The Little Rain Man in All of Us
By February, a month before the U.S. Memory Championship, my suspicions that I might actually have a chance of doing well in the competition were beginning to be confirmed by my practice scores. In every event except the poem and speed numbers, my best practice scores were approaching the top marks of previous U.S. champions. Ed told me not to make too much of the fact. “You always do at least twenty percent worse under the lights,” he said, repeating advice he’d given me many times before. Still, I was rather stunned by the progress I’d made. In practice, I’d even managed to memorize a deck of cards in one minute and fifty-five seconds, a second faster than the U.S. record. In that day’s training log appears this note: “Maybe I could really win this thing?!” (Also, this inscrutable note: “Pay attention to DeVito’s remaining hair!!”)
What had begun as an exercise in participatory journalism had become an obsession. I had set out simply wanting to learn what the strange world of the memory circuit was all about, and to find out if my memory was indeed improvable. That I might be in a position to really win the U.S. championship seemed about as improbable as George Plimpton stepping into the ring with Archie Moore and actually knocking him out.
Everything I’d been told—by Ed, by Tony Buzan, by Anders Ericsson—suggested that my course of tedious training was the only way to achieve a more perfect memory. Nobody comes into the world with an inborn ability to remember loads of random digits or poetry at a single glance, or take pictures with the mind.
And yet, combing through the literature, one comes across a few rare cases here and there—perhaps less than a hundred in the last century—of savants with remarkable memories who appear to break the rules. What’s most striking about these individuals is that their exceptional memories—“memory without reckoning,” it’s been called—almost always coexist with profound disability. Some are musical prodigies, like Leslie Lemke, who is blind and brain damaged and couldn’t walk until he was fifteen, but can nevertheless play complicated musical pieces on the piano after hearing them just once. Some are artistic prodigies, like Alonzo Clemons, who has an IQ of 40 but can sculpt lifelike animals from memory after just a fleeting glimpse. Some have freakish mechanical skills, like James Henry Pullen, the nineteenth-century “Genius of Earlswood Asylum,” who was deaf and nearly mute, but built stunningly intricate model ships.
One day, after memorizing 138 digits in one of my five-minute practice sessions, I was sitting in front of the television, riffling through a deck of cards, as I often did to pass the time. I was looking at the queen of clubs, thinking about Roseanne Barr, about to form a disgusting memory, when I caught a trailer for a new documentary called Brainman about one of those rare prodigies. The subject of the film, which aired on the Science Channel, was a twenty-six-year-old British savant named Daniel Tammet, whose brain had been altered by an epileptic seizure he suffered as a toddler. Daniel could perform complex multiplication and division in his head, seemingly effortlessly. He could tell you if any number up to ten thousand was a prime. Most savants have just a single claim to exceptionality, a lone “island of genius,” but Daniel had a veritable archipelago. In addition to his lightning calculations, he was also a hyperpolyglot—a term used to describe the small number of people who can speak more than six languages. Daniel claimed to speak ten, and he said he learned Spanish in a single weekend. He’d even invented a language of his own called Mänti. To test his linguistic skills, the producers of Brainman flew Daniel to Iceland, and gave him one week to become conversational in Icelandic, one of the world’s most notoriously difficult languages. The talk-show host who tested him on national television at the end of the week pronounced himself “amazed.” Daniel’s tutor for the week called him a “genius” and “not human.”
The producers of the Brainman documentary also invited two of the world’s leading brain scientists, V. S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego, and Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge, to each spend a day testing Daniel. They both concluded that he was literally a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. Unlike virtually every other savant who had ever been studied, he could explain what was going on in his head—often in vivid detail. Shai Azoulai, a graduate student in Ramachandran’s lab, proclaimed that Daniel “could be the linchpin that spawns off a new field of research.” Dr. Darold Treffert, an expert in savant syndrome, declared him one of only fifty people in the world who can be classified as a “prodigious savant.”
Even though it’s described as a syndrome, savantism is not actually a recognized medical condition, and has no set of standard diagnostic criteria. However, Treffert divides savants into three informal categories. There are “splinter skill” savants who have memorized a single esoteric body of trivia, like Treffert’s young patient who can tell you the year and model of a vacuum cleaner just from its unique hum. A second group, which he calls “talented savants,” have developed a more general area of expertise, like drawing or music, which is remarkable only because it stands in such stark contrast to their disability. The third group, prodigious savants, have abilities that would be spectacular by any standard, even if they weren’t accompanied by handicaps in other areas. It’s a subjective scale, but an important one, Treffert believes, because prodigious savants are members of one of the rarest classes of human being on the planet. When a new prodigious savant like Daniel is discovered, it is a very big deal.
The media devoured Daniel’s story. Newspapers in England and America ran glowing profiles of the eminently quotable “Boy with the Incredible Brain.” He appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman , where he calculated the day of the week Dave was born on (Saturday), and on the Richard Judy program, the closest thing Britain has to Oprah. His memoir, Born on a Blue Day, became a New York Times bestseller in America, and quickly rose to number one in the Amazon UK rankings. Daniel became perhaps the most famous living savant in the world.
