Rare Brain Power
A memoir by one of the world’s few savants is thoroughly rewarding.
By Adrienne LaFrance
For many of us, just remembering computer passwords and friends’ birthdays is a mental strain. For Daniel Tammet, remembering the first 22,500 digits of pi was a challenge, but he still did it, and recited them from memory to set a record in the UK.
Tammet is the 28-year-old author of “Born on a Blue Day” a memoir detailing his life as an autistic savant. Publishers have obsessively churned out memoirs over the past several years, but among shelves of mostly bland, self-righteous and poorly written duds, Tammet’s book soars.
The opportunity to hear directly from a savant is rare, even more rare than Tammet is. Researchers estimate that there are fewer than 50 savants in the world. Tammet experiences life synesthetically; that is, he sees numbers as shapes, colors and textures. The title “Born on a Blue Day” refers to a Wedneday because, Tammet writes, “Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.”
Throughout the book, Tammet takes readers into his world, one that is governed by rigid routine and order. Every morning he eats exactly 45 grams of porridge. When washing his face, he always splashes it with water five times. He brushes his teeth for exactly two minutes, and uses an electric toothbrush so as not to hear scratching bristles against his teeth.
Tammet remembers his life in meticulous details and offers comprehensive explanations about every topic he addresses. Writing about his vast mental abilities never comes across as arrogant or superior. Almost as astonishing as Tammet’s remarkable brain is that he leads an independent and successful life. He has traveled the world, learned 10 languages thus far, and even created his own complex language, which he calls Mänti.
Most people who have some form of autism have difficulty socializing in the same way as other individuals. Tammet discusses his struggles, from disliking excessive light and sound, to feeling uncomfortable with change and having trouble understanding common non-literal saying like “under the weather.”
Tammet also delves into his passion for language and explains how many autistic people are poetically inclined, precisely for their literal way of describing things, which lends to a knack for metaphors. He gives the example of one autistic girl who describes her ankle as “the wrist of my foot” and ice cubes as “water bones.”
“Born on a Blue Day” is fascinating, vivid and rich with information about mathematics, linguistics, brain science and more. But above all, Tammet becomes a hero. Readers can’t help but root for him.
Tammet offers a vivid, starkly beautiful and wholly honest picture of life that goes beyond the uniqueness of his perspective to remind the rest of us how exquisite it is to be human, and to be different from one another.
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