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A Savant Explains His Abilities 930

numLocked writes "Of the few hundred autistic savants in the world, none have been able to explain their incredible mental abilities. Until now, that is. It seems that Daniel Tammet, a mathematical savant who holds the record for the most digits of pi recited from memory, is able to explain exactly how he intuits answers to mathematical problems. Tammet is quite articulate and speaks seven languages, including one he invented. The Guardian is running an article about his amazing abilities."
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A Savant Explains His Abilities

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  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:13PM (#11725419)
    Of the few hundred autistic savants in the world, none have been able to explain their incredible mental abilities.

    They're too busy counting...
  • by TFGeditor ( 737839 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:15PM (#11725430) Homepage
    ...if the savants' abilities are compensation for "ordinary" cognitive abilities.
    • by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:20PM (#11725465)
      NO. You don't want this, trust me.

      My little sister is autistic, and I think at least a third of her brain is wired for solving jigsaw puzzles. Try working that into a resume.
      • Resume Puzzle (Score:5, Informative)

        by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:53PM (#11725677) Homepage Journal
        She could apply to the NSA as a code-breaker. Many of the better code-breakers in history were experts or idiot-savants who "specialized" in the structure of information. Indeed, in the war, Bletchley Park (the UK's code-breaking center) used puzzles to identify people they wanted to interview for such jobs.

        The ability to organize complex, structured data (which is basically all a jigsaw is) is a key requirement in database administration. Being able to visualize the optimal structure is a talent people will pay a LOT of money for.

        As another person has noted, the ability to reassemble a randomly scrambled structure (such as a shredded document) would appeal very much to certain areas of law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security.

        Being able to connect bits of image that are associated by some non-obvious connection may well be of interest to people studying image compression. There may be organizations which can yield better compression, which do not require too much meta-data to explain and which do not take significantly longer to uncompress.

        If all else fails, she can simply put "massively parallel combinatorial logic" on the resume and apply as a maths lecturer.

        • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:4, Insightful)

          by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:10PM (#11725789)
          I think of things like this all the time. So does everyone in my family. Maybe she'll have a career at NASA. I'd love to train her to be a little autistic DBA if she were to show an aptitude with computers. But right now she's still busy being a teenage girl (as in, not geeky), and I have a feeling that everyone with an autistic kid thinks this way. Look around- how many autistic people do you see working in computers? I see none where I work. Unless you count me- my mother insists I have Aspbergers and was just like her when I was growing up and that my sister will turn out just like me. (She does seem to have avoided the temporal lobe epilepsy that I picked up by her age, which is supposed to be an Aspberger's symptom.) But no one else shares my mother's optimism, and I don't recognize myself in my sister at all.

          I think this is the saddest /. post I've ever written.
          • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @10:41PM (#11726260)
            Look around- how many autistic people do you see working in computers? I see none where I work. Unless you count me- my mother insists I have Aspbergers

            You should know then that Aspbergers is quite common in this industry. Maybe you just don't know how to recognize it, but all the stereotypes of geeks being socially inept have Aspbergers at their root. That's not to say that all geeks are high-functioning autistics. But, it is easier to mask in environments where their logical/reasoning/technical skills are valued over skills at socialization. Maybe you just need to look closer at the people around you.

            From your description of her as, "busy being a teenage girl" it sounds like she is in the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum, because the people in the middle to lower range are barely able to even BE a teenager in a way that society recognizes and avoiding the stigma of geekiness just isn't even a comprehenisble concept to them.

            It is easy to say from the other side of the internet, but one of the best things anyone can do for her is to get her as much positive exposure to a wide range of "autistic-excelling" skills so that pattern-matching ability which makes her good at jigsaw puzzles will get the chance to focus on a more (financially) rewarding area. You never know what oddball skill might "click" with her, whatever it is, chances are it won't be what society considers a traditional job so you have to keep open to as broad a range as possible.

            FWIW, I am speaking from experience here, one of my closest relatives has asperbergers. Early on he focused on computers and did the rounds as sysadmin/programmer and he was somewhat better than average at it. But what he found is that he is really good at talking about and explaining the processes and logic behind all that stuff - he's got really low communication skills otherwise, zero socialization ability, zero non-verbal communication ability, hardly any empathy, etc. But if you ask him about the way a complex system works he can explain it and he can explain it in a way that regular "non-savant" type people can follow.

            He's been able to leverage that ability to "talk about work" into a very high paying career, serving as "resident guru" for companies doing software development. He doesn't do any real work, he just helps the regular developers understand how best to do their work. At first glance, it's not your typcial aspergbers-friendly kind of job because of all the people-interaction. But from his perspective it is a perfect match because it is all technical discourse about stuff he is really focused on with very little non-verbal/emotional content.

