Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant who can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations and learn foreign languages in a matter of days. He speaks ten different languages, including Romanian, Gaelic, Welsh, and Icelandic and even made up his own. It’s safe to say he has one of the most extraordinary minds on Earth.
Daniel Tammet was born on January 31 1979, in East London, England. As a young child, Daniel banged his head against the wall and cried constantly. Nobody really knew what was wrong with him, and all doctors could say was that he was understimulated. Then, one day, while playing with his brother, Daniel had an epileptic seizure. He started taking medication and had to go to the hospital every month for blood tests. It was a troubling time for his parents, as one of Daniel’s grandfather suffered from epilepsy and eventually died from it, and they were thinking their son could suffer the same fate. Luckily, the medication worked and he eventually overcame his condition. It was during his childhood that Daniel and his family discovered his brain was different. One day, his brother asked him to multiply a long series of numbers in his head, as a joke, but the boy just closed his eyes, and after five or ten seconds the right answer came out of his mouth. His brother asked him several other questions and his answers were always right. His parents witnessed the whole thing, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it and never pressured him to work his magic in front of other people. They knew he was different, but they wanted him to have a normal life.
Photo: Steve Jurvetson
But Daniel’s brain certainly didn’t work in a normal way. When he looked at numbers, he saw images and didn’t have to think about calculations. he just closed his eyes and a different image – the result – appeared in front of him. While other boys his age played sports, he would sit on the sidelines and count the leaves of the trees. The world of numbers was a place he could escape to, where he never felt uncomfortable. As he grew, Tammet discovered his brain could process advanced calculations, usually done by computer. Actually, he could figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator, and in 2004 he broke the European record for recalling pi to the furthest decimal point. He recited to 22,514 digits from memory in five hours and nine minutes, and didn’t even find it difficult. That’s because Daniel doesn’t have to do the calculations in his head, they just come to him. ”When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes,” the savant told The Guardian newspaper. 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.” An estimated 10% of the autistic population has savant abilities, but nobody knows why. Most of them can’t even describe how they do it, but Daniel can, and scientists think he might be the Rosetta Stone they have been looking for.
Photo: Lavin Agency
While the majority of autistic savants have a limited vocabulary and show difficulties expressing themselves, Daniel Tammet has a richer vocabulary than most people on the planet. He is so fascinated by the human language that he felt inspired to create his very own, called Mänti, and learn some of the most difficult languages in the world, including Lithuanian, German and Esperanto. In 2004, scientists challenged him to try and learn Icelandic in just a week, and after studying with tutors for seven days, he was tested and easily passed.
Daniel Tammet’s brain is fascinating, and as much as he loves retreating in his world of numbers, it can also make the most mundane task complicated. The 34-year old lives on the Kent coast, but never goes to the beach, because he would be tempted to count all the grains of sand. The simple thought of a mathematical problem without solution makes him uncomfortable. Even going to the supermarket is a chore. ”There’s too much mental stimulus,” Daniel says. “I have to look at every shape and texture. Every price, and every arrangement of fruit and vegetables. So instead of thinking,’What cheese do I want this week?’, I’m just really uncomfortable.” He has never been able to work a 9 to 5 job, as it’s too difficult to fit around his daily routine. He always has to do certain things at specific times and in order. He has tried to be more flexible, but eventually found retaining a sense of control makes him feel more at ease.
Daniel Tammet’s special brain and his ability to describe what goes on inside his head make him unique. Some scientists view him as a key to unlocking the secrets of autism