Excerpt: 'Embracing the Wide Sky'

One of the world's 50 living autistic savants, Daniel Tammet shows genius that has astounded researchers. His mental feats include memorizing and reciting 22,514 digits of pi and learning the Icelandic language in a week.

Tammet joined "Good Morning America Now" to debunk many of the myths surrounding savantisim in his latest book, "Embracing the Wide Sky. " You can read an excerpt of the book below.


"How did you do that?"


"How did you do that?"

Autistic SavantPlay

The scientist was looking at me with a puzzled expression. We were not in any laboratory, nor was he asking me about any of my memory, linguistic, or numerical skills. We were standing on a lawn outside the research center where I had come earlier in the day for a variety of cognitive tests. Next to him was my mother, who had accompanied me on the trip from London. We were in the process of having our photo taken together, when after a few moments in front of the camera I relaxed and started to step away. How, the scientist wanted to know, had I been able to perceive the photo being taken when, standing right next to me, he had not heard a click or seen any flash. Was my brain really that extraordinary?

Well, yes, but not for the reasons that the scientist imagined. Though the camera had indeed made no noise when the photo was taken, it had produced a pinprick of blurry red light. My autistic mind -- wired in such a way that I am able to spot tiny details that most other people often miss -- had perceived it effortlessly. After I explained this to the scientist, he asked for another photo to be taken. By looking carefully where I told him I had seen the red dot of light appear, he was able to see it, too.

For the record, I will confirm that I have no telepathic relationship with cameras, nor any extrasensory perception for knowing when a photo has or has not been taken. Rather, what I had done that day was simply an extreme form of an everyday act: to see. We rely heavily on our eyes to provide much of the information we obtain about the world around us, and it is for this reason that a significant portion of the human brain is devoted entirely to visual processing.

The scientist who thought I had perceived the photo being taken with the aid of some unknown power had arrived at a wrong but surprisingly common conclusion: that individuals with very different minds must use them in some fundamentally different, almost magical way. As one of the world's few wellknown autistic savants, I have received all manner of strange requests: from being asked to predict the following week's winning lottery numbers, to requests for advice on building a perpetual motion machine. Little wonder then that conditions such as autism and savant syndrome remain poorly understood by most people, including many experts.

It is not only savant minds that are considered somehow supernaturally gifted and therefore set apart from those of most other people: the success of outstanding individuals in numerous fields, from Mozart and Einstein to Garry Kasparov and Bill Gates, has been attributed by many to minds they regard as unearthly and inexplicable. I think this view is not only erroneous but harmful, too, because it separates the achievements of talented individuals from their humanity; an injustice both to them and to everyone else.

Every brain is amazing. Researchers know this after many years of studying the minds of highly gifted people, as well as those of housewives, cab drivers, and many others from all walks of life. As a result, today, we have a far richer, more sophisticated understanding of human ability and potential than ever before. Anyone with the passion and dedication necessary to master a field or subject can succeed in it. Genius, in all its forms, is not due to any mere quirk of the brain; it is the result of far more chaotic, dynamic, and essentially human qualities such as perseverance, imagination, intuition, and even love. Such an understanding of the human mind enriches, rather than detracts from, the popular appreciation of the accomplishments of highly successful individuals.

This book is about the mind -- its nature and abilities. It combines some of the latest neuroscientific research with my personal reflections and detailed descriptions of my abilities and experiences. My primary intention in writing it is to show that differently functioning minds such as mine (or Gates's or Kasparov's) are not so strange, in fact, and that anyone can learn from them. Along the way, I hope to clear up many misconceptions about the nature of savant abilities and what it means to be intelligent or gifted.

Chapter 1 looks at the fascinating complexity of the human brain and surveys some of the latest research findings from the field of neuroscience. Here I tackle head on some of the most common misconceptions concerning the brain, such as the idea that it does not change after birth or that the computer is a good analogy for how our brains work. I also assess several claims about savants and give evidence that indicates that savant brains are not so different from anyone else's.

Chapter 2 is a study of intelligence that questions whether IQ is an accurate indicator of intelligent behavior and looks at alternative ways of thinking about intelligence. I also examine the nature of genius and whether it is the result of innate talent, practice, or both.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 include detailed descriptions of my own abilities in memory, language, and number sense respectively -- areas where my autism helps me to excel. These chapters represent the most comprehensive personal account of savant ability ever written. Rather than encourage readers to merely gawk at the abilities of savants such as myself, I show that anyone can learn from them how to better understand and use his own mind.

Drawing again from my own personal experiences (as well as those of other autistic individuals), chapter 6 explores creativity and the possibility that some neurological conditions predispose individuals to extraordinary forms of creative thought and perception. I describe little-known forms of creativity, such as the phenomenon of languages created spontaneously by some children, and refute the myth that autistic savants are incapable of genuine creativity, using examples from my own and others' work.

In chapter 7, I examine what the latest scientific research tells us about the complexity and limitations of our perceptions. I also explore how biological differences can cause different people to see the world in very different ways. Sections on the puzzle of optical illusions and the psychology of art demonstrate the malleability and subjectivity of our minds' eyes.

In chapter 8, I look at the nature of information and its relationship with our minds in the internet age of Wikipedia, twenty-four-hour rolling news broadcasts, and the ubiquity of modern advertising. I explore the role of words in shaping how we perceive and think about something, and how we share knowledge through such means as gossip and urban myths. I also give suggestions on how we can learn to navigate our information-dense world and reduce our risk of information overload.

In chapter 9, I demonstrate and explain the benefits of and methods for thinking mathematically. I show how ordinary intuitions can often lead to wrong conclusions, and how a lack of understanding of probability can result in bad choices. I also analyze complex real-world entities, such as lotteries and voting systems, from a mathematical perspective and show how certain statistical arguments for popular claims do not add up. A final section helps you learn how to use numbers and logic to think more carefully and successfully.

The tenth and concluding chapter looks at the future of the human mind, from the remarkable medical and technological breakthroughs that are transforming the treatment of injured and diseased brains, to the new insights of cognitive researchers that suggest our minds extend far beyond the confines of the head. I also assess the claims of futurists who assert that, inevitably, mind and machine will merge and give rise to a new "cyborg" species. I finish with some personal reflections on what I hope the future will bring for every kind of mind.

A final note: The title of this book was inspired by one of my favorite poems, a meditation on the mind by the celebrated nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson. Every schoolchild should learn these verses:

The brain is wider than the sky, For, put them side by side, The one the other will containWith ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea, For, hold them, blue to blue, The one the other will absorb, As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God, For, heft them, pound for pound, And they will differ, if they do, As syllable from sound.

From "Embracing the Wide Sky" by Daniel Tammet. Copyright 2009 by Daniel Tammet. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.