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TED2011

Daniel Tammet: Different ways of knowing

March 3, 2011

Daniel Tammet has linguistic, numerical and visual synesthesia -- meaning that his perception of words, numbers and colors are woven together into a new way of perceiving and understanding the world. The author of "Born on a Blue Day," Tammet shares his art and his passion for languages in this glimpse into his beautiful mind.

Daniel Tammet - Linguist, educator
Daniel Tammet is the author of "Born on a Blue Day," about his life with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome. He runs the language-learning site Optimnem, and his new book is "Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind." Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a savant,
00:15
or more precisely,
00:17
a high-functioning
00:19
autistic savant.
00:21
It's a rare condition.
00:23
And rarer still when accompanied,
00:25
as in my case,
00:28
by self-awareness
00:30
and a mastery of language.
00:32
Very often when I meet someone
00:35
and they learn this about me,
00:38
there's a certain kind of awkwardness.
00:40
I can see it in their eyes.
00:43
They want to ask me something.
00:46
And in the end, quite often,
00:49
the urge is stronger than they are
00:51
and they blurt it out:
00:54
"If I give you my date of birth,
00:56
can you tell me what day of the week I was born on?"
00:58
(Laughter)
01:00
Or they mention cube roots
01:03
or ask me to recite a long number or long text.
01:06
I hope you'll forgive me
01:10
if I don't perform
01:12
a kind of one-man savant show for you today.
01:15
I'm going to talk instead
01:19
about something
01:22
far more interesting
01:24
than dates of birth or cube roots --
01:26
a little deeper
01:29
and a lot closer, to my mind, than work.
01:31
I want to talk to you briefly
01:34
about perception.
01:36
When he was writing the plays and the short stories
01:39
that would make his name,
01:42
Anton Chekhov kept a notebook
01:44
in which he noted down
01:47
his observations
01:49
of the world around him --
01:51
little details
01:53
that other people seem to miss.
01:55
Every time I read Chekhov
01:58
and his unique vision of human life,
02:01
I'm reminded of why I too
02:05
became a writer.
02:07
In my books,
02:09
I explore the nature of perception
02:11
and how different kinds of perceiving
02:13
create different kinds of knowing
02:16
and understanding.
02:18
Here are three questions
02:23
drawn from my work.
02:25
Rather than try to figure them out,
02:27
I'm going to ask you to consider for a moment
02:29
the intuitions
02:32
and the gut instincts
02:34
that are going through your head and your heart
02:36
as you look at them.
02:38
For example, the calculation:
02:41
can you feel where on the number line
02:44
the solution is likely to fall?
02:46
Or look at the foreign word and the sounds:
02:49
can you get a sense of the range of meanings
02:52
that it's pointing you towards?
02:54
And in terms of the line of poetry,
02:57
why does the poet use the word hare
03:00
rather than rabbit?
03:02
I'm asking you to do this
03:06
because I believe our personal perceptions, you see,
03:08
are at the heart
03:12
of how we acquire knowledge.
03:14
Aesthetic judgments,
03:16
rather than abstract reasoning,
03:18
guide and shape the process
03:21
by which we all come to know
03:23
what we know.
03:26
I'm an extreme example of this.
03:28
My worlds of words and numbers
03:31
blur with color, emotion
03:34
and personality.
03:36
As Juan said,
03:38
it's the condition that scientists call synesthesia,
03:40
an unusual cross-talk
03:43
between the senses.
03:45
Here are the numbers one to 12
03:51
as I see them --
03:53
every number with its own shape and character.
03:55
One is a flash of white light.
03:59
Six is a tiny and very sad black hole.
04:01
The sketches are in black and white here,
04:06
but in my mind they have colors.
04:09
Three is green.
04:11
Four is blue.
04:13
Five is yellow.
04:15
I paint as well.
04:20
And here is one of my paintings.
04:22
It's a multiplication of two prime numbers.
04:25
Three-dimensional shapes
04:29
and the space they create in the middle
04:31
creates a new shape,
04:34
the answer to the sum.
04:36
What about bigger numbers?
04:39
Well you can't get much bigger than Pi,
04:41
the mathematical constant.
04:45
It's an infinite number --
04:47
literally goes on forever.
04:49
In this painting that I made
04:51
of the first 20 decimals of Pi,
04:53
I take the colors
04:57
and the emotions and the textures
04:59
and I pull them all together
05:02
into a kind of rolling numerical landscape.
05:04
But it's not only numbers that I see in colors.
05:09
Words too, for me,
05:12
have colors and emotions
05:14
and textures.
05:16
And this is an opening phrase
05:18
from the novel "Lolita."
05:20
And Nabokov was himself synesthetic.
05:22
And you can see here
05:26
how my perception of the sound L
05:28