            It's probably something like talking about jigsaw puzzles with your sister, she could probably talk about them all day and go into the most exruciating detail about them. Just nobody really wants to know about jigsaw puzzles, but knowing how complex hardware and software systems work is a very valuable skill in today's market.
            • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:4, Insightful)

              by 808140 ( 808140 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @07:27AM (#11727973)
              ...but all the stereotypes of geeks being socially inept have Aspbergers at their root.

              This is what I would call a load of crap.

              I mean, I realize it feels good to be able to explain away social ineptitude with some magical neurological hand-waving (oh, I'm sorry I'm a dick, it's just that I have Aspergers -- most geeks have it to some degree), but when it comes straight down to it, it just ain't so.

              I have worked with autistic kids before; my first girlfriend and my college roommate both specialized in autism and working with such people was/is their profession. It seems to me that some of the self-described autistic people on Slashdot are so high-functioning that describing their state as autism essentially takes the meaning from the word.

              The truth is, people have different skills and talents. My brother is exceptionally good at video games, for example, while I lack the attention span and motor skills to effectively play them. I'm better with people than he is. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, because we are not all alike. Serial insensitivity to other people's emotional state and a predilection for consistancy are symptoms of autism, but possession of symptoms is not sufficient for diagnosis.

              While I have met at least one person that is actually a bona-fide sufferer of Asperger's -- ie, he was diagnosed as such by someone other than himself or a well-meaning school counselor or "psychologist" who said something like, "Well, you might have a mild-form of Asperger's..." when trying to explain to a confused kid with no social skills and an unsual love of math why he doesn't fit in -- the truth is, the impression I have of most "Asperger's" sufferers is that they're mostly just normal geeks that would rather believe that there is something chemical that prevents them from engaging socially rather than just plain not being good at it.

              I mean, when someone isn't good at Math, we don't start saying, "Well, maybe you have a mild form of mental retardation." After all, retards aren't usually good at math! Heck, maybe it's true! Why don't we say this? Because we understand that some people just aren't as good at math as others. This is true of all skills.

              I hate to say this, but all this "I have a mild form of Asperger's" or "geek behaviour is a manifestation of Asperger's syndrome" is what I would call, plainly, a load of crap. Pop-psychology at its worst.

              So why do we accept it? Why do people keep up this charade? Because we want to believe that there's some more exotic reason for our shortcomings than them being just that -- shortcomings.

              Believe it or not, for 99% of us, social ability is something that is well within our reach. All we need to do is work hard at being better at it, practice, and want to get better. It annoys us that frat-boy John that we've always resented and that we privately think beneath us can so easily master a skill that seems beyond us; fearing failure, we find a thousand reasons we shouldn't even try to play his game. But were we to actual set our minds to it, we could overcome these barriers, because despite our fantasies of neurophysiological differences that neatly explain our lack of social skills, we are able to learn these things. We just never bother trying.

              It would simply be too embarassing to fail at something that people we discount as morons do everyday with ease. It's painful.

              Painful, but possible.

              That's the difference, you see. People who are actually suffering from Asperger's are blind, in a way. They can honestly not perceive things like sarcasm, emotional stress, etc. There is a part of the world they cannot perceive. This is not the same as the geek who is frustrated by his dating difficulties. This is a real, bona-fide disability, which is relatively rare and quite difficult to overcome.

              I don't have a lot of respect for all the people out there who write off their "inability to be socially adept" as a mild form of Aspergers. I've worked in IT most of my life; most of my friends have been geeks. And while 99% of them are hopeless socially, autistic they most definitely are not.

              Just like people who suck at math aren't retarded.

              • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:5, Insightful)

                by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @11:21AM (#11728568)
                "the truth is, the impression I have of most "Asperger's" sufferers is that they're mostly just normal geeks that would rather believe that there is something chemical that prevents them from engaging socially rather than just plain not being good at it. "

                You're trying to draw a dichotomy where nothing exists. It's all chemical (unless you're a dualist).

                Whether you're a moron, a pedophile, an asperger, a socially inept geek, or a low functioning autistic, there's a neurological explanation somewhere, whether genetic, environmental or a combination of both.

                You seem fixated by these black and white labels; this person has that disease, but that person is ok, they're just inept.


                The truth is that there's a broad landscape of ability and disability. For purposes of mental health treatment, it helps to draw circles around certain peaks and call them disorders, but in reality it's all shades of gray on a huge multidimensional surface.

                It's extremely likely that some subset of the genes that cause autism/aspergers are active in the socially inept. Why do you take such offense at this? Does it make you feel better to tell these people "no, you're just inept, you don't get to claim that it's because of the way your brain is wired."

          • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:5, Insightful)

            by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @10:45PM (#11726288) Homepage
            Your sister will be... herself.

