Friday, June 01, 2007

The Mysteries of the Mind

Did anyone happen to see this fellow on 60 Minutes recently? He's a 27-year-old savant from England named Daniel Tammett. Daniel has a unique brain, capable of incredible memory feats to which the rest of us could never possibly aspire. As the 60 Minutes website puts it, "Daniel Tammet is unique among savants, because he is blessed with all of the spectacular ability of a savant, but with very little of the disability." He has Asperger's syndrome, but apparently unlike some with Asperger's he has the rare ability to describe and assess his own thinking.

As a remarkable demonstration of Daniel's capabilities, he was asked to memorize the longest version of PI in existence--which Daniel and his colleagues found on a supercomputer in Japan. This version of PI had 22,514 digits. Daniel studied them, absorbed them, then went to Oxford University, where a team of people sat waiting to record the event, and recited them from memory. It took him more than five hours, and, as Morley Safer pointed out on the show, "He didn't make one mistake."

Daniel is careful not to let himself be used as a sort of circus act for people who are curious about his abilities--but he did do one other incredible thing. He was challenged to learn Icelandic, which is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn (and close to what the Vikings spoke). The catch? He was to learn it in one week.

Daniel went to Iceland and worked with tutors for a week, then went on an Icelandic talk show--and spoke about his experiences, in Icelandic.

For me, Daniel's story holds the utmost fascination because it suggests the deep potential of the human brain. Daniel said that when he memorizes numbers he sees not digits but "landscapes." What an amazing idea, and what does it suggest about the possibilities buried deep within the brain's tissue? This, for me, is one of the most fascinating mysteries of life.

You can learn more about Daniel at

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