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A glimpse into an extraordinary mind

(Article published in the Aug 13, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

  Today, Wednesday, is a blue day.  Not as in the blue of Monday that my primary school teachers say we feel on the first day following a week-end.  But as in Ateneo blue, but without the braggadocio.  Wednesday shows up in the color blue, in the mind of Daniel Tammet, author of “Born on a Blue Day.”

 Daniel Tammet was born on 31 January 1979 in East London. He was the first of child of Jennifer and Kevin, a sheet metal worker.  Although he was of us, baptized in the summer of that year, he became a Christian, he says, on Christmas Day of 2002.  Still, he was not a frequent churchgoer. What kept him away, as what does many of us, was not the boring, rambling, and irrelevant sermon of the priest or minister; he was uncomfortable with having lots of people sitting and standing around him.  Tammet, in many though not in all ways, is atypical and, hence, prodigious.

 He sees days, numbers, letters and sounds in color and in shapes and emotionally reacts to them.  That is how his mind works and he calls his experience, as do scientists, “synaesthesia.”

 Because of a rare neurological mixing of the senses in his brain, Tammet is able, to cite examples, to see number one as brilliant and bright white like a torch beam shinning at his face; to hear number five as a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks; and to feel number thirty-seven lumpy like porridge and number eighty-nine like falling snow.  Empowered by such experience of numbers, it is not surprising that he can handle and perform huge computations in his head without any conscious effort.
 










     

But his operations are not as unfeeling as the calculator’s.  He has varying sensations and emotions for certain numbers.  Multiplying by eleven feels to him like the digits were tumbling downwards in his head.  Sixes are tiny black dots, without any discernible shape or texture, and therefore most difficult, of all the numbers, to remember.

 For every number up to 10,000, Tammet has a visual and emotional response, many of them personal, i.e. 4 is shy and quiet, like him, but 5 is loud, and unrelated to the quantity signified, e.g. 23 is big but 581 is small.  Certain number combinations, like a poet’s play on words, are more beautiful than others.

 Consequently, some commercial signs bearing numbers could evoke in him excitement and pleasure (good for the store), or discomfort and irritation, particularly when the number is painted differently from how it is colored in Tammet’s head.

 Not really too strange. After all, a Manilan visiting London finds it irritating to have to look first to the right and then to the left, rather than vice versa, when crossing the street.  Or a Filipino crossing a street on a pedestrian lane in Rome gives the driver a dirty look whenever a car suddenly comes at his left despite the green traffic light for the walkers.

 At any rate, Tammet’s unusual way with numbers enables him to memorize what others have great difficulty remembering.  In 2003, for the purpose of raising funds for the National Society for Epilepsy (Tammet suffered from epilepsy when he was a child), he proposed to attempt to break the record for reciting in correct sequence the digits of the number pi.

 For most of us, who encountered it for the first time when taking Eucledian geometry, “pi” is simply the number 3.1416 which is the number used to multiply the radius squared (or diameter) with in order to find the area of a circle.  Actually, “6” is a round-off of the still so many digits after the decimal point that go on and on into infinity.  Men, including the Greek Archimedes of Syracuse and Isaac Newton, and machines, such as the ENIAC  (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), have been trying, to no avail, to get its exact value. By 2002, computer scientist Yamasa Kanada and his team at the University of Tokyo Information Technology Centre computed up more than one trillion decimal places.

 Devotees have been trying to memorize and recite Pi’s string of numbers and the European record, before Tammet, was up to 22,500 digits. On March 14, 2003, the 124th birthday of Albert Einstein, at the Ashmolean Building in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford University, Tammet, from 6:55 am to 4:15 pm, continuously (except for the allowed brief breaks) Tammet recited for exactly 9 hrs. and 9 minutes, with no mistakes, 22,514 digits, the new British and European record. 

 Tammet also associates with words, in addition to numbers, different colors and emotions.  As a result, he is able to learn languages easily and quickly.  Currently, he knows, in addition to English which is is native tongue, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Icelandic and Welsh.  Icelandic, which is a very complex and difficult language, he learned with less than a week.  By that time, he was ready for a live interview exclusively in Icelandic on Iceland’s national television.

 Such powers did not, however, come without a cost.  Emotions of others can be hard for him to understand or know how to react to.  He has almost obsessive need for order and routine in every aspect of his life.  He had no sense of play as a mutual activity.  He was easily distracted by the noise around him.  He found it difficult to interact with his peer. 

 These impairments he was able to overcome because very deeply loved and understood by his family, particularly his parents.  Speaking of how he was cared for, he writes, “In spite of my many problems, all the tears and tantrums and other difficulties, they loved me unconditionally and devoted themselves to helping me—little by little, day by day.  They are my heroes.”  He has also found his soulmate who has been most supportive and encouraging.  Finally, he has found inspiration in the Bible, specially liking  the essay on love in I Corinthians 13:4ff.

 Tammet, the odd one out, in that vein, has become like the rest of us.  He gave a part of himself when, at one time, he worked for about a year as a volunteer teacher in Lithuania.  And in Born in a Blue Day, Tammet is giving almost all, seeking by his writing to help people like him “feel isolated and to have confidence in the knowledge that it is ultimately possible to lead a happy and productive life.”
 

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