            But there is some hope to be gained from others' examples. I have a friend with cerebral palsy whose pediatrician said he'd never be able to care for himself but is now a successful business owner and head of household, another friend with learning disabilities who's doing well handling repetitive tech-support calls, and a great aunt who was born cyanotic with multiple disabilities but has lived a rather full and rich life. My boyfriend, whose brain hemorrhage several years ago left him unable to care for himself (let alone hold down a job) has ended up as "a burden on the family", but they - and I - still value him for (to put it crudely) what's left of him. A step mother I expected nothing from turned out to be his greatest caregiver. (And I sure as hell didn't turn out like my family expected.)

            My point I suppose is that things don't always turn out as badly as you fear they will, and you have to let every situation sort itself out as best as you can. There's no guarantee that everything will all work out, but then there's no guarantee that it won't. Work with that.

          • Re:Resume Puzzle (Score:4, Insightful)

            by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Sunday February 20, 2005 @02:42AM (#11727236) Homepage Journal
            It's believed that the number of Asperger people in Silicon Valley is roughly 1/3 of the working population. However, there is no clean diagnostic for it, so it is hard to verify that figure.

            The problem with technical definitions is that it requires someone who is technically competent to apply them. The US has only recognized Aspergers at all only very recently. (It was identified in the 1940s, I believe, but not diagnosed outside of "Old Europe" as a certain politician kindly refers to that part of the world until the 1980s.)

            The most practical method of diagnosis is to hang out with autistic people. If you find you think in ways that they can relate to (and vice versa) then you have a working diagnosis. In other words, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you must consider the possibility that it really is a duck.

            Best place to find autistic people is over on Starlink []. The Asperger channel is only for people who have been diagnosed, not just self-diagnosed, but there are plenty of other resources there.

    • FTA:

      "Scans of the brains of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere might be compensating for damage in the left hemisphere. While many savants struggle with language and comprehension (skills associated primarily with the left hemisphere), they often have amazing skills in mathematics and memory (primarily right hemisphere skills)."
  • Savantism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SparksMcGee ( 812424 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:16PM (#11725438)
    Question: why is autism associated with this kind of savantism? Granted there are 'normal' geniuses, but it seems like this sort of genetic brilliance is exactly the sort of thing that could be developed--ideally without autism--using gener therapy and modern genomics. Anyone remember the Orson Scott Card novels where the planet of Path is ruled by a class of people genetically engineered for superintelligence and obsessive-compulsive disorder, although the one could be separated from the other?
    • Re:Savantism (Score:3, Interesting)

      Speaking as an autistic person (although probably not a savant... although I have been accused of it at times), I highly doubt that it's possible to seperate these two. I also doubt the reasons for even wanting to.
    • Re:Savantism (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Monkelectric ( 546685 ) <slashdot@mon k e l e c t r i c . com> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:02PM (#11725735)
      Obsession. I think thats the common thread through all of these things... My cousin is a "high functioning" autistic. He has a (crappy) job, and his superpower seems to be memory. He remembers *everything*, he is obsessed with movies and remembers where he bougt each one, for how much, what else he was considering buying, and sometimes even what was on the shelf next to it!

      Sometimes he'll get obsessed with a particular person -- when its me for instance, he will send me several emails *per minute* until whatever it is about him passes.

      Id hate to think of where he would be without the memory though, its clear he doesn't really understand the interactions between people, or emotions. He sent me a picture of himself with some of the budweiser girls (he met them at a promo thing), and he's got this mean scowl on his face in the picture. He was horribly excited about the whole thing and he waited days and days for the photo, but simply doesn't *know* to smile. He can *remember* the thousands of little things that his family has told him over the years, and usually remembers a short phrase that tells him what to do, "My grandfather said when somebody gets real mad the best thing to do is let them cool off for a bit and then go talk to them." And he does that thing.

      • by suyashs ( 645036 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:16PM (#11725831)
        You must love the threading feature on your email client...
      • Re:Savantism (Score:4, Interesting)

        by cheekyboy ( 598084 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @11:13PM (#11726418) Homepage Journal
        I guess handeling emotions/people is a gambling/risk game with some prediction/6th sense. You cant mathamatize emotional responses, though it would be a good assignment to try. Maybe its too chaotic with too many permutations of probabilities. Maybe the power/effort in emotions is quite huge in the brain, and its all so 'automatic/background process' to the average guy as much as the maths is so automatic visually to the autistic people.

        So I guess each of us has this 'automatic' process of thought which we arent aware of, and if we dont then we must use some complex large internal flow chart to work things out.

        Its a bit like each person has their own OS in their heads, but with only so many built in 'tools' and 'apps'. If we dont have it, we must 'create' a shell script for it which is why its slow and not automatic.

        What we need to do is work out how to 'recompile' our slow shell script flow charts in our minds into the automatic background util that runs at compile exe speeds and gives results in 1 second with out even knowing how it works, kinda of like running photoshop or whatever.