What interested me most about Daniel was his extraordinary memory. In 2003, he set a new European record by reciting the first 22,514 digits of pi from memory. It took him five hours and nine minutes, sitting in the basement of the Science Museum at Oxford University, and he says he did it without any mnemonic techniques beyond his powerful raw memory. Here, it seemed, was someone with the same astounding abilities as the mental athletes, but they came to him entirely without effort. It was almost impossible to believe. Meanwhile, I was putting in torturous hours taking mental strolls through every home I’d ever visited, every school I’d ever attended, and every library I’d ever worked in so that they could be converted into memory palaces. I wondered why a savant like Daniel never competed in memory contests. Surely he’d wipe the floor with the trained mnemonists, I imagined.
The more I researched Daniel’s story, the more fascinated I was by the differences between him and the mental athletes I’d come to know—and the mental athlete I was rapidly becoming myself. I knew how the mnemonists did it: They’d improved their memories through rigorous training, using ancient techniques. I’d even done it myself. But I didn’t understand where Daniel’s powers of recall came from. Daniel, like the journalist S before him, seemed to have an innate ability to remember. How was his brain different from mine? And did he have any tricks up his sleeve that could give me an advantage at the U.S. championship?
I decided that I would try to meet up with Daniel. He invited me to the home he shared with his partner, Neil, at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in the scenic seaside town of Kent, England. We ended up spending two full afternoons together in his living room, chatting over tea and fish and chips. Daniel was skinny, with short blond hair, glasses, and birdlike features. He was gentle, soft-spoken, charming, and hyperarticulate—equally comfortable explaining his bizarre memory as opining on why The West Wing was the most thoughtful American television program. I suppose I’d come expecting some kind of freak, and so I was taken aback by how surprisingly ordinary Daniel seemed—even more ordinary than some of the mental athletes I’d come to know. In fact, if he hadn’t told me, I’m not sure I’d ever have guessed that there was anything unusual about him. However, Daniel assured me that despite appearances, he was anything but normal. “You should have met me fifteen years ago. You’d have said, ’Boy, that guy has autism!’ ”
Daniel is the oldest of nine children. He grew up in subsidized housing in East London and had what he calls “a very difficult” childhood that “seems like something out of Dickens.” In Born on a Blue Day, he describes the massive epileptic seizure he suffered as a four-year-old: It was “an experience unlike any other, as though the room around me was pulling away from me on all sides and the light inside it leaking out and the flow of time itself coagulated and stretched out into a single lingering moment.” Had his father not rushed him to the emergency room in the back of a taxi, that seizure very probably would have killed Daniel. Instead, he believes it was the moment he became a savant.
According to Baron-Cohen, two rare conditions may have conspired to produce Daniel’s savant abilities. The first is synesthesia, the same perceptual disorder that afflicted the journalist S, in which the senses are intertwined. By one estimate, there are more than a hundred different varieties of the disorder. For S, sounds conjured up visual imagery. In Daniel’s case, numbers take on a distinctive shape, color, texture, and emotional “tone.” The number 9, for example, is tall, dark blue, and ominous, while 37 is “lumpy like porridge” and 89 resembles falling snow. Daniel says he has a unique synesthetic reaction like that for every number up to 10,000, and that experiencing numbers in this way allows him to do quick mental math without pencil or paper. To multiply two numbers, he sees each number’s shape floating in his mind’s eye. Intuitively, and without effort, he says, a third shape, the answer, forms in the negative space between them. “It’s like a crystallization. It’s like developing a photo,” Daniel told me. “Division is just the reverse of multiplication. I see the number and I pull it apart in my head. It’s like leaves falling from a tree.” Daniel believes his synesthetic shapes somehow implicitly encode important information about the properties of numbers. Prime numbers, for example, have a “pebble-like quality.” They’re soft and round, without the jagged edges of numbers that can be factorized.
Daniel’s other rare condition is Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Autism was first identified in 1943 by the child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. He described it as a form of social impairment, a disorder in which, as Kanner put it, patients “treat people as if they were things.” Along with this inability to empathize, autistic individuals have a host of other problems, including language impairment, an extremely focused range of interests, and “an anxiously obsessive desire for the preservation of sameness.” A year after Kanner first wrote about autism, an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger noted another disorder that seemed almost identical except that Asperger’s patients had strong linguistic abilities and fewer intellectual impairments. He called his precocious young patients, with their bottomless wells of arcane trivia, “little professors.” It wasn’t until 1981 that Asperger’s was recognized as its own separate syndrome.
Daniel’s Asperger’s diagnosis was made by Baron-Cohen, who runs the Cambridge Autism Research Centre and who also happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on synesthesia. “If you saw him today, you wouldn’t necessarily think that this guy has a form of autism,” Baron-Cohen told me over tea in his Trinity College office one afternoon. “It’s only in the context of hearing his developmental history. I said to him, ’Your development suggests that when you were younger you had Asperger’s syndrome, whereas looking at you today, you’ve made such a good adaptation and you’re functioning so very well that you don’t necessarily need a diagnosis. It’s up to you whether you want one or not. He said, ’Yes, I prefer to have it.’ It gave him a new way of looking at himself. That’s fine. It fits with his profile.”
