Daniel Tammet: Mathematical Genius Visualizes Numbers, Solves Problems in Blink of an Eye

Studies by cognitive psychologists Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips suggest that native speakers of languages that have gendered nouns remember the different categorisation for each by attending to differing characteristics, depending on whether the noun is 'male' or 'female.' In one such study, a group of native German and Spanish speakers was asked to think of adjectives to describe a key. German speakers, for whom the word 'key' is masculine, gave adjectives such as 'hard,' 'heavy,' 'jagged,' and 'metal' whereas the Spanish speakers, for whom 'key' is feminine, gave responses like : 'golden,' 'little,' 'lovely,' and 'shiny.'

On Numbers

Various surveys indicate that as many as 10-15 percent of people report some kind of graphic mental representation of numbers. Francis Galton, a psychologist and cousin of Charles Darwin, carried out the first of these surveys back in 1880. The responses he obtained offer a fascinating glimpse into the sheer variety of mental number representations, though many number lines also displayed consistent patterns: about two-thirds were left-to-right and ran more often upwards than downwards. Some of the number lines had twists and bends, some turned upside down or back on themselves. A physicist replying to Galton's questionnaire described seeing numbers in the form of a horseshoe, with 0 at the bottom right, 50 at the top and 100 at the bottom left. Another respondent, a barrister, described visualising the numbers 1-12 as though on the face of a clock, with the following numbers tailing off afterwards into an undulating stream with the tens – 20, 30, 40, etc. – at each bend.

On the Future of the Mind

Alongside such impressive advances in medicine and technology, I hope for continuing progress in our cultures too, particularly in the way individuals with different minds are viewed and valued by society. In the not-too-distant past, autistic savants were considered of little scientific or intellectual interest and often treated as mere curiosities or performing seals. Even to this day autistic savants are too often viewed as robots, or computers, freaks, or even supernaturally endowed - in short, anything but human. And yet, as I have argued elsewhere in this book, it is our humanity that makes such abilities possible.

With all that we have begun to learn in recent decades about the intricacy and idiosyncrasy of 'normal' brains and minds, and with the growing awareness of the wide variability in conditions as complex as the autistic spectrum, such distorting and hurtful misconceptions will – I hope – decline in the years ahead. Better still, society will find ways to make best use of the talents and energies of differently able minds, maximising the depth and diversity of its intellectual capital in the face of the many challenges, and opportunities, that lie ahead for all of us.

Excerpts from "Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind" have been reprinted with permission from the author.

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