        Our brains are like a newly found uber OS, that we just dont have the manual to or even know how to interface with it well. We must do more hardcore analytical brain process understanding, deconstructing thought patterns just like disassembling op codes.

  • What? (Score:4, Informative)

    by mboverload ( 657893 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:17PM (#11725440) Journal
    Didn't know what the hell they were talking about...until I looked it up on wikipedia =) []

    • Re:What? (Score:5, Funny)

      by k98sven ( 324383 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:16PM (#11725829) Journal
      Wikipedia is quite useful, it will also tell you such important facts like how Professor Baron-Cohen [] in the article is none other than the first-cousin of Ali G [] (Sacha Baron-Cohen).

      I can imagine the two...
      Ali: What you're sayin' is like.. They is smart, 'cos they got brain damage?
      Simon: Well, not quite. A savant isn't quite what we usually mean by..
      Ali: An' drugs? Theys give ya brain damage?
      Simon: Yes, they can..
      Ali: So if me was to like, drop a pile of E, I could, like, do maths and stuff?
      Simon: Well, I wouldn't..
      Ali: RESPECT!!

  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:18PM (#11725448)
    Since his epileptic fit, he has been 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. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think.

    So presumably 69 is Jenifer Lopez, and 303 is the goatse guy?
  • by pipingguy ( 566974 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:21PM (#11725473)

    FTA: "Savants have usually had some kind of brain damage. Whether it's an onset of dementia later in life, a blow to the head...

    Item 1, check. Item 2, check.

    So how come I aren't a genius now?

    This is clearly false advertising.
  • Pfh, languages (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zaxios ( 776027 ) <> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:22PM (#11725480) Journal
    The one he invented doesn't count.
  • by aslate ( 675607 ) <planetexpress&gmail,com> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:22PM (#11725481) Homepage
    That sounds like Synesthesia, which Horizon did a program about last year. People with synesthesia can see numbers as shapes (A woman described being able to see 1 to 10 in a line, 11-100 stacked above them, and then on and on in blocks of 100), words as colours (Monday is green) and someone could even smell words (His best friend's names made him feel sick).

    The program seemed to conclude that we all, to an extent, are synesthetic. Quite a large number of people assosciate colours with days of the week, and we all use words like a "soft/sharp sound", a "bite" to a tase, and so on. Although these words are ones of touch, we use them in other contexts. Cross-referencing the senses in a similar war to more advanced synesthesia.
    • Wow! Thanks!

      You jogged my memory with the colors for the days of the week thing. It's something I hadn't thought about forever but when I was a kid, I saw the days of a week as colors and shapes and you're post brought this back to me. I'm sitting here recalling the days and their associations as I type.

      Saturday was a green rectangle with a fringe.

      Sunday was a half moon with a yellow gradient.

      Tuesday is vaguely brown but I can't see the shape.

      Anyway, I can't remember them all, but they're comin

  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:24PM (#11725496) Journal
    ...first post savants
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:25PM (#11725499)
    Why is multiplying large numbers considered mathematical genius? Or memorizing PI to 1,000 digits? Perhaps arithmetical genius

    If he solved Fermat's theorem over breakfast, that would be mathematical genius!!
    • by SleepyHappyDoc ( 813919 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:14PM (#11725813)
      My goodness, what is good enough for you? The fact that he can do this, despite the fact he can't tell right from left, is the story. He's not the latest new processor or kernel, he's a human being with a severe disability. For a lot of disabled people, standing upright is an amazing feat (and for many it's beyond them). As a person who suffers from a severe mental disability myself, I am darn impressed.
    • by rkmath ( 26375 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:31PM (#11725913)
      His ability to multiply numbers quickly, or test for primes quickly (not sure if he does this), or factor large numbers quickly (never does an article about a math idiot-savant talk about this - a problem that is *hard* by all known algorithms - but that is another story) does not say anything interesting for mathematics. It is interesting purely from the viewpoint of understanding how the human brain works.

      And if we are on the topic of raw computing ability - and we decide that computing ability _is_ interesting - could we *please* have them try computations in a more general number field? Could we *please* have them solve problems that we can't yet solve efficiently by any known algorithm? (And, could someone also study how fast this guy computes factorisations as a funtion of the input size? Fr instance, could we find out how fast his brain's process works - O(n) ? O(log(n))? This question could at least be answered experimentally.

  • Crypto (Score:5, Interesting)

    by koreaman ( 835838 ) <> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:25PM (#11725504)
    I don't really know a lot about autistic savants or encryption technologies, so this may sound idiotic, but if these guys can so easily factor large numbers why don't they have them working for NSA breaking public-key encryption?
    • Re:Crypto (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mmusson ( 753678 )
      This is actually a serious question as it relates to algorithmic complexity. One question is whether the savants are finding more efficient solutions to classes of problems than those currently known to computer scientists. This would be a particularly important result for things like the NP-complete problems. But in the testing that occurred during my college years, it was found that the time complexity of the solution was exponential in the problem size and therefore the savants were not solving the probl
  • Does not Compute! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ParadoxicalPostulate ( 729766 ) <saapad&gmail,com> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:25PM (#11725505) Journal

    "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think."