In his memoir, Daniel writes extensively about the effects of growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. “What must the other children have made of me? I don’t know, because I have no memory of them at all. To me they were the background to my visual and tactile experiences.” Throughout his childhood, Daniel was afflicted with a passion for trivia. He collected leaflets and counted everything, and developed an obsessive, encyclopedic knowledge of the popular 1970s soft-rock duo the Carpenters. He frequently got into trouble for taking things far too literally. After extending his middle finger in the direction of a schoolmate, he was surprised at the reprimand he received. “How can a finger swear?” he wondered. Empathy did not come easily. “I had no concept of deception,” he says. “I’ve worked so hard to reach this place where I can be really normal, where I can have a conversation and know when to start and stop talking, and remember to make eye contact.” Despite having apparently conquered his most debilitating social problems, to this day, Daniel says he still can’t shave himself, or drive a car. The sound of the toothbrush scratching his teeth drives him mad. He says he avoids public places, and is obsessive about small things. For breakfast, he measures out exactly forty-five grams of porridge on an electric scale.
I mentioned Brainman to Ben Pridmore. I was curious to know whether he’d seen it, and whether he was afraid that Daniel, someone with natural gifts that seemed to measure up to—if not surpass—Ben’s own acquired skills, might someday make an appearance on the memory circuit.
“I’m pretty sure that guy did compete in the championships a couple years ago,” Ben told me matter-of-factly. “But I think he had a different name. Back then he was called Daniel Corney. He did quite well one year, as I recall.”
I asked a few of the other mental athletes what they thought of Daniel. Almost everyone had seen Brainman, and almost everyone had an opinion. Quite a few were suspicious about his claims of savanthood, and believed he used basic mnemonic techniques to memorize information. “Any of us could do what he’s done,” the eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien told me. “If you want my opinion, he simply realized he’d never be number one as a mental athlete.” O’Brien said as much on camera, when he was filmed for Brainman , but the producers didn’t include his interview in the final cut.
Clearly the mental athletes had plenty of reason to be envious of Daniel. His memory skills were almost exactly equivalent to theirs, and yet their respective places in the cultural firmament couldn’t have been more different. While the trained mnemonists toiled away in geeky obscurity, Daniel’s medicalized condition had generated enormous popular interest.
The next time I was in front of a computer, I logged into the memory circuit stats server. Sure enough, I found a Daniel Corney who had competed twice in the World Memory Championship, finishing as high as fourth place in 2000. It was the same Daniel, with a different surname: He’d had it legally changed in 2001. It seemed strange to me that in his memoir about his impressive memory Daniel wouldn’t have mentioned his fourth-place finish in the World Memory Championship.
I did a search for Daniel’s name in the Worldwide Brain Club, the online forum where mental athletes gather. Not only had Daniel competed in the World Memory Championship, he had actually been an outspoken critic of it, even going so far as to lay out an eight-point program for how memory sport could be made more legitimate, more popular, and attract more media attention. I was especially surprised by one of Daniel’s posts to the WWBC. It was an ad from the year 2001 in which he offered to reveal the “secrets of his ’Mindpower formula’ in his unique ’Mindpower and Advanced Memory skills e-mail course.’ ” What secrets were those? I wondered. And why hadn’t he shared them with me when we met?
What fascinates us and excites us about savants—the reason Daniel has received so much attention from both scientists and the public—is their otherness, and their ability to do the seemingly impossible with apparent ease. They are, in effect, aliens in our midst, walking exceptions to the natural order of the universe. As jaw-dropping as the memory tricks performed by mental athletes may be, they’re still just tricks. And like any magic trick, once you know how it’s done—and that you could do it, too—the effect loses a good bit of its luster. But savants are the real deal: For them, memory is not a trick, but a talent.
But now I was beginning to wonder if the gulf between me and Daniel—between any of us and Daniel—might not be nearly so great at it seemed. What if, as Dominic O’Brien seemed to believe, the most famous savant in the world was not a rare individual with almost mystical natural abilities but just a guy who accomplished savantlike tricks through methodical training? What, then, would be the difference between him and me?
When it comes to savant memory, there is probably only one other human being in the same class as Brainman: Kim Peek, aka Rain Man, the prodigious savant born in 1951 who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Hollywood movie. He has arguably the best memory in the world. Now that I’d spent some time with Daniel, I decided to visit Kim in his hometown in Utah to make a comparison, to find out what the two celebrated prodigies had in common, and what they could tell me about the nature of savant syndrome.
