The Frontal Cortex

The Amazing Feats of Asperger’s

I have trouble remembering my own telephone number, so feats like this are totally incomprehensible:

When he [Daniel Tammet] gets nervous, he said, he sometimes reverts to a coping strategy he employed as a child: he multiplies two over and over again, each result emitting in his head bright silvery sparks until he is enveloped by fireworks of them. He demonstrated, reciting the numbers to himself, and in a moment had reached 1,048,576 — 2 to the 20th power. He speaks 10 languages, including Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto, and has invented his own language, Mantï. In 2004, he raised money for an epilepsy charity by memorizing and publicly reciting the number pi to 22,514 digits — a new European record. In addition to Asperger’s, he has the rare gift of synesthesia, which allows him to see numbers as having shapes, colors and textures; he also assigns them personalities.

That’s from a charming article in the NY Times today. Tammet is also the author of the surprise bestseller Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. But I still can’t get over his ability to remember 22,514 sequential digits: such an ability seems to contradict the most basic facts of the human mind, such as our limited ability to process more than 7 (plus or minus two) bits of information at the same time. In addition to his absurd talent for retaining abstract numbers in working memory, Tammet has vivid experiences with these numbers that I can’t even begin to imagine:

The recitation [of pi] took place at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, lasted five hours and nine minutes and was monitored by students from the department of mathematical sciences at Oxford Brookes University. Mr. Tammet made no mistakes.

“I wanted to go as far into the other place as I could go,” he said, speaking of the world of numbers. “Having reached that point, I felt a kind of release because I could look back and in my mind’s eye I could see all the numbers — all 22,000 numbers in my head — and I actually turned around in my head and waved them good-bye, because I knew that I wasn’t going to see them again, I wasn’t going to do something like that again.

Comments

  1. #1 bigTom
    February 15, 2007

    I had a co-worker, a former mathematician who’s career had been ended by a head injury. Before that he claimed his working set size was around a hundred objects, instead of the normal 5-7. He said it wasn’t a natural ability but was created by hard training. The head injury destroyed that ability, and he had to change careers.

  2. #2 Jonathan
    February 15, 2007

    “But I still can’t get over his ability to remember 22,514 sequential digits: such an ability seems to contradict the most basic facts of the human mind, such as our limited ability to process more than 7 (plus or minus two) bits of information at the same time.”

    That’s the point, I think. He wouldn’t say he’s memorized all of those numbers–he’s seeing a vast landscape of shapes and colors.

  3. #3 MattXIV
    February 15, 2007

    I agree with Jonathan that the syesthesia probably contributes to his ability to go beyond the normal bounds for recalling digits. I actually have a very poor ability to recall arbitrary strings of digits, so when I need to remember a phone number, I do it by making a song out of the tones or by noting mathematical relationships between the digits.

  4. #4 Craig
    February 15, 2007

    The Asperger’s Store recently opened, which offers many products designed to stimulate the unique autistic mind like Daniel’s, as well as providing calming strategies and other sensory products. Our six-year old autistic daughter has a photographic memory and probably knows as much about birds as a seasoned ornithologist. These unique minds are both a gift and a mystery.

  5. #5 Steve Silberman
    February 16, 2007

    Fascinating, Jonah. I didn’t know about that new book — thanks for the tip.

    I described some interesting (and funny) interactions with a very sweet young jazz-playing autistic savant named Matt Savage in an article I wrote for Wired four years ago, The Key to Genius. “My mind is made of math problems,” he told his mom.

  6. #6 Kay
    March 23, 2007

    My 10 year old son was just diagnosed Asperberger. He came into my life as a 5 year old that didn’t talk much but was reading already. About second grade his reading comprehension was noted to be falling behind. But he was doing 6th grade math, new not only mutliplication and division, but knew what powers were and how to figure answers and was working on square roots. His biggest problem seems fine motor skills and the stress it causes trying to slow his brain down to go with his hand movements. My biggest frustration is knowing he could be learning so much more but he’s “above average” intelligence so “why do you think he needs help”? I keep saying because it’s not good enough for him. He’s bored. He has behavior problems. A keyboard to write and more interesting work where he has to memorize or make interesting discoveries would help with his behavior I believe. We are just starting to do an IEP with his new school. Any suggestions? Thanks

  7. #7 Olga Rivas
    July 21, 2007

    My grandaughter is being referred to a Neurologist. She shows all of the signs for this syndrome. We are so new at this, any information is greatly appreciated.
    Sincerely,
    Olga Rivas

  8. #8 stewart
    July 21, 2007

    Interesting, but don’t overestimate the capacity of the general public.
    I used to do the same trick of doubling 2, and can still do it as I want to (but I have a tendency to get a bit mangled after the 16 million point). As for memorizing pi, this is not a working memory task, this is a straight memorization task, akin to memorizing states and state capitols, sports statistics, etc. However, even the number span tasks can be markedly improved through practice.
    To quote Ericsson & Kintsch (1994)…

    “Some of the most detailed information on the structure of acquired memory skill has been collected in studies of the effects of extensive practice on the digit-span task. In this task, which was designed to measure the capacity of STM, subjects strive for complete serial recall of a rapid sequential presentation of digits. After hundreds of hours of practice on this task two subjects were able to increase their memory performance from around 7 digits, which is the typical performance of untrained subjects, to over 80 digits (Chase & Ericsson, 1982; Staszewski, 1988a). Other subjects have acquired digit spans of over 20 digits within 50 hours of practice (Chase & Ericsson, 1981; Ericsson, 1988a). Detailed experimental analyses of the superior recall performance of these trained subjects show that their performance reflects storage in LTM and is limited to the specific type of material practiced. Along with increases in memory performance, the speed with which subjects can memorize a list of a given length increases and can match the presentation rates in memory tasks designed to study only STM. To attain accurate recall from LTM, subjects associate the presented items with predetermined retrieval cues (retrieval structures) during the initial presentation and then activate these retrieval cues to retrieve the items during the subsequent recall phase.”

    So: these are impressive feats, but more attainable than we realize.

  9. #9 mindworks
    July 21, 2007

    I don’t think reciting 22,514 digits is that amazing. A difficult task for most people, yes, but the only reason people find it difficult is because the digits are relatively meaningless to them. People are not spellbound by a singer or actor reciting thousands of words. To Daniel each digit has meaning (his synesthesia) similar to words for the rest of us.

    To Daniel those digits of Pi could be separated into “words”, “paragraphs”, “scenes”, and “acts” like a play or song (I’m guessing of course. This is what I would do if I wanted to memorize Pi to thousands of digits). This method makes the recall much easier than spouting out a sequence of random numbers.

    Just a thought.

  10. #10 dyslexic_angeleno
    July 22, 2007

    For Olga Rivas:

    Please see the “Autism Hub”
    http://www.autism-hub.co.uk/

  11. #11 JM
    December 8, 2010

    What about teaching Asperger students math, such as long division…some keep forgetting the steps…help!

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