then I think a lot of people realize. Writing novels, and perhaps doing this art exhibition one day and travelling, speaking to people, and learning about life. I'm interested in language so who knows, there may be an opportunity for me to go on field trips one day and do linguistic research and write up some of the ideas that I have in terms of language. So all kinds of possibilities.
I think that is what motivates me- to know that I have this very unusual mind. I think there's a lot of possibility there and I'm really at the beginning of tapping it.
S. Yeah, I agree. So wrapping up, through your experiences with life, love and relationships, what are some lessons you've learned?
D. That life is incredibly complex and much harder to guess in advance than you might imagine. And in a sense you can't guess in advance. You can't work it out in advance. You just have to spend a great deal of time-more then you probably would ever imagine working out the consequences of things that you had no way of imagining in advance. That goes for all kinds of areas of life.
Also, coming from a background, as I mention briefly in my first book, I don't share the view that seems to be very common at present that faith is intrinsically bad, and that a belief in God is inherently delusional and dangerous. I think that kind of discourse is very damaging to how we understand the human experience, free will, consciousness, and the ability to change and to adapt and to evolve and to fall in love and all of these things that make us human.
I think these things can be addressed by a viewpoint that incorporates both ways of seeing the world. Of course there's a lot to say against organized religion. I'm certainly no defender of those things but I think we need to hold back a little bit from having this idea that there is some kind of impending revolution in the twenty-first century. It's one of the things that I criticized at the end of Embracing the Wide Sky. I don't think the future belongs to those who are making these kind of fantastic prognostications about our ability to make ourselves computers or in a sense immortal over the coming decades and so on and so on. I think that's fantastic and has no basis in reality at all and is dehumanizing. It's a very impoverished way of thinking about and understanding the human condition.
S. Thank you Daniel. Is there anything you'd like to add at all about anything before we conclude today?
D. No, I think it's a very, very comprehensive interview.
S. I want to thank you for allowing me to chat with you and for you very graciously sharing with me your complete, enlightening, and thought provoking thoughts. I just want to wish you all the best with your new novel and with the rest of your life Daniel.
D. Thank you and thank you for your time and I look forward to reading the fruits of this interview in a future addition of the magazine.
S. Thank you Daniel, have a great day.
D. Thank you, you too. Bye-bye.
© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman
Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet at the top: Rex USA.
Photo Credit for picture of Daniel painting: Jerome Tabet
Other parts of the series: