When most people think about numbers, some of the following adjectives come to mind: analytical, ordered and unchanging. However, a small percentage of the population experiences numbers in a visual and emotional way described as synesthesia.
For Daniel Tammet, this rare, neurological mixing of the senses allows him to see numbers as shapes, colors, textures and motions. In his memoir titled “Born on a Blue Day,” he describes the number one as “a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow.”
However, Tammet’s ability to learn new languages fluently in a week or memorize more than 25,000 digits of pi, come with a price. He has savant syndrome, which is defined by the Wisconsin Medical Society’s Web site as “a rare, but spectacular, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘islands of genius,’ that stand in marked, incongruous contrast to the overall handicap.”
As Tammet’s book describes, savant syndrome gained exposure after Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the condition in the 1988 Oscar-winning film “Rain Man.” Much like Hoffman’s character, Tammet has “an almost obsessive need for order and routine” which affects every aspect of his life. For instance, he eats a precise amount of cereal every morning for breakfast, and when he enters situations that he finds unsettling, he counts in order to regain his composure and feel at ease.
Although other individuals have severe neurological disorders, Tammet’s story is unique because he leads a completely independent life. In addition, he fascinates the reader by clearly explaining the happenings inside his head.
With well-crafted ease, he begins his book by chronicling the experiences of his isolated childhood. His early years were marked by numerous behavioral problems such as screaming, crying, and head-banging; all of which are characteristics of autism. However, he quickly evolved into a reserved and aloof toddler who was absorbed in his own life.
“What must the other children have made of me? I don’t know, because I have no memory of them at all,” he mused on his nursery experience. “To me, they were the background to my visual and tactile experiences. I had no sense at all of play as a mutual activity.”
At age 4, he experienced his first epileptic seizure and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. Fortunately, his anti-seizure medication was effective, and he has since lived a seizure-free life. Although doctors were unable to determine whether the epilepsy left a lasting effect on Tammet’s brain, some researchers have suggested that his savant abilities could be explained by a left-brain injury leading to right-brain compensation.
He wrote about another aspect of his childhood – an obsession with collecting things, including chestnuts that fell from trees nearby – almost poetically. “Trees were a source of fascination for me as far back as I could remember; I loved rubbing the palms of my hands into the course, wrinkled bark and pressing the tips of my fingers along its furrows. The falling leaves formed spirals in the air, like the spirals I saw when I did division in my head.”
As Tammet’s life with autism continued, his obsessions varied. His interests and activities included a love of circles, puzzles and card games, and “ironing” clothes with a cool iron for hours at a time. He was highly adept at finding ways to entertain himself.
His level of resilience provided him with the necessary motivation to do “normal” activities, which may not have seemed feasible at first: live independently, fall in love, be employed in a language tutorial business, and even be interviewed by David Letterman. “Born on a Blue Day” is Daniel Tammet’s remarkable story, yet it is also a source of encouragement to anyone who has persevered despite uncontrollable obstacles.