helps the alliteration
05:31
to jump right out.
05:33
Another example:
05:36
a little bit more mathematical.
05:38
And I wonder if some of you will notice
05:40
the construction of the sentence
05:42
from "The Great Gatsby."
05:44
There is a procession of syllables --
05:48
wheat, one;
05:51
prairies, two;
05:53
lost Swede towns, three --
05:55
one, two, three.
05:58
And this effect is very pleasant on the mind,
06:00
and it helps the sentence
06:04
to feel right.
06:06
Let's go back to the questions
06:09
I posed you a moment ago.
06:11
64 multiplied by 75.
06:14
If some of you play chess,
06:17
you'll know that 64
06:20
is a square number,
06:22
and that's why chessboards,
06:25
eight by eight,
06:27
have 64 squares.
06:29
So that gives us a form
06:32
that we can picture, that we can perceive.
06:34
What about 75?
06:37
Well if 100,
06:40
if we think of 100 as being like a square,
06:42
75 would look like this.
06:45
So what we need to do now
06:48
is put those two pictures
06:50
together in our mind --
06:52
something like this.
06:54
64 becomes 6,400.
06:57
And in the right-hand corner,
07:01
you don't have to calculate anything.
07:05
Four across, four up and down --
07:07
it's 16.
07:09
So what the sum is actually asking you to do
07:12
is 16,
07:14
16, 16.
07:16
That's a lot easier
07:19
than the way that the school taught you to do math, I'm sure.
07:21
It's 16, 16, 16, 48,
07:24
4,800 --
07:26
4,800,
07:28
the answer to the sum.
07:30
Easy when you know how.
07:33
(Laughter)
07:35
The second question was an Icelandic word.
07:38
I'm assuming there are not many people here
07:41
who speak Icelandic.
07:44
So let me narrow the choices down to two.
07:46
Hnugginn:
07:51
is it a happy word,
07:53
or a sad word?
07:55
What do you say?
07:57
Okay.
08:00
Some people say it's happy.
08:02
Most people, a majority of people,
08:04
say sad.
08:06
And it actually means sad.
08:08
(Laughter)
08:12
Why do, statistically,
08:15
a majority of people
08:18
say that a word is sad, in this case,
08:20
heavy in other cases?
08:22
In my theory, language evolves in such a way
08:25
that sounds match,
08:28
correspond with, the subjective,
08:30
with the personal,
08:33
intuitive experience
08:35
of the listener.
08:37
Let's have a look at the third question.
08:40
It's a line from a poem by John Keats.
08:44
Words, like numbers,
08:47
express fundamental relationships
08:50
between objects
08:53
and events and forces
08:55
that constitute our world.
08:57
It stands to reason that we, existing in this world,
08:59
should in the course of our lives
09:02
absorb intuitively those relationships.
09:04
And poets, like other artists,
09:07
play with those intuitive understandings.
09:10
In the case of hare,
09:13
it's an ambiguous sound in English.
09:16
It can also mean the fibers that grow from a head.
09:18
And if we think of that --
09:21
let me put the picture up --
09:23
the fibers represent vulnerability.
09:25
They yield to the slightest movement
09:29
or motion or emotion.
09:32
So what you have is an atmosphere
09:35
of vulnerability and tension.
09:39
The hare itself, the animal --
09:41
not a cat, not a dog, a hare --
09:43
why a hare?
09:46
Because think of the picture --
09:48
not the word, the picture.
09:50
The overlong ears,
09:52
the overlarge feet,
09:54
helps us to picture, to feel intuitively,
09:56
what it means to limp
09:59
and to tremble.
10:02
So in these few minutes,
10:05
I hope I've been able to share
10:07
a little bit of my vision of things
10:09
and to show you
10:12
that words can have colors and emotions,
10:15
numbers, shapes and personalities.
10:18
The world is richer,
10:21
vaster
10:23
than it too often seems to be.
10:25
I hope that I've given you the desire
10:28
to learn to see the world with new eyes.
10:31
Thank you.
10:34
(Applause)
10:36

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Daniel Tammet - Linguist, educator
Daniel Tammet is the author of "Born on a Blue Day," about his life with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome. He runs the language-learning site Optimnem, and his new book is "Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind."

Why you should listen

Daniel Tammet is a writer, linguist and educator. He is the creator of Optimnem, a website that has provided language learning instruction to thousands around the globe. His 2006 memoir Born on a Blue Day describes his life with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome; his new book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, is a personal and scientific exploration of how the brain works and the differences and similarities between savant and non-savant minds.

Tammet set a European record on March 14, 2004, when he recited the mathematical constant pi (3.141...) to 22,514 decimal places from memory in a time of 5 hours, 9 minutes.

The original video is available on TED.com
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