Monday, February 14, 2005

Autistic may hold clue to our brain's potential

Daniel Tammet not only performs math at unbelievable speed, he describes how he does it.

Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now 26 and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He is autistic, which is why he can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795, but there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. He is able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges - the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like math without having to think."

A number of scientists now hope that Tammet might help us to understand savants better. Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, explains. "Savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do, it just comes to them. Daniel describes what he sees in his head. That's why he's exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone."

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