I met Kim on a leg of what has become his endless speaking tour—on which his father and caregiver, Fran, accompanies him, and for which he never requests payment. He was addressing a group of about three dozen elderly women in the activities room at an old-age home in his hometown of Salt Lake City. Members of the audience had been invited to try to stump him with obscure trivia (anything but “logic or reasoning questions,” Fran cautioned). A woman breathing from an oxygen tank asked him about the highest peak in South America. He answered correctly—Mt. Aconcagua, a fact any mildly competent trivia buff would know—and gave its height: 22,320 feet (which, I later discovered, was off by about five hundred feet). An amputee in a wheelchair inquired how many times Easter fell in March in the 1930s. Without a pause, he responded. “March 27, 1932. March 28, 1937.” His answers ended with a quickening of his voice that sounded like it was about to explode in raucous laughter. The program director of the home asked him which books were summarized in volume 4 of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from 1964. He named all five. The name of Harry Truman’s daughter? Margaret. The number of times the Steelers have won the Super Bowl? Four. The last line of Coriolanus? “Which to this hour bewail the injury, / Yet he shall have a noble memory. Assist.”
“He’s never forgotten anything,” Fran told me, including, supposedly, every fact in the more than nine thousand books he has read at about ten seconds a page. (Each eye scans its own page independently.) He’s memorized Shakespeare’s entire corpus and the scores to every major piece of classical music. At a recent staging of Twelfth Night, an actor transposed two lines, sending Kim into a fit of such magnitude that the house lights had to be turned on and the play suspended. He’s no longer allowed to attend live plays.
Unlike Daniel, there’s no way to look at Kim and not immediately sense that he is entirely unique. He has gray hair and a bearlike build, and squints through thick, brown plastic frames. His head is almost always tilted forty-five degrees to the side. He keeps one hand docked inside the other, and thrusts it in and out when he gets excited. Possibly the most allusive conversationalist on the planet, his mind so overflows with facts and figures that they often come out as a waterfall of apparent non sequiturs. When an Argentine woman at the old-age home told Kim that she was born in Córdoba, Kim immediately told her the major roads into and out of her hometown and then belted out the chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” provoking a squirm of discomfort from me. And then out of nowhere he screamed, “You’re fired!” Fran helped him explain the connection: The basketball star Dennis Rodman, who used to date Madonna, who played Argentinean first lady Eva Perón in the movie version of Evita, was fired by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999.
Kim seems to have discovered a Pavlovian association between his astounding literalness and audience laughter. At a recent talk, he responded to a question about the content of the Gettysburg Address with, “227 Northwest Front Street. But Lincoln stayed there only one night. He gave the speech the next day.” He now repeats that joke often.
Kim likes to be called the “Kimputer,” but his full name is Laurence Kim Peek. “We named him after Laurence Olivier and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim,” says Fran. When Kim was born, after a difficult pregnancy, it was immediately clear that something was deeply off. His head was a third larger than normal and sprouted a fist-size blister on its backside that the doctors were afraid to remove. For the first three years of his life, Kim dragged his head on the ground as if it were loaded with a heavy weight. He didn’t walk until he was four. His parents were urged to consider a lobotomy. Instead Kim was put on heavy sedatives until he was fourteen. Fran recalls that it was only when Kim was taken off the sedatives that he first started to show an interest in books. He’s been memorizing them ever since.
But even though Kim has access to a larger store of knowledge than perhaps anyone else on the planet, he doesn’t seem able to put it toward any end other than itself. He has an IQ of just 87. And no matter how many books of etiquette he may have memorized, his sense of what’s socially appropriate is, to put it generously, esoteric. Standing in a crowd of people in the lobby of the Salt Lake City public library, Kim wrapped his thick arms around my shoulders and gripped me against his paunch and then forcibly gyrated against me. “Joshua Foer, you are a great, great man,” he told me loudly enough to startle a passerby. “You are a handsome man. You are a man of your generation.” And then he let out a deep roar.
How Kim can do what he does is a mystery to science. Unlike Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, Kim is not, apparently, autistic. He’s far too sociable for that diagnosis. He’s something else entirely. In January 1989, the same week that Rain Man was released, a CT scan of Kim’s brain revealed that his cerebellum, an organ crucial to sensory perception and motor function, was severely distended. An earlier scan had discovered that Kim also lacks a corpus callosum, the thick bundle of neurons that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and allows them to communicate. It’s an incredibly rare condition, but how it might contribute to his savantism isn’t at all clear.
Kim and I spent the better part of our afternoon together sitting at a table in the back corner of the Salt Lake City public library’s fourth floor, where he has spent almost every weekday of the last ten years reading and memorizing phone books. He took off his glasses and laid them on the table. “I’m just going to do a little scanning,” he announced. I looked over his shoulder as he leafed through a phone book from Bellingham, Washington. I was trying to keep pace with his memory. I did what Ed would have coached me to do had he been there: I set up a memory palace and converted each person’s phone number into an image, did the same thing with the first and last name, and then quickly tried to tie all those images together in a memorable way. It was hard work, and when I tried to explain it to Kim, he didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. Every time I’d get to the fourth or fifth name in the first column, he was ready to move on to the next page. I asked him how he was able to do it so quickly. He looked up from the book and peered over his glasses, agitated by my interruption. “I just remember!” he screamed. And then he reburied his head in a column of phone numbers, and ignored me for the next half hour.
