Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Born on a Blue Day"

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when one hears "autistic savant" is Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of  Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 movie Rainman. Raymond's character is based upon a man named Kim Peek, an autistic savant. There are many memorable lines and scenes from this movie and they are often associated with savantism as a whole, IE phone books, baseball stats and counting cards in Vegas. 
The Autisim Research Institute defines a savant as someone who has extraordinary skills that are not exhibited by most persons. These skills can be mathematical, artistic, musical, and interestingly many savants have impressive calendar memories.
And FYI:
 Aspbergers Syndrom is a developmental disorder, and form of autism, that affects social and communication skills. Many people with this disorder exhibit odd social behavior and awkwardness and most have a fascination with one particular subject (trains, for example). Aspbergers varies in severity, but is on the less-severe end of the autism spectrum.

Another real-life savant appeared on Talk of the Nation in 2007. Daniel Tammet 

is a man in his twenties and the author of a book titled "Born on a Blue Day". Tammet has Aspergers syndrome, and is an autistic savant, and his perception of the numerical world has helped him set world records in memorization and computation. I remember listening to this portion of the NPR program and being floored, and a little jealous, of his visual memory. Daniel sees numbers, and days of the week. Each of these has its own color, texture, "feeling", and personality. Because of this, they are easier to remember, making memorization, counting, and mathmatics easier. What I found most interesting is that when he does calculations, the numbers form patterns in his head, and these patterns are reminiscent of landscapes.
"And when I am thinking of a huge number like pi - I mean pi is an infinite number, it goes on forever - what I'm doing is I'm pulling all the different colors and shapes and textures into a kind of landscape and then I can just watch and become totally absorbed in how those numbers flow. The visualization of all of that flowing into this beautiful landscape that goes on and on and on, and I can get totally wrapped up in those numbers."

 This visualization helped him win memorization competitions. Most notably,  he set the world record for reciting pi to 22,514 decimal places (in 5 hours and 9 minutes). The title of his book "Born on a Blue Day" refers to his birthday falling on a Wednesday, which is blue in his mind. His calendar memory is very closely related to his mathematical ability. He can look at a date in history and within moments determine what day of the week it fell on. 

Tammet also has an incredible ability with languages. At the last count, he speaks ten languages. He has made languages his career by designing a french and spanish languages-learning program which is now highly regarded. In his book he talks about the visual imagery that other languages provide, which again makes it easier for him to learn them. 

Discussing mental illness and disorders in class made me think about Daniel Tammet. Even though he is not necessarily a prolific, creative person in the general sense, I believe that there is a connection to the way his brain works, and the production of creative output. We talked about  how brain disorders may help connect less-common associations. In the powerpoints, Bob mentioned the regions of the brain that are most often affected by mental illness, and the amygdala was one of them. The Autism Research Centre has some material that suggests that a problem with the amygdala could be a link to autism, as it controls many social actions. Could these findings coincide? I'm no scientist, and I'm not about to group the autistic community as a whole with the schizophrenic community (and I understand that schizophrenia affects another part of the brain), BUT a caller in the NPR story said that they could be misdiagnosed (people who really have autism could be diagnosed with schizophrenia). Could this further link autism to creativity?? 
I think that Tammet would score high on some of the creativity assessments simply because he is so intelligent. I also think that his creative output is in the language program that he developed. He was able to articulate what it is about his brain that makes it easy for him to pick up new languages and was able to translate that into a way for other people to learn like him. So I propose that he is creative because his was able to produce a novel way of doing something that people are already trying to do. 

In the more general and artistic sense, Tammet has had some creative output in that he is able (unlike many autistic savants) to articulate and actually reproduce his numerical visualizations...

                                              Like this Pi landscape...

                                       Or like this one of multiplication...

Tammet has also worked collaboratively with a photographer in an artistic capacity to try to reproduce other numerical visualizations like these...

 "Six" - "Like a black hole, a place to climb into, a retreat from the world" 

"Eleven" - A bright, round, vibrant number

These photos and paintings are all available on his website, which is very interesting. 

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