I read this a while ago and am reading it again for this site.
He is an autistic savant from England who has synesthesia, which is a medical condition that lets him visualize different shapes based on any auditory imput. In his case, he was able to visualize shapes from numbers, which was how he was able to become fascinated by numbers.
Since Tammet came from a large family, he has had to engage in constant interaction, either taking care of his younger siblings or anything else. What has been noted was how his father had epilepsy like Tammet himself does. His own siblings also show signs of Asperger Syndrome like him. So there may be a genetic link to those co-diagnoses.
The field of mathematics is an important part of Tammet’s memoir, since it provides Tammet with one of his intellectual foundations. It started at an early age, which involved counting and as he got older it involved more complicated equations. He would eventually compete in reciting the sequence of pi going back so many digits, and eventually broke the previous World Record.
As such, he was more focused on math than on his own peers, to the point where he had to create his own games and activities in order to keep himself occupied. Whether it would involve creating an imaginary friend or his own version of Solitaire, he had to find some way to occupy his time because he did not develop an understanding of social cues or signals.
The means of communication that he did understand was the field of languages. He writes about how beautiful the Finnish language was when he was visiting a friend of his sister whose father is Finnish. He would talk to her in Finnish, which did help him to acclimate into a social climate–albeit a non-English-speaking one. He also was able to learn Lithuanian in a fast pace, which helped him when teaching English in Lithuania. He was also able to learn Icelandic while visiting the country, which was quite incredible since Icelandic is a difficult, complicated language.
He had a habit of befriending those of another culture or nationality. This did not just apply to Lithuania or Iceland, but in his school days when he would make a friend who was Indian or Pakistani.
Another theme Tammet talks about is his homosexuality, which he says he always knew he was attracted to the same gender. However, he was never stigmatized for it when he told someone about it, even his parents accepted him. There was an incident where he was in high school and was attracted to the student he was tutoring, who politely told him that he could not reciprocate, so that gave him closure.
Since the David Letterman Show was on the air, he was invited to talk about his experience with savantism and synesthesia.
It was also around this time that he met with Kim Peek, who was the savant who inspired the film Rain Man. Tammet had a lot in common with him, such as with the obsession with numbers and dates.
Tammet mentions two books that provided the basis for both the logos behind this autobiography and his religious view. He references Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson when explaining how people tend to conceptualize words with certain sounds as shapes either rounded or sharp. As a result, as they argue, discovering the link between sensation and speech was what pioneered language itself. Tammet references them when discussing his own case of synesthesia, in which he visualizes numbers as shapes.
He also references a man named G. K. Chesterton, who was a journalist who may have had some case of autism like Tammet himself. Chesterton noted how he was able to see the exquisite detail in everything, yet had trouble navigating through life because of his memory problem. As a result, Tammet took inspiration from him as part of his Christian world-view.
As for the other texts that could easily relate to Tammet’s memoir, I will definitely write that J. R. R. Tolkien has a lot in common with Daniel Tammet himself, since he was so interested in languages that he created his own conlangs–basically pioneered the conlang itself. In Making of Middle Earth, Snyder gets into detail about the inspirations behind Middle-Earth, and there was a part where the conlangs become the focus. Like Tammet in his childhood, Tolkien was fascinated by Finnish, which enabled him to utilize elements of that language when constructing Quenya, along with Welsh and Greek. Of course, Tammet himself would make his own conlang also based on Finnish called Manti, though it is for his own personal use, not for the use of any mythocosmography.
I also found it interesting how Tammet wrote about how people tend to materialize abstractions in varying degrees, not just those diagnosed with synesthesia. It should be noted that the abstractions of languages themselves, such as auxiliary verbs, are the direct descendants of material words that convey a specific action such as “to come” or “to do.” This was elaborated on in the book Evolution of Grammar and makes the case that all languages fall in this pattern when trying to convey a particular modality or aspectuality or making use of time and space within a specific nuance.
Amidst his concise, easily understood writing, Tammet discusses in detail the many specific numbers that were important to him.
Since he has learned so many languages, he uses a lot of terms of other languages throughout the latter half of the book. From Lithuanian to Icelandic, he makes use of languages when they are deemed appropriate in this book.
Real World Application
Many of us would not think of mathematics as being important, rather just as a boring subject that is taught in school and then forgotten afterwards. However, they are not forgotten since they are everything and enable society to function, either in a statistical or a financial way. In the case of Tammet, they were his source of creativity.
It is also important to note the interaction between learner and learning subject is rooted in the juxtaposition between the abstract and the material. Tammet always attempts to bridge those opposites as we all do when studying. So, it should be noted that this is an important component of learning, since it gets into the subject of meaning and the nuance that can exist around it.
Recommend This To…
- Anyone with Asperger Syndrome, Savantism, or synesthesia, since they will understand that they are not alone with their conditions.
- Anyone interested in linguistics, since they will learn a lot from Daniel Tammet’s development from childhood to adulthood in Iceland.
- Bybee, Joan et al. “The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World.” The University of Chicago Press. 1994.
- Snyder, Christopher. “The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien.” Sterling. 2013.
- Tammet, Daniel. “Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.” 1st Edition. Free Press. 2006.