One of the challenges of developing a theory to explain savant syndrome is that it expresses itself so differently in different individuals. However, there is one neuroanatomical anomaly that turns up again and again in savants, including Kim: damage in the brain’s left hemisphere. Interestingly, the exaggerated abilities of savants are almost always in right-brain sorts of activities, like visual and spatial skills, and savants almost always have trouble with tasks that are supposed to be primarily the left-brain’s domain, such as language. Speech defects are extremely common among savants, which is part of the reason that loquacious, well-spoken Daniel seems so extraordinary.
Some researchers have theorized that shutting off certain left-brain activities somehow liberates right-brain skills that had been latent all along. Indeed, people have been known to suddenly acquire savantlike abilities later in life, after a traumatic injury to the left side of the brain. In 1979, a ten-year-old boy named Orlando Serrell took a baseball pitch to the left side of his head and came to with a remarkable capacity to calculate calendar dates and remember the weather on every day of his life. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, studies elderly patients with a relatively common form of brain disease called frontotemporal dementia, or FTD. He’s found that in some cases where the FTD is localized on the left side of the brain, people who had never picked up a paintbrush or an instrument can develop extraordinary artistic and musical abilities at the very end of their lives. As their other cognitive skills fade away, they become narrow savants.
The fact that people can become savants so spontaneously suggests that those exceptional abilities must lie dormant, to some degree, in all of us. There may be, as Treffert likes to put it, “a little Rain Man” hiding inside every brain. He’s just kept under lock and key by the inhibitory “tyranny of the dominant left hemisphere.”
Treffert further speculates that savants with exceptional memories may somehow hand over the duties of maintaining declarative memories, like facts and figures, to the more primitive nondeclarative memory systems, like those that help us recall how to ride a bike or catch a fly ball without consciously thinking about it (the same systems that allow the amnesic HM to draw in the mirror and EP to navigate his neighborhood without knowing his address). Consider how much mental processing must take place just to position one’s hand to catch a fly ball—the instantaneous calculations of distance, trajectory, and velocity—or to recognize the difference between a cat and a dog. Our brains are obviously capable of astoundingly fast and complex calculations that happen subconsciously. We can’t explain them because most of the time we hardly even realize they’re happening.
But with enough effort those lower levels of cognition can sometimes be accessed. For example, when students are taught to draw, often the first two exercises they’re made to master are tracing negative space and contour lines. The aim of these exercises is to shut down the top-level conscious processing that can’t see a chair as anything but a chair, and activate the latent, lower-level perceptual processing that sees it only as a collection of abstract shapes and lines. It takes a great deal of training for an artist to learn to deactivate that top-level processing; Treffert believes savants may do it naturally.
If the rest of us could turn off that top-level processing, would we become savants? There actually is a technology that can selectively, and temporarily, turn off parts of the brain. It’s called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, and it works by using focused magnetic fields to wreak havoc on the electrical firing of targeted neurons. The deadening effect can last for upwards of an hour. Although TMS is relatively new, it has been used successfully as a noninvasive means of treating problems as diverse as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and migraines. But in many ways, TMS’s experimental potential is even more exciting than its therapeutic uses. There are obviously some intractable ethical problems with experimenting on the human brain. Since you can’t go in and mess around with a living brain (HM taught us that), much of what neuroscientists have been able to learn about the brain has been the result of a few “natural experiments” caused by extremely unlikely forms of brain damage (like EP’s). Because TMS allows neuroscientists to turn regions of the brain on and off at will, they can use it to perform repeatable experiments without waiting for someone to walk into their office with a rare lesion that just happens to affect the specific part of the brain they want to study. Allan Snyder, an Australian neuroscientist who popularized TMS as an experimental tool, uses the technique to temporarily induce savantlike artistic skills in otherwise normal people by targeting the left frontotemporal lobe (the same region that is often damaged in savants). After having the left temporal lobe zapped, subjects can draw more accurate pictures from memory, and can more quickly estimate the number of dots flashed on a screen. Snyder calls his device a “creativity-amplifying machine.” He might as well call it the savant cap.
In the Brainman documentary, I had watched Daniel divide 13 by 97 and give the result to so many decimal places that the answer ran off the edge of a scientific calculator. A computer had to be brought in for verification. He multiplied three-digit numbers in his head in a few seconds, and quickly figured out that 37 to the fourth power was 1,874,161. To me, Daniel’s mental math seemed much more impressive than his memory.
As I began looking into the complicated subject of mental math, I learned that just like mnemonics, the field has its own vast literature, and even its own world championship. Indeed, with a bit of Googling and a whole lot of practice, anyone can teach themselves how to multiply three-digit numbers in their head. It is by no means easy—believe me, I tried—but it’s a skill that can be learned.
Though I asked him repeatedly on several occasions, Daniel refused to perform even a single mental calculation for me. “One of my parents’ big fears was that I would become a freak show,” he said when I pressed him. “I had to promise them that I wouldn’t do calculations for people who ask me. I only do them for scientists.” But he did perform some mental math for the cameras in Brainman.