    I don't understand. There is nothing intrinsic in the number 2 and the number 5 that will tell you what they will equal when they are multiplied.

    The way we arrive at the solution is extrinsic, namely in the form of the operator (multiplication in this instance).

    But if it's extrinsic, I don't understand what the author of the article means by "instinct" and "shapes" and that sort of thing. As far as I can understand, the only explanation would be the ability to compute those operations at much higher speed, then any "non-savant."

    If that's the case, then, theoretically, would there not be a limit associated with the physical properties of the nervous system that would cap out at a certain number of such operations per unit time? So theoretically might we not be able to test such a thing by running him through a long list of operations? That'll let us know if he's really just making those calculations really, really fast, or if he really is viewing the mathematics in such a fundamentally different way (something I find rather unsettling).

    Then again, how would we design such a test? I fear that the number of operations we can demand his brain to perform per unit time will be limited by his powers of cognition (i.e. by the time he reads/hears all the stuff he needs to hear, we'll already be beyond that critical operating time interval).

    Eh, I think I come off as somewhat difficult to understand. Oh well, I wanted to make sure my question appeared in the main thread of discussion (rather than being posted after most people have moved on).
    • Re:Does not Compute! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:35PM (#11725574) Homepage
      I don't understand. There is nothing intrinsic in the number 2 and the number 5 that will tell you what they will equal when they are multiplied.

      Correct. I think he has shapes for each of the numbers he's multiplying and he has learnt the shape that they turn into when you multiply them. Because the visual powers of the human mind are quite powerful he's able to do that fast.

      It's kinda like using your computer's graphics card to do matrix multiplication. If you feed the info in the right format you can get the answer out faster than using the main processor, because the graphics processor actually has more computing power; but it's not as general purpose.

    • There is one fundamental thing you and most of the people in your thread are missing. Mathematics is something created by people as a way to understand the world. Math is a model of the real world, not the world itself. I think the savant is working with his own model of the world. He's not using math as the rest of it understand it. In turn, we cannot attempt to understand him by trying to fit him into our model. We have to think "outside the box". We have to accept that there are things that we just may n
    • Think of this then: (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gotr00t ( 563828 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @12:46AM (#11726791) Journal
      I probably did way too much coding in the last few days for my own good, but when he said that the numbers appeared as images, the following came to my mind:

      When you use the framebuffer memory to do ordinary calculations, seemingly random crap will appear on the screen when the program is run, and the answer will technically appear as an image as well.

      If we think of our brains as highly sophisticated computers, it makes sense that somewhere inside exists the "circuitry" to do complex calulations like a computer in the blink of an eye, however, we somehow can't accesse these mechanisms, as hypothesized somewhere in the article. Perhaps (I'm just taking a random stab here) something happened to these people where some of the "wiring" of their brains got messed up so that they can actually use different parts of their brain. These "images" might not have anything "intrinsic", but might just be the effect of something else, like the example above.

  • by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:28PM (#11725522) Homepage
    Synesthesia is a not uncommon brain disorder which links the senses together. For example some people when told a name see a colour. Others taste or smell something etc. Interestingly, for each person with the disorder each word always connects to the same sensation, and different people with the same sort of synesthesia sometimes have similar sensations...

    The upside is that this can make it easier to remember things- it means you've got more things about the thing to connect to other things- his description of how he remembered pi as a story is a *classic* description of the mnemonic technique for remembering things- you basically turn what you want to remember into a series of pictures that you string into a whacky story. It works really, really well; people easily get upwards of 90% recall using it. And he has a built in picture or sensation to help him with this; which is the hardest bit of the technique.

  • by Space_Soldier ( 628825 ) <> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:32PM (#11725550)
    "He can't drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left."

    Is it possible that knowing how to drive a car, wire a plug, tell right from left, and other banal things that we do require a ton of processing power? Since he cannot do these things, all that processing power goes to processing numbers and memorising words.

    It we would be cool if on a math test we cold forget our ability to drive cars and concentrate on processing numbers.
  • by deathcloset ( 626704 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:37PM (#11725580) Journal
    The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder.

    I'm wondering, do you think that perhaps if we could present someone with this man's abilities an interface to some kind for a programming language that he could also achieve amazing things?

    maybe vocal recognition or a motion-capture interface? He did say he is making his own language.

