(Editor’s Note: contributor Scott Barry Kaufman recently interviewed Daniel Tammet, one of the 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. Their in-depth conversation –summary and links follow Scott’s reflections below– provoked a powerful reaction in Scott’s mind, as you are about to read).
Last night I was eating dinner with my parents back in my hometown in Philadelphia. I was telling them about my interview with Daniel Tammet, and how I was working on a post about my reflections on the interview. My father, who reads everything I write (which can be awkward sometimes!), looked at me and said, plainly and simply, “I see a lot of similarities between you and Daniel, Scott.” Those words were a kind of crystallizing moment for me. I suppose I knew at an intuitive level that this interview was so meaningful to me, and I was aware that I had this great drive to get the complete interview out there for people to read, but with that comment by my Dad, it really hit me why the experience was so meaningful: this interview really was personal.
To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have Asperger’s syndrome. But I did have an auditory learning disability growing up that made me feel like an outsider most of my early childhood, a feeling which remains to this day. My interview with Daniel was so profound to me because I think it really made it crystal clear to me, at least clearer than ever before, that whatever the “disorder”- learning disability, personality disorder, attention deficit disorder, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. — or life circumstance, anyone whose marginality put them on a different path from the rest of the kids, from the rest of the adults, from the rest of society, are united in that feeling of being different. Daniel Tammet’s feeling of a great loneliness and isolation growing up spoke to me, for sure. But I’m sure it also spoke to a great many people reading the interview.
There is a bit of Daniel Tammet in all of us. I think all of us, at one time or another, have felt different in a particular context, and have felt the intense conflict to simultaneously want to fit in while also wanting to just be accepted for being different. Not all of us may be able to calculate pi to as many places as Daniel can, or can automatically associate numbers with colors, or can write both prose and poetry as beautifully as he does, or can paint as he does. But what my interview with Daniel taught me is that it doesn’t matter if you can’t do everything he does. Life is not about deliberately practicing yourself down someone else’s path. It’s about staying true to yourself at all times, and being fully open to going down your own unique, unplanned, and unpredictable path.
Researchers have asked me whether, after my interview with Daniel, I think he is a “fraud”. I suppose they want to know whether he really is “autistic” or whether he really can truly do all the mind tricks he appears to be capable of. They saw his interview on Letterman, where he was very charismatic and socially engaging and they wonder whether he still has Asperger’s syndrome, since he didn’t seem to display all of the symptoms on the show.
I, too, saw the Letterman interview. What I saw in that interview was a very smart person who was capable of being social. There is no doubt that Daniel has gone through a great transformation over the years, becoming more socially adept and outgoing. He has learned quite a bit about life, love, and relationships. But still, talking on the phone with him, there were moments when I could tell he was struggling a bit to understand some of my more ambiguous phrases, that he still processed some of the things I said literally. Whether he would still be labelled “Asperger’s” today though, is in many ways missing the larger point.
The point is that there is something it means to be Daniel. Daniel was born with a unique mind, wired in a certain way, which contributed significantly to how he sees the world. He has been able to compensate quite a bit, but there still remains a core to him that makes him unique. And I saw absolutely no dishonesty in my interview with him– in fact, what I had the honor of witnessing was one of the most truest individuals I’ve ever met in my entire life, a person who lives his life always trying to stay true to himself in a society that labels him as different. In a lot of ways, a lot of people in this world every day of their own lives are trying to do the very same thing.
Throughout the interview, Daniel was very critical of IQ testing and the study of individual differences. I fully appreciate where his critiques were coming from. I agree with him that many things we do serve to reduce people to just one dimension, and in the case of a poorly administered IQ test, reducing a person to just a number. But as I’ve reviewed recently, the field of IQ testing is rapidly evolving. The major aim of most modern day IQ test makers I talk to is not to reduce, but to broaden– to identify a particular individual’s unique pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses and to custom tailor an educational program for that person. This is a goal I think Daniel would agree with.
I think Daniel also underestimated the importance of investigating individual differences more generally. I study individual differences in my research program. The reason why I do so is because I fully believe that’s where most of the interesting aspects of human nature lie. It’s so fascinating to me how we can all vary so much from one another– on so many attributes like physical features, personality, intelligence, creativity, style of thinking, life experiences, etc.– and yet at the end of the day we are all part of the same species. We all have similar fears, desires, and foibles. I think the study of individual differences is important– not as a way of reducing people– but as a way of broadening the spectrum of ways people can differ and the ways in which both innate dispositions and culture shapes who we are.
It is clear from my interview with Daniel that he really was born with a unique brain wiring. It wasn’t solely deliberate practice that got Daniel Tammet to Daniel Tammet. It was the unique constellation of potentials that the body named “Daniel Tammet” was born with, and that, through a series of fortunate opportunities, allowed him to more fully express and realize his potential than could have easily been the case — unfortunately, many people have life circumstances that hinder them from realizing their potential, and they erroneously think that their current life is all that is possible for themselves. If anything, I’d imagine most of Daniel’s deliberate practice went toward trying to learn things that come more naturally to others (such as how to recognize faces), just so he could better fit in, than learning things that already came more naturally to himself (such as dancing with numbers).