As he was performing those calculations, I was struck by something odd that Daniel seemed to be doing with his fingers. While he’s supposedly watching the answer crystallize in his mind’s eye, the camera captures his index finger sliding around on the surface of the desk in front of him. Given his descriptions of shapes melting and fusing in his mind, that little bit of finger work just struck me as strange.
Talking to a few experts, I learned that anyone who has done mental multiplication might have suspicions about those sliding fingers. One of the most common techniques for calculating the product of two large numbers is known as cross multiplication. It involves doing a sequence of individual multiplications of single-digit numbers and then combining them together in the end. To my eye, this appeared to be what Daniel may have been doing on the table. Daniel denies this. He says it’s just a fidget that helps him concentrate.
“There are a lot of people in the world who can do those kinds of things, but they’re still pretty impressive,” Ben Pridmore told me. In addition to competing on the memory circuit, Ben also competes in the Mental Calculation World Cup, a biennial contest in which participants carry out mental calculations far more extreme than Daniel’s, including multiplying eight-digit numbers without pencil or paper. None of these top calculators make any claims about seeing numerical shapes that fuse and divide in their minds’ eyes. They all readily admit to using techniques detailed in countless books and Web sites. I asked Ronald Doerfler, author of one of those books, Dead Reckoning: Calculating Without Instruments, to watch Brainman and tell me what he thought. “I’m not fantastically impressed with any of that,” he said of Daniel’s mathematical talents, and added, “The lore of mental calculators is rife with misdirection.”
What about the fact that Daniel knows all the prime numbers less than 10,000? Even this doesn’t impress Ben Pridmore. “Just basic memorization,” he says. There are only 1,229 primes less than 10,000. That’s a lot of numbers to commit to memory, but not compared to learning 22,000 digits of pi.
Calendar calculating, the only savant skill Daniel was willing to perform in front of me, turns out to be so simple that it really shouldn’t impress anyone. Savants like Kim, who can tell you the date of every Easter in the last thousand years, seem to have internalized the rhythms and rules of the calendar without explicitly understanding them. But anyone can learn them. There are several very simple calendar calculation formulas, published widely on the Internet. It only takes about an hour of practice to become fluent with them.
The more Daniel and I talked, the more his own statements began to cast doubt on his story. When I asked him on different occasions two weeks apart to describe what the number 9,412 looked like, he gave me two completely different answers. The first time he said, “There’s blue in there because it starts with a nine, and a drifting motion as well, and kind of like a sloping as well.” Two weeks later, he said after a long pause, “It’s a spotty number. There’s spots and curves as well. It’s actually a very complex number.” Then he added, “The larger the numbers are, the harder they are to put into words. That’s why in interviews, I usually concentrate on the smaller numbers.” Indeed, synesthetes are never entirely consistent, and to his credit, Daniel described several smaller numbers consistently over the course of our meetings.
But what about those “Mindpower and Advanced Memory skills” courses that Daniel used to advertise on the WWBC? Back at his home in Kent, I handed him a printout of his ad from 2001 and asked him what I was supposed to make of it. If his extraordinary memory came to him entirely without effort and he didn’t need to use mnemonic techniques, why was he selling a course on exactly that subject? He uncurled his feet from under him and put them back on the floor. “Look, I was twenty-two at the time,” he said. “I had no money. The one thing I had experience in was competing in the World Memory Championship. So I wrote a course on improving your memory. When I went to the world championship, I found out that the people taught themselves to remember. None of them had good memories. I thought at the time that they were lying, but it did give me the idea that this was something you could teach. I was in a position where I had to sell myself. The only thing I thought was sellable was my brain. So I used Tony Buzan kind of stuff. I said, ’Expand your brain,’ and that sort of thing, but I didn’t like doing it.”
“You don’t use memory techniques?” I asked him.
“No,” he assured me.
If Daniel had concocted his story of being a natural savant, it would have required a degree of mendacity that I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe he possessed. If he was merely a trained mnemonist trying to cloak himself in the garb of a savant, why would he so willingly subject himself to scientific testing?
How could one ever know whether Daniel is what he claims to be? For a long time, scientists were skeptical that synesthesia even existed. They dismissed the phenomenon as fakery, or nothing more than lasting associations made between numbers and colors in childhood. Despite all the case reports in the literature, there was no way of proving that something so seemingly far-fetched was actually taking place in someone’s brain. In 1987, Baron-Cohen developed the Test of Genuineness for Synesthesia, the first rigorous assessment of the condition. The test measures the consistency with which a purported synesthete reports color-word associations over time. When Baron-Cohen administered a version of this test to Daniel, he passed it with ease. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if any trained mnemonist would have been able to do as well. Other results from Daniel’s scientific testing struck me as odd. When Baron-Cohen tested Daniel’s memory for faces, he performed abysmally, leading Baron-Cohen to conclude that “his face memory appears impaired.” That sounds like just the sort of thing a savant might be bad at. And yet when Daniel Corney competed in the World Memory Championship, he won the gold medal in the names-and-faces event. It just didn’t make sense.