    For instance, if he combines these abstract ideas in his mind in a mechanical way he is showing the ability to visualize details of und use complex concepts with amazing precision.

    what is a chunk of code if not merely an amazingly complex concept?
  • Funes, The Memorious (Score:4, Interesting)

    by __aaijsn7246 ( 86192 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:42PM (#11725607)
    This man's abilities reminds me of a story, Funes, The Memorious. []

    Daniel's life story is not the same as Ireneo Funes' fictional life, but in a way they both lead to the same question - what does it mean to think?

    Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.

    In March 2001, there was an article in Science, "The Art of Forgetting" which touched on these issues, and more current research begins to detail the chemical methods of action for the brain's 'forgetting system'. Indeed, life would not be possible if we remembered everything. Human cognition seems to be defendant on removing details, as much of what we do is through abstracting away the differences... this allows us to generalize. Of course, over-generalization is a failure-point for human cognition as well, as we all know.

    All of this will be very useful to AI research, especially if we are trying to model computer minds after the ones nature evolved.
  • by merlyn ( 9918 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:43PM (#11725613) Homepage Journal
    ... as "an idiot savant... without the savant part".
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:47PM (#11725638) Homepage
    Most people can pretty easily memorize song lyrics and the sounds of a song, but yet the digits of Pi are incredibly hard to memorize. Might the digits of Pi be to this guy be like memorizing a song to most of us? I equally can't explain in a nice rational way why it's easy to memorize a song, but to anyone that can it doesn't need any more explanation.
  • by gtoomey ( 528943 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:50PM (#11725654)
    This Wired article []I says the Silicon Valley has a very high degree of austism.

    The "shyness about making eye contact" is a symptom of austim and is used as a dianostic criterion.

  • by BillsPetMonkey ( 654200 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @08:57PM (#11725695)
    "He met the great love of his life, a software engineer called Neil, online. It began, as these things do, with emailed pictures, but ended up with a face-to-face meeting."

    and say "Wha ..? Oh right, he's gay."

    A gay, churchgoing autistic savant in fact. That's a tough call for someone trying not to stand out.
    • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:57PM (#11726036) Homepage
      I did a double-take, mostly because the article handled the fact of his orientation so matter-of-fact-ly. Instead of prefacing it with a sensationalist, "and there's something else odd about him as well," the author just... said it. Classy.

      A gay, churchgoing autistic savant in fact. That's a tough call for someone trying not to stand out.

      As a gay, formerly-churchgoing, neurotic genius (i.e. a bit like like him but not as "out there"), I'm jealous that he has a boyfriend.

  • by Caspian ( 99221 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:02PM (#11725733)
    It's an unusual form of brain damage. Look at how he describes the way he does sums; he doesn't think about it consciously at all. He just sees two shapes morphing into another shape, which to him represents a number. He then simply recites the number out loud. On the conscious level, there is no "calculating" involved whatsoever. It's all done for him by the deep recesses of his brain, without him lifting a metaphorical finger.

    I would say that this isn't any sort of "intelligence" in any conventional sense; it's simply that his damaged brain has given him the ability to access "hidden" subroutines of the neural wiring we all have.

    For instance, it's no secret that the human brain can do maths in real-time with frightening speed. Just walking involves real-time feats of calculus that would choke a calculator. The problem is that it's all subconscious. Well, in Tammet's case, that "subroutine"-- which is supposed to be wholly subconscious-- now has a window into his conscious mind, expressed through pictures.

    This is fascinating, but arguably it's no form of intelligence. At least, not in any conventional sense of "intelligence".

    Mind you, I fully understand what it's like to be able to do something without mentally "lifting a finger". It's the way I've always been with language. I first spoke at age one, and I've been able to write and speak at an "adult" level since early childhood. My grammatical skills are quite high, but if you asked me to diagram a sentence, I'd choke. I usually can't describe why I know that a certain sentence structure is "right" or "wrong", since I can't consciously describe many of the rules of language.

    I suppose this fellow is much the same way with the pictures in his head. He's described to us how he (as in the conscious entity known as Tammet) does sums: He just sits back and his brain feeds him the answer without any conscious sort of calculation. However, he hasn't described to us how his brain does the work, which is the really interesting question.
  • I envy him (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SleepyHappyDoc ( 813919 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:07PM (#11725772)
    Not for his abilities, but for the beautiful, peaceful-sounding world he lives in. To most of us, numbers are either an obstacle or a challenge or work or whatever. To him they're his friends. That's so unique. I envy him.
    • Qabbala (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ultrabot ( 200914 )
      Not for his abilities, but for the beautiful, peaceful-sounding world he lives in. To most of us, numbers are either an obstacle or a challenge or work or whatever. To him they're his friends. That's so unique. I envy him.