In this new year, this new decade, and well into the future of humanity, let’s all try a little bit harder to appreciate each other’s differences. And by doing so, let’s also remind ourselves to remain true to ourselves, despite society. Like Daniel Tammet.
(Editor’s Note: what follows is a summary of the in-depth conversation between Daniel Tammet and Scott Barry Kaufman. Links to whole series below).
Interview Corner: Daniel Tammet
An autistic savant joins the wider world.
CLAIM TO FAME: Vividly describes autistic savantism from the inside
Although their unusual abilities compel considerable attention, there are fewer than 50 autistic savants worldwide. 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.
Scott: How have you compensated for the challenges of Asperger’s?
Daniel: Growing up, I would have to watch the other children and learn from my mistakes. I would have to push myself to overcome the things most people don’t have to think about. Brushing my teeth was very difficult because of the noise of the brush. Today I use an electric toothbrush; the sound is repetitive and isn’t irritating. And making friends as well was very difficult. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I felt very close to numbers. Those were the things I understood very well. I also have synesthesia. While other children were playing with each other, I was playing with numbers in my head: visualizing the shapes and the colors I saw and seeing how they change and how they interact, doing sums and enjoying the rhythms and the colors and the kind of dance.
Scott: Do your earliest memories relate to numbers?
Daniel: My very earliest memory is of falling down the stairs and seeing colors as I fell. And not crying out loud, not realizing that I should cry in order to bring my parents out to look after me.
Can people change their personalities?
Yes, my own story illustrates that. In the last few years, I’ve seen a very big change in my own life. I’m now working on my third book, which will be a novel. Until several years ago, fiction didn’t interest me very much. Today I’m reading Dostoyevsky. I find the way he describes various emotions, characters, and events very dramatic. This appeals to me and helps me understand emotions.
How else have you changed?
I’m certainly much more confident in my social interactions. I travel much more. I live in the south of France in the beautiful city of Avignon. People with Asperger’s often grow up feeling like foreigners, and I feel today more comfortable in many respects speaking in French than in my native tongue. That’s another example of taking a plunge. I have traveled before and I have lived overseas before, but always on a temporary basis. I feel traveling does broaden the mind. It gives me a new perspective on the world. The life I describe in Born on a Blue Day was much more limited. I certainly have routines in my day-to-day life that are important to me and still give me feelings of security and control, but the capacity to break out of them every so often as I travel has given me a second wind.
Do you think anyone with autism can learn to lead a relatively normal social life?
It would depend on the extent of the autism and how we define a social life. If someone is very shy but isn’t autistic, is he more or less normal than someone who is very outgoing? One of the things that fascinates people about autism is that it makes them question what society teaches us about what normal is. I don’t know that there is any one-size-fits-all way of behaving.
Do you have any advice for people with Asperger’s who want to more fully engage with the social world?
How any person decides to emphasize strengths and mitigate weaknesses is something people have to figure out for themselves. I’m wary of the self-help literature that suggests there are certain rules. I’m very happy for people to look at my story and say it’s possible to achieve many things. One of the biggest challenges is to keep pushing back against the misconceptions about what autism is and showing the potential for people with autism to have a happy life or to have a successful career.
Has Asperger’s given you a window onto creativity?
I see many examples of creativity within the autism spectrum. This intrigues me because I read that until recently scientists believed autism and creativity was kind of an oxymoron. And that isn’t the case. What we see in very young children, where the brain in essence overdevelops the connections between cells and then radically prunes them back to prevent information overload, perhaps doesn’t take place in the same way for those on the autism spectrum. That hyperconnectivity is what drives creativity, because it allows the person to draw simultaneously from different parts of the brain. Being able to make unusual leaps is characteristic of creativity.
You have reported a high IQ—about 150. How much do you think your IQ has contributed to your extraordinary talents?
The number itself tells me almost nothing about myself and the things I’ve been able to achieve. The test is very banal and so bizarre. Answers more interesting and creative than the expected response get zero marks. My own experience going through it for the book was eye-opening, and it persuaded me that IQ as this precise figure is very silly.
Would you still be diagnosed with Asperger’s today?
I don’t know. Obviously it would depend on the person who was making the diagnosis. The person I am today bears very little resemblance to the person I was 10 years ago and even less resemblance to the child I was 20 years ago.
– Scott Barry Kaufman has published multiple journal articles and book chapters relating to intelligence and creativity and is the editor of two forthcoming books. Interview © 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman. His latest SharpBrains article was Learning About Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin. Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet: Rex USA.
You can read the 6‑part interview series here:
Part I, Embracing the Wide Sky
Part II, How a Prodigious Savant’s Mind Works
Part IV, IQ and Human Intelligence
Part V, Creativity, Mind, and the Brain