One test that might help demonstrate Daniel’s synesthesia more conclusively would be an fMRI scan. In many number-color synesthetes, you can actually see brain areas associated with color processing light up when the subject is asked to read a number. When Baron-Cohen teamed up with fMRI experts to look at Daniel’s brain, they didn’t find this. Their test subject “did not activate extra-striate regions normally associated with synaesthesia suggesting that he has an unusual and more abstract and conceptual form of synaesthesia,” the researchers concluded. Were it not for the fact that he’d passed the Test of Genuineness for Synesthesia, another reasonable conclusion might be that Daniel is not a synesthete at all.
“Sometimes people ask me if I mind being a guinea pig for the scientists. I have no problem with it because I know that I am helping them to understand the human brain better, which is something that will benefit everyone,” Daniel writes in his memoir. “It is also gratifying for me to learn more about myself, and the way in which my mind works.” When Anders Ericsson invited Daniel to visit FSU to be tested according to his own exacting standards, Daniel said he was too busy to make the trip.
The problem with all the tests given to Daniel is their null hypothesis—the working assumption that would be true if their alternative hypothesis were proven false: namely, that if Daniel wasn’t a savant, then he must be just a regular guy. But what needs to be tested, especially in light of his unusual personal history, is the alternative possibility that the world’s most famous savant might actually be a trained mnemonist.
About a year after my first meeting with Daniel, his publicist e-mailed me to ask if I wanted to meet with him again, this time over breakfast at the stylish midtown hotel he was staying at in New York. He was in town to do an appearance on Good Morning America and to promote his book, Born on a Blue Day, which had debuted in America in third place on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
After a cup of coffee and some pleasant chitchat about his life in the spotlight, I asked him again—for the third time—what the number 9,412 looked like to him. There was a flicker of recognition in his eyes before he closed them. He knew I hadn’t pulled those digits out of thin air. He put his fingers in his ears, and held them there for two very long, uncomfortable minutes of silence. “I can see it in my head. But I can’t break it down,” he said, finally.
“Last time I asked, you were able to describe it almost immediately.”
He thought about it a bit longer. “It would be dark blue, and it would be pointy, and shiny, with a drifting motion. Or I could picture it as ninety-four and twelve, in which case it would look like a triangle and this sort of shape.” He made a kind of quadrilateral with his arms. His face was cherry red. “It depends on all sorts of things, like whether I heard the number OK, and how I decided to break it up. It depends on whether I’m tired. I make mistakes sometimes. I see the wrong number. I mistake it for a number that looks similar. That’s why I prefer to do tests with actual scientists. There isn’t the same stress.”
I read back to him the descriptions he’d given me of 9,412 the last two times I’d seen him. They could hardly have been more different. I told him my theory, which I realized would be very difficult to prove: that he was using the same basic techniques as other mental athletes, and that he invented these far-out synesthetic descriptions of numbers to mask the fact that he had memorized a simple image to associate with each of the two-digit combinations from 00 to 99—one of the most basic techniques in the mnemonist’s tool kit. It was one of the most uncomfortable sentences I’d ever spoken to anyone.
For some time, I agonized over whether to include Daniel in this book. But late one night, not long before I was supposed to turn in a draft of this chapter, I decided to do one last Internet search for his name—just to see if I might have missed something, or at least to refresh my memory about a story that had been sitting in a folder in my filing cabinet for over a year. Somehow—and I don’t know how I missed this before—I found a cached version of danieltammet.com, a Web site created in 2000 that hadn’t been online for at least three or four years. The seven-year-old “About” page describing Daniel included a surprisingly forthright bit of autobiography that didn’t make it into Born on a Blue Day:
My own interest in memory and conversely memory sport was sparked by my casual acquaintance with a children’s book on broad memory concepts for better exam performance at the age of 15. The following year I passed my GCSEs with some of the year’s best results and subsequently performed well at A-level, mastering French and German along the way with the help of these tried-and-tested techniques ... My obsession with the sport grew, and following months of strenuous training and hard work I climbed into the World’s Top-5 rated Memory sportsmen.
Earlier, I had also found something else, a series of messages posted several years ago from the same e-mail address used by Daniel Corney, but sent by someone named Daniel Andersson, who claimed to be “a well-respected and gifted psychic with more than 20 years of experience helping and empowering others.” The messages explained that Daniel Andersson had received his psychic powers during a series of childhood seizures. There was a link to a Web site where you could arrange a phone reading with Daniel for “advice on all manner of topics, including relationship problems, health and financial matters, lost love and contacting those who have passed over.”
I asked Daniel what I was supposed to make of those e-mails. Six years ago he was claiming that his epileptic seizures gave him psychic powers. Now he was claiming that they’d made him a savant. “Do you see why someone might be suspicious?” I asked.