      Don't forget the language genius. This guy seems a lot like somenone who might have been one of the inventors of Qabbala and influenced Judaic mysticism. There is no reason to expect that people of his kind weren't around back then.
  • Lame Article summary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pbooktebo ( 699003 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:18PM (#11725839)
    Well, although I like the article, the summary up top is inaccurate. The Pi Memorization record has been above 30,000 for over a decade (not that nearly 23,000 isn't impressive). I used to work in a lab with the a friend who was the record holder for 5 years with a 30,000-35,000 span for Pi (he could recall that many digits, I can't even remember the single five-digit number to descibe his feat). A link to Rajan: shanks_e xpertise.html

    I am a teacher and have had nearly a dozen autistic students (none of whom were savants). There is a huge increase in Silicon Valley, and it is a fascinating, frustrating, and a lot of work for most of the support staff.

    For anyone interested, I'd also recommend the book "Thinking in Pictures" by Temple Grandin (an autistic woman who has redesigned livestock handling machinery). She is quite eloquent and probably the most famous autistic person (she has also been interviewed by Terry Gross, which I suppose is online).
  • Finnish (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bud ( 1705 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:25PM (#11725882)

    Tammet is creating his own language, strongly influenced by the vowel and image-rich languages of northern Europe. (He already speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto.) The vocabulary of his language - "Mänti", meaning a type of tree - reflects the relationships between different things. The word "ema", for instance, translates as "mother", and "ela" is what a mother creates: "life". "Päike" is "sun", and "päive" is what the sun creates: "day". Tammet hopes to launch Mänti in academic circles later this year, his own personal exploration of the power of words and their inter-relationship.

    Disregarding the misspellings, all those words are straight from a Finnish or Estonian dictionary. "Mänty" is a pine tree, "päivä" is day, "pälke" means glimmer or glint. "Emä" and "elä" are the root words of mother and life, respectively. And "tammi" (tammet) is oak.

    Finnish is a weird but logical language with a lot of nuances and forms that are not present in other languages. I'm not sure what Tammet is trying to do, but he's apparently just exploring the relationships between words in Finnish. Anything else would either not make sense, or be simple plagiarism. Too bad the reporter got stuck on the words and made such a big issue of it.

    Tammet's not the first one to ponder on the Finnish language. It's well known that J.R.R Tolkien got hooked on Finnish at an early age and re-used some ideas [] in his works.


  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:33PM (#11725924) Journal
    A year or two ago the New York Times had a neat article titled Savant for a Day [] about research by Prof. Allan Snyder. Basically, he uses a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation [] (TMS) to temporarily induce savant-like symptoms in volunteers. The journalist writing the story also acted as a volunteer, and experienced greatly-increased drawing ability while the device was turned on.

    From the article:

    As remarkable as the cat-drawing lesson was, it was just a hint of Snyder's work and its implications for the study of cognition. He has used TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able to induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more than just a great party trick; it's a breakthrough that may lead to a revolution in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence -- and the functioning of the human brain in general.

    Snyder's work began with a curiosity about autism. Though there is little consensus about what causes this baffling -- and increasingly common -- disorder, it seems safe to say that autistic people share certain qualities: they tend to be rigid, mechanical and emotionally dissociated. They manifest what autism's great ''discoverer,'' Leo Kanner, called ''an anxiously obsessive desire for the preservation of sameness.'' And they tend to interpret information in a hyperliteral way, using ''a kind of language which does not seem intended to serve interpersonal communication.'' ...

    In a 1999 paper called ''Is Integer Arithmetic Fundamental to Mental Processing? The Mind's Secret Arithmetic,'' Snyder and D. John Mitchell considered the example of an autistic infant, whose mind ''is not concept driven. . . . In our view such a mind can tap into lower level details not readily available to introspection by normal individuals.'' These children, they wrote, seem ''to be aware of information in some raw or interim state prior to it being formed into the 'ultimate picture.''' Most astonishing, they went on, ''the mental machinery for performing lightning fast integer arithmetic calculations could be within us all.''

    And so Snyder turned to TMS, in an attempt, as he says, ''to enhance the brain by shutting off certain parts of it.''
    • Sketchy science (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ajna ( 151852 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @01:46AM (#11727039) Homepage Journal
      Nowhere have I been able to find a citation or clear reference to the paper that Snyder presumably was (going to?) publish about this TMS-creativity connection. The closest I find is his own page []. This page is somewhat telling in my mind of the level of "seriousness" of this research. One would think from the "Autistic genius? Nature, 1 April 2004, by Allan Snyder" pseudo-citation that Mr. Snyder had an article published in Nature, but closer examination shows it to be a book review (follow the link to the pdf on the page above and see for yourself).

      On the other hand it appears that he at least exists, and that his story is not fabricated from whole cloth: apr/01_snyder.shtml [].

