Brain Pickings

Brainman: Inside the Mind of an Autistic Savant


What the circumference of a circle has to do with on-demand polyglotism.

With all the recent buzz about pitting a supercomputer against the sharpest human brains, it’s worth pausing and taking a moment of awe at the rare superhuman brains that serve as a reminder of mankind’s dormant potential. I recently had the pleasure of seeing thirty-something British autistic savant Daniel Tammet take the TED stage and open a rare door to an extraordinary, superhuman brain. On the heels of Born on a Blue Day — one of the year’s must-read books by TED speakers — here is a fascinating 2005 UK documentary titled Brainman, which takes us inside Tammett’s infinitely intriguing mind.

Entralled by Tammet’s exceptional brain, which makes him one of only about 50 such autistic savants living in the world today, scientists embark on a series of experiments testing the limits — or, as it turns out, the seeming limitlessness — of his cognitive prowess. The results are simply astounding.

I’m seeing things in my head, like mental sparks firing up, and it’s not until the very last moment that those sparks tell me what on earth they mean.

What makes Tammet so remarkable isn’t merely that he was able to learn Icelandic in a single week, or that he broke the European record by reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit, or that he has accute synesthesia. It’s that, despite the social paralysis of his condition, he is not only willing to be a public voice but also able to be an outstandingly eloquent one.

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