He paused to collect himself. “God this is embarrassing,” he said. “After I offered myself as a tutor and that wasn’t successful, I read an ad for someone who could do psychic readings. You could work from home and use the telephone. That was ideal for me. I wasn’t a psychic. I did it for about a year because I had no income otherwise. I was regularly told off, because I wasn’t giving advice. I was mostly just listening. I treated it, start to finish, only as an opportunity to listen to people. With hindsight, I wish I hadn’t done that work. But I was desperate. Look, life is complex. I never thought I would come into the public eye. I promise you that I’ve done tests for consistency with scientists who are well placed to determine whether I’m putting it on, and they’re opinion—not just one scientist’s opinion, crucially—is that I’m for real.”
Toward the end of our final meeting, I told Daniel all the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to believe that he, the world’s most famous savant, was truly a savant. “I want to be convinced,” I told him, “but I’m not.”
“If I wanted to trick you, if I wanted to pull the wool over your eyes, I would practice immensely,” he said frankly. “I would come out all guns blazing. I would jump through every hoop. But I sincerely don’t care what you think about me. I don’t mean that in a personal way. I mean that I don’t care what anybody thinks about me. I know myself. I know what goes on in my head when I close my eyes. I know what numbers mean to me. These things are hard to explain, and hard to put into terms you can easily analyze. If I was some very good person at defending something, then I would think very carefully and make some great impression on you and everyone else.”
“You have made a great impression on everyone else.”
“People trust scientists and scientists have studied me—and I trust scientists. They’re neutral. They’re not media. They’re not interested in writing a particular angle. They’re interested in truth. With media, I am just who I am. Sometimes I’ll come across very well, other times I will be more nervous, and I won’t make such a good impression. I’m human. I’m inconsistent because I’m human. Of all the people who’ve interviewed me, you have treated me the most like a normal person. You’ve not idolized me. You’ve treated me on your level. I respect that. I feel more comfortable being a human than being an angel.”
“That may be because I suspect you are just a normal person,” I said. As those words came out of my mouth, I realized I didn’t really mean them. What frustrated me about Daniel was that I knew he wasn’t normal. In fact, the one thing I know I can say for certain about him is that he is exceptionally bright. I know how much work it takes to train one’s memory. Anyone can do it, but not just anyone can do it to the degree that I suspected Daniel had. I believed Daniel was special. I just wasn’t sure he was special in the way he was claiming.
I asked Daniel if, when he looked at himself in the mirror honestly, he really considered himself a savant.
“Am I a savant?” He put down his coffee and leaned in close. “It all depends on how you define the word, doesn’t it? You could define ’savant’ in such a way that I would be excluded from the definition. You could define it such a way that Kim Peek would be excluded from the definition. And you could define it in such a way that there would be no more savants in the world at all.”
It all comes down to definitions. In his book Extraordinary People, Treffert defines savant syndrome as “an exceedingly rare condition in which persons with serious mental handicaps ... have spectacular islands of ability or brilliance which stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to the handicap.” According to that definition, the question of whether Daniel uses memory techniques would be irrelevant to whether he is a savant. All that matters is that he has a history of a developmental disability and can perform phenomenal mental feats. According to Treffert’s definition, Daniel would indeed be a prodigious savant, albeit one whose disability is less pronounced. However, what Treffert’s definition does not capture is the clear difference between someone like Kim Peek, whose incredible abilities are apparently unconscious and perhaps even automatic, and someone who achieves those same skills through tedious, methodical training.
As late as the nineteenth century, the term “savant” had an entirely different connotation than it has today. It was the highest epithet that could be bestowed on a man of learning. A savant was someone who had mastered multiple fields, who traded in abstract ideas, who “consecrate[d] their energies to the search for truth,” as Charles Richet, the author of the 1927 book The Natural History of a Savant, put it. The term had nothing to do with singular abilities or a prodigious memory. And yet over the last century the word’s meaning has changed. In 1887, John Langdon Down, better known for the chromosomal disorder that bears his name, coined the term “idiot savant.” The word “idiot,” regarded as politically incorrect, eventually fell away. In a world in which our everyday memories have atrophied and we’ve become totally estranged from the idea of a disciplined memory, “savant” has gone from being a term of art and an emblem of intellectual accomplishment to being a freakish condition, a syndrome. You’d never hear a polymath like Oliver Sacks described as a savant today, though he, as much as anyone, meets the dictionary definition. Today, the word is reserved for people like the autistic twins that Sacks famously wrote about, who were supposedly able to count 111 matches the instant they spilled onto the floor.
So what about someone like Daniel? One of the oldest myths about savants is that they were destined to be born into this world as geniuses, but by some terrible twist of fate had all of their aptitudes curtailed but one. I wonder about Daniel. I wonder what we would say about him if he was just a guy who had trained himself to memorize 22,000 digits of pi and to multiply three-digit numbers in his head. I wonder what we’d say if he’d achieved those things only through rigorous discipline and enormous effort. Would that make him more incredible than Kim Peek, or less? We want to believe that there are Daniel Tammets walking among us, individuals born into this world with extraordinary talents in the face of extraordinary difficulties. It is one of the most inspiring ideas about the human mind. But perhaps Daniel exemplifies an even more inspiring idea: that we all have remarkable capacities asleep inside of us. If only we bothered ourselves to awaken them.