      Finally, in reference to the Guardian article, I find the parroting of autistic savant folklore such as the tale of the savant able to play Tchaik 1 without having taken a piano lesson (or touched a piano depending on the retelling) extremely galling. Playing a piano concerto depends on technique, muscle memory, and many other things besides pure mental contortion. To think that someone who has never played scales would be able to wrap their untrained fingers around a concerto of non-negligible complexity is positively ridiculous in my mind. I suspect that the story arose as a vast but innocent exaggeration initially and has taken up a life of its own through repeated retellings by reporters too lazy to check the source material of their stories.
  • by orkysoft ( 93727 ) <orkysoft&myrealbox,com> on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:38PM (#11725949) Journal
    The blind American savant Leslie Lemke played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No1, after he heard it for the first time, and he never had so much as a piano lesson.
    That sounds positively dangerous in today's legal IP/DMCA/DRM climate! (dons tinfoil hat to ward off Orbital Mind Control Lasers)
  • by urdine ( 775754 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @09:53PM (#11726021)
    How memory works is woefully understudied. You'd think we'd know more about this by now.

    When you get down to it, though, we do most of our "thinking" in sounds or visuals. Everything else is translation. For instance, LANGUAGE is incredibly complex, but we can do it with ease since our brain has such an amazing "processing chip" for sorting sounds. Reading is simply converting things to sounds (or visuals - when you "remember" a quote you will normally either remember it by sound or by a visual memory of the words.)

    Even math is, at it's root, visual for all of us. Take 2 + 2 = 4. There is cold memorization of the result, but if you were learning math for the first time, you would break it down to:

    || + || = ||||

    ie. a visual representation, or counting fingers etc. The reason many people have so much trouble with math is they end up doing too much cold memorization - the brain remembers associatively, so this doesn't work well (but it explains why mneumonic devices DO work well). Unfortunately, that's how they teach it.

    I tend to believe that we have an amazing ability to remember sound and sight (makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint) but we're NOT hard drives and "cold memorization" just doesn't work. By knocking out some part of the brain, the brain is forced to take in math through the visual/sound process, inventing a network of logic that handles all the work in the subconscious.

  • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @10:13PM (#11726109) Journal
    Just short any stock I buy and you can't lose.

    I can't explain it, it is just a natural ability I have.

  • Savants and jobs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PsiPsiStar ( 95676 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @10:24PM (#11726153)
    They need to have a placement agency targeted towards the unique needs (and disabilities) of Savants.

    I'm sure it'd be welcome to many.

    How do other savants get along with one another?
  • by way2trivial ( 601132 ) on Saturday February 19, 2005 @10:43PM (#11726272) Homepage Journal
    and I invented 7 of them!
  • by alfamb ( 847279 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @12:19AM (#11726692)
    Jerry Newport is a mathematical savant who has been able to talk about his abilities for a long time, and he has described talking to other savants so they must exist. He wrote a book called _Your Life Is Not A Label_ in which he devoted some space to the discussion of savant skills. Donna Williams, an autistic woman, has also described savant or savant-like abilities, for instance never sculpting and then the first time she took a sculpting class, being able to create expert-level detailed life-sized sculptures. She describes in some of her books what she believes the basis for these seemingly out-of-nowhere talents to be. I have known a few autistic people who are instant calculators or other kinds of savants and perfectly able to describe and talk about this. I know this person is not the only autistic savant to describe his abilities, so I have to wonder if he's more the only one certain aspects of the media could find who wanted to talk to them. Similar to how when Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay wrote a book relatively recently, it was hailed as the first book by a non-speaking autistic person, when in fact there had been several before him and the first book by any autistic person (who disclosed their autism at any rate) was by a person with a story very similar to Tito's.
  • by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @01:05AM (#11726864) Homepage

    Daniel Tammet's web site is here [] and looks quite nicely done.

  • by SteelV ( 839704 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @01:32AM (#11726969)
    A relative of mine is such a savant. If he ever hears a phone number once in his life, he'll never forget it. Same with anything, license plates, credit card numbers, winning lottery numbers, etc. etc. whatever.

    It's sort of impressive, but it's also a horrible condition. I'd rather lack that ability and at least be more able to function normally in the world. He's still a great person but obviously life is much more difficult for him.
  • by cyphercell ( 843398 ) on Sunday February 20, 2005 @05:00AM (#11727644) Homepage Journal
    The story has little to do with this guy's sexuality, autism, the movie rainman, the bible, political correctness, or how many people with aspergers work in an IT department. This story is about a savant, who CAN describe how he comes up with his solutions. Imagine cavemen: one learns to count, dies. one learns to count, dies. one learns to count and teaches another caveman how to count.

    The point of this story is that modern medicine may develop a basis for understanding savantism and then maybe autism. The real goal with this guy is to get him to write a diary, so shrinks can pick his brain. This guy may be the greatest discovery made by psychology ever. And it seems to have been completely missed by everyone here on /.

I came, I saw, I deleted all your files.