Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Boy with the Incredible Brain

Daniel claims that since the age of four, he has been able to do huge mathematical calculations in his head. So the makers of this documentary put him to the test, asking him to calculate 37 raised to the power of 4. He completed this in less than a minute, giving the correct answer of 1,874,161. While considering the question, it was observed that, he appeared to be drawing shapes on the table with his finger. When asked about this, he explained that he could see the numbers as shapes and colours in his mind. This breakdown or confusion of the senses is known as synethsesia.

Next he was asked to divide 13 by 97. This time the researchers had the answer to 32 decimal places, Daniel gave the answer and continued beyond 32. He claims he can do the calculations to 100 decimal places.

He appears to be doing the mathematical calculations without actually thinking about it, which seems preposterous, but if true, blows away scientific theory.

Daniel's talents do not stop at numbers. He is very gifted with words and speaks nine languages and claims to be able to learn a new one in just seven days. To put this to the test, the documentary team shipped Daniel off to Iceland for a week. His Icelandic tutor described their language as immensely complex and considered it an impossibility for anyone to learn in only one week. Daniel Tammet was to appear on an Icelandic talk show at the end of his week to discuss his experience in their native tongue. Although he appeared to struggle to begin with, in the last few days his tutor said "He was like a sponge, absorbing all words and grammar at a phenomenal rate". He made his television appearance with great success.

In March of 2004 Daniel had his own surprise, in Oxford, England, he would recite the number Pi to 22,500 decimal places, in public in front of a team of invigilators to verify his accuracy. After just over five hours he had completed this extraordinary memory feat.

His childhood holds a clue to his unbelievable brain. As a small child he suffered a number of severe seizures which were later diagnosed as epilepsy. Ever since this time he has been able to see the patterns in numbers. While this is rare, there are other cases where individuals have suffered injury to the brain only to emerge with a similar startling talent. Orlando Serrill was just 10 years old when he was hit, hard, on the side of the head by a baseball. Since when, he has been able to recall the day, date and weather of every day since the accident.

The scientific community refer to people with these extraordinary memory skills as savants of which there are only a handful in the world. The condition is often associated with autism. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen a Cambridge University neuroscientist describes autism as a mix of ability and disability. However, Daniel displays the ability with no obvious sign of disability. Daniel, as a baby, cried constantly up until the age of two. He could only be soothed by being rocked in a blanket forming a hammock. Soothing by repetitious movement is, according to Prof. Baron-Cohen, indicative of autism. By most measures, Daniel is autistic but he has managed to develop the social skills to blend in.

Dane Buttino, another savant, displays phenomenal artistic skills, but his language and social skills remain child like. Unlike Dane, Daniel can describe what he is experiencing, making him very valuable to science.

Next in Daniel's travels is a trip to Salt Lake City to meet Kim Peek, probably the world's best known savant and the original Rain Man. Kim has a double photographic memory and can recall everything he has ever read. He speed reads by scanning opposing pages at the same time, one page with each eye.

We finish by visiting San Diego Center for Brain Studies where two very sceptical scientists, Shai Azoulai and Professor V.S. Ramachandran are going to put Daniel through his paces. As expected, his numeracy skills were flawless but the scientists are still not convinced. They don't believe he can relate coloured shapes to complex numbers so challenge him to make putty models of the shapes he sees for a given set of numbers. The following day, they ask the same to test the consistency of his shapes. Not surprisingly, Daniels excels and the scientists have to concede that they are amazed at what they have seen.