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Reflections on Creativity: Interview with Daniel Tammet

Posted Feb 14 2010 7:13pm

(Editor’s Note: contributor Scott Barry Kaufmanscott_kaufman_3 recently interviewed Daniel Tammetone of the 100 known prodigious savants living at the present time. Their in-depth conversation –summary and links follow Scott’s reflections below– provoked a powerful reaction in Scott’s mindas you are about to read).

Last night I was eating dinner with my parents back in my hometown in Philadelphia. I was telling them about my interview with Daniel Tammetand how I was working on a post about my reflections on the interview. My fatherwho reads everything I write (which can be awkward sometimes!)looked at me and saidplainly and simply“I see a lot of similarities between you and DanielScott.” Those words were a kind of crystallizing moment for me. I suppose I knew at an intuitive level that this interview was so meaningful to meand I was aware that I had this great drive to get the complete interview out there for people to readbut with that comment by my Dadit really hit me why the experience was so meaningful: this interview really was personal.

To the best of my knowledgeI don’t have Asperger’s syndrome. But I did have an auditory learning disability growing up that made me feel like an outsider most of my early childhooda feeling which remains to this day. My interview with Daniel was so profound to me because I think it really made it crystal clear to meat least clearer than ever beforethat whatever the “disorder”- learning disabilitypersonality disorderattention deficit disordermood disorderanxiety disorderobsessive compulsive disorderetc. – or life circumstanceanyone whose marginality put them on a different path from the rest of the kidsfrom the rest of the adultsfrom the rest of societyare united in that feeling of being different. Daniel Tammet’s feeling of a great loneliness and isolation growing up spoke to mefor sure. But I’m sure it also spoke to a great many people reading the interview.

There is a bit of Daniel Tammet in all of us. I think all of usat one time or anotherhave felt different in a particular contextand have felt the intense conflict to simultaneously want to fit in while also wanting to just be accepted for being different. Not all of us may be able to numberscalculate pi to as many places as Daniel canor can automatically associate numbers with colorsor can write both prose and poetry as beautifully as he doesor can paint as he does. But what my interview with Daniel taught me is that it doesn’t matter if you can’t do everything he does. Life is not about deliberately practicing yourself down someone else’s path. It’s about staying true to yourself at all timesand being fully open to going down your own uniqueunplannedand unpredictable path.

Researchers have asked me whetherafter my interview with DanielI think he is a “fraud”. I suppose they want to know whether he really is “autistic” or whether he really can truly do all the mind tricks he appears to be capable of. They saw his interview on Lettermanwhere he was very charismatic and socially engaging and they wonder whether he still has Asperger’s syndromesince he didn’t seem to display all of the symptoms on the show.

Itoosaw the Letterman interview. What I saw in that interview was a very smart person who was capable of being social. There is no doubt that Daniel has gone through a great transformation over the yearsbecoming more socially adept and outgoing. He has learned quite a bit about lifeloveand relationships. But stilltalking on the phone with himthere were moments when I could tell he was struggling a bit to understand some of my more ambiguous phrasesthat he still processed some of the things I said literally. Whether he would still be labelled “Asperger’s” today thoughis in many ways missing the larger point.

The point is that there is something it means to be Daniel. Daniel was born with a unique mindwired in a certain waywhich contributed significantly to how he sees the world. He has been able to compensate quite a bitbut there still remains a core to him that makes him unique. And I saw absolutely no dishonesty in my interview with him– in factwhat I had the honor of witnessing was one of the most truest individuals I’ve ever met in my entire lifea person who lives his life always trying to stay true to himself in a society that labels him as different. In a lot of waysa lot of people in this world every day of their own lives are trying to do the very same thing.

Throughout the interviewDaniel was very critical of IQ testing and the study of individual differences. I fully appreciate where his critiques were coming from. I agree with him that many things we do serve to reduce people to just one dimensionand in the case of a poorly administered IQ testreducing a person to just a number. But as I’ve reviewed recentlythe field of IQ testing is rapidly evolving. The major aim of most modern day IQ test makers I talk to is not to reducebut to broaden– to identify a particular individual’s unique pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses and to custom tailer an educational program for that person. This is a goal I think Daniel would agree with.

I think Daniel also underestimated the importance of investigating individual differences more generally. I study individual differences in my research program. The reason why I do so is because I fully believe that’s where most of the interesting aspects of human nature lie. It’s so fascinating to me how we can all vary so much from one another– on so many attributes like physical featurespersonalityintelligencecreativitystyle of thinkinglife experiencesetc.– and yet at the end of the day we are all part of the same species. We all have similar fearsdesiresand foibles. I think the study of individual differences is important– not as a way of reducing people– but as a way of broadening the spectrum of ways people can differ and the ways in which both innate dispositions and culture shapes who we are.

It is clear from my interview with Daniel that he really was born with a unique brain wiring. It wasn’t solely deliberate practice that got Daniel Tammet to Daniel Tammet. It was the unique constellation of potentials that the body named “Daniel Tammet” was born withand thatthrough a series of fortunate opportunitiesallowed him to more fully express and realize his potential than could have easily been the case – unfortunatelymany people have life circumstances that hinder them from realizing their potentialand they erroneously think that their current life is all that is possible for themselves. If anythingI’d imagine most of Daniel’s deliberate practice went toward trying to learn things that come more naturally to others (such as how to recognize faces)just so he could better fit inthan learning things that already came more naturally to himself (such as dancing with numbers).

