Thinking differently

I was fascinated to read about Daniel Tammet in the Grauniad. He is an autistic savant with extraordinary mathematical skills. Here’s how he processes the numbers.

Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn’t “calculating”: there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. 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.”

It really makes you wonder what the brain is capable of, and even makes me have philosopical questions about what’s really happening when we think we are doing maths.

4 thoughts on “Thinking differently

  1. Earl Mardle

    Why stop at mathematics? At least with number the answers are correct or not by definition.

    What really fires my neurons is what is going on when we think we are thinking about the things that have indeterminate answers, or contingent ones.

    Or answers that aren’t true or false until we think about them.

  2. Matt Moore

    My missus is a mathematician (but not autistic). I am not. The way she explains maths is like something spatial, some real, something she inhabits rather than computes. If I pull her out of this world, she gets really angry, as if I’d kidnapped her.

    In addition, Steve Aylett describes his plots as being like coloured shapes, which he can stretch & change in his mind. As far as I know he is not autistic. But his books are very odd (if wonderfully constructed).

    If you haven’t already, read this wonderful book by A R Luria

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks Matt. It’s so fascinating to discover that others think so differently from ourselves. (And so easy to assume we have “the truth” about what’s out there!).


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