In A Nutshell
Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant, with a very rare form of synesthesia. He sees numbers as having colors and very beautiful visuals, and he says some numbers look a lot better than others. He was able to see pi playing like a story in his head, and after some study could count it to 22,514 digits accurately in a few hours. He also learned Icelandic well enough to converse in only a week.
The Whole Bushel
Daniel Tammet is one of just a few autistic savants in the world, and one of the things that makes him extremely unique is his ability to perfectly articulate in words what he is seeing and feeling as he pulls off extraordinary feats of brainpower. Most savants are able to do some rather amazing things, but suffer so much in other parts of their life that truly explaining to scientists how they do what they do—or what their thought processes are—is almost impossible.
Tammet does have some issues that many autistic people share, most of them related to sensory overload. Going to a grocery store is a major headache because he finds himself constantly reading all the numbers and looking at all the shapes, and he is unable to focus on simply coming in quickly and getting the things he needs. He also sometimes has trouble with loud noises and rarely likes to be around a lot of people. He finds going to the beach almost impossible, because he has a crazy compulsion to start counting literally all of the grains of sand on the beach.
Scientists believe he could be a Rosetta stone of sorts for understanding autism more fully and for observing the amazing things the brain is capable of. Tammet has an extremely pronounced form of synesthesia where he sees numbers as having shape, form, color—almost a personality. When he multiplies two numbers, he says he isn’t doing calculations. Instead, he sees the shape of each number resolve into a new shape which is the numbers multiplied together, all in vivid, detailed color. When he was very young he had a serious epileptic attack and became obsessed with counting ever since. This has led his doctors to wonder if there is any relation between the attack and the way his brain works.
In order to prove his amazing abilities, Tammet once recited 22,514 digits of pi in just about five hours, while trained professionals ensured he was reciting the digits correctly. Tammet says he didn’t so much perform calculations as he previously memorized many of the numbers. When he was recalling them, they replayed like a story or a movie in his head. To Tammet, numbers are not boring. Each and every number has a different feeling to it and is a beautiful (or at least interesting) shape.
Tammet’s abilities are not confined to numbers, though. He is currently capable of speaking seven languages and is writing his own language based mostly on making associations between different words and meanings.
One of the seven languages he can speak is Icelandic. He learned Icelandic when someone challenged him to learn a language well enough to hold a serious conversation in just one week using his abilities of association and memorization. He went on television and did so well that native speakers were seriously impressed with his abilities. He hopes to bring his new language to universities soon, and scientists are looking forward to studying it in the hope of gleaning a better understanding of how his amazing brain works.
Show Me The Proof
CBS News: Brain Man
The Guardian: A genius explains
ABC News: Mathematical Genius Visualizes Numbers, Solves Problems in Blink of an Eye