In this new yearthis new decadeand well into the future of humanitylet’s all try a little bit harder to appreciate each other’s differences. And by doing solet’s also remind ourselves to remain true to ourselvesdespite society. Like Daniel Tammet.

(Editor’s Note: what follows is a summary of the in-depth conversation between Daniel Tammet and Scott Barry Kaufman. Links to whole series below).

Interview Corner: Daniel Tammet
An autistic savant joins the wider world.


CLAIM TO FAME: Vividly describes autistic savantism from the inside

Although their unusual abilities Daniel Tammet_0compel considerable attentionthere are fewer than 50 autistic savants worldwide. Daniel Tammet is one of them. Over 30 yearsthe London-born mathematical and language whiz has transformed from an awkwardreclusive boy into a confident adult. His quietprivate life of strict routines gave way in 2006when his memoir Born on a Blue Day became a best-sellernecessitating travelself-promotionand talk show appearances. His latest bookEmbracing the Wide Skyis a scientific exploration of his extraordinary abilities (reciting pi to 22,514 placeslearning to speak Icelandic in a week) and a tour of autism.

Scott: How have you compensated for the challenges of Asperger’s?

Daniel: Growing upI would have to watch the other children and learn from my mistakes. I would have to push myself to overcome the things most people don’t have to think about. Brushing my teeth was very difficult because of the noise of the brush. Today I use an electric toothbrush; the sound is repetitive and isn’t irritating. And making friends as well was very difficult. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I felt very close to numbers. Those were the things I understood very well. I also have synesthesia. While other children were playing with each otherI was playing with numbers in my head: visualizing the shapes and the colors I saw and seeing how they change and how they interactdoing sums and enjoying the rhythms and the colors and the kind of dance.

Scott: Do your earliest memories relate to numbers?

Daniel: My very earliest memory is of falling down the stairs and seeing colors as I fell. And not crying out loudnot realizing that I should cry in order to bring my parents out to look after me.

Can people change their personalities?

Yesmy own story illustrates that. In the last few yearsI’ve seen a very big change in my own life. I’m now working on my third bookwhich will be a novel. Until several years agofiction didn’t interest me very much. Today I’m reading Dostoyevsky. I find the way he describes various emotionscharactersand events very dramatic. This appeals to me and helps me understand emotions.

How else have you changed?

I’m certainly much more confident in my social interactions. I travel much more. I live in the south of France in the beautiful city of Avignon. People with Asperger’s often grow up feeling like foreignersand I feel today more comfortable in many respects speaking in French than in my native tongue. That’s another example of taking a plunge. I have traveled before and I have lived overseas beforebut always on a temporary basis. I feel traveling does broaden the mind. It gives me a new perspective on the world. The life I describe in Born on a Blue Day was much more limited. I certainly have routines in my day-to-day life that are important to me and still give me feelings of security and controlbut the capacity to break out of them every so often as I travel has given me a second wind.

Do you think anyone with autism can learn to lead a relatively normal social life?

It would depend on the extent of the autism and how we define a social life. If someone is very shy but isn’t autisticis he more or less normal than someone who is very outgoing? One of the things that fascinates people about autism is that it makes them question what society teaches us about what normal is. I don’t know that there is any one-size-fits-all way of behaving.

Do you have any advice for people with Asperger’s who want to more fully engage with the social world?

How any person decides to emphasize strengths and mitigate weaknesses is something people have to figure out for themselves. I’m wary of the self-help literature that suggests there are certain rules. I’m very happy for people to look at my story and say it’s possible to achieve many things. One of the biggest challenges is to keep pushing back against the misconceptions about what autism is and showing the potential for people with autism to have a happy life or to have a successful career.

Has Asperger’s given you a window onto creativity?

I see many examples of creativity within the autism spectrum. This intrigues me because I read that until recently scientists believed autism and creativity was kind of an oxymoron. And that isn’t the case. What we see in very young childrenwhere the brain in essence overdevelops the connections between cells and then radically prunes them back to prevent information overloadperhaps doesn’t take place in the same way for those on the autism spectrum. That hyperconnectivity is what drives creativitybecause it allows the person to draw simultaneously from different parts of the brain. Being able to make unusual leaps is characteristic of creativity.

You have reported a high IQ—about 150. How much do you think your IQ has contributed to your extraordinary talents?

The number itself tells me almost nothing about myself and the things I’ve been able to achieve. The test is very banal and so bizarre. Answers more interesting and creative than the expected response get zero marks. My own experience going through it for the book was eye-openingand it persuaded me that IQ as this precise figure is very silly.

Would you still be diagnosed with Asperger’s today?

I don’t know. Obviously it would depend on the person who was making the diagnosis. The person I am today bears very little resemblance to the person I was 10 years ago and even less resemblance to the child I was 20 years ago.

scott_kaufman_3Scott Barry Kaufman has published multiple journal articles and book chapters relating to intelligence and creativity and is the editor of two forthcoming books. Interview © 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman. His latest SharpBrains article was Learning About Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin. Photo Credit for picture of Daniel Tammet: Rex USA.

You can read the 6-part interview series here:

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