Slashdot has an post on a interview with Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who explains his genius abilities. I was not really impressed with some of the claims, especially since these abilities can probably be mastered by other people with a lot of time in their hands, which autistic people tend to have.
Whenever I read about impressive feats, I always asked myself if there was any way I would be able to accomplish that. In many cases, people aren’t born with the ability to, say, calculate the day of the week an arbitrary date falls into. Some people see this as a divine gift. My view is that a seven-day week, 12 month calendar of an earth-year is a random human invention, that none of us should have evolved a skill to calculate, especially correcting for leap years on every 4th, 100th and 400th year. These are skills, that have to be learned. I actually figured out the date trick in college and impressed quite a number of people with it. I wrote up the trick in an earlier post about idiot savants, but killed the post because some people were apparently offended by my unspoken suggestion that idiot savants were indeed idiots.
- Daniel speaks seven languages. While that’s not a very common skill, I have known a few people who know that many languages. My college roommate, David Carlton, knew eight languages. That skill is also more common in Europe.
- He can calculate cube roots faster than a calculator. Given that there are only 100 cubes under a million, that’s not an especially difficult skill to acquire.
- He knows over 20,000 digits of pi. I have memorized 100 digits of pi in just two minutes back in my college days just by grouping the digits in five and singing it repeatedly. I supposed, with over 200 times the effort and time, I might be able to match his feat, but it would not be a valuable use of my time. Apparently, Daniel sings it too backwards and forwards.
- He multiplies multidigit numbers very quickly. After thinking about this, I wondered about the impact of learning one’s multiplication tables up to 100. It’s, of course, 10,000 associations to learn, but a lot of it is redundant.
On the other hand, I will allow for the fact that he may have an exceptional memory, which can make these feats a lot easier for him than the ordinary person. This could be the result of a rewiring of the brain during fetal development that has lead to his autism; or it could be the strengthening of one portion of brain to compensate for the weaknesses in the other, the way a blind person develops an acute sense of touch and hearing, or a foreign-born student excels in math and science, but can’t read functionally in a non-native language.
These tricks have redeeming value, a sense of worth, for people, who are otherwise disabled, and their families. In this particular case, Daniel can’t drive a car or tell right from left. He gets to appear on Letterman and have Discovery channel special based on him. He garners more respect from friends and family. Considering that one-third of Americans presently have some disability and all of us will be partially disabled if we live long enough, something like this reaffirms our dignity even if we may not be very productive and are dependent on others. With my memory, learning ability, and energy levels much less than ten years ago, I personally feel my options becoming more limited as I age.
Lastly, while I am skeptical that Daniel’s abilities can’t be taught to others with time and effort, I do applaud them as they are still rare and astonishing.