Reflections on Creativity: Interview with Daniel Tammet

(Edi­tor’s Note: con­trib­u­tor Scott Bar­ry Kauf­manscott_kaufman_3 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 numberscal­cu­late 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 Daniel Tammet_0com­pel 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_kaufman_3Scott 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 III, Nature and Nurture

Part IV, IQ and Human Intelligence

Part V, Cre­ativ­i­ty, Mind, and the Brain

Part VI, Per­son­al Transformation

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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