October 1, 2014

Elyria
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Autistic prodigy speaks at LCCC

ELYRIA — To enter Daniel Tammet’s mind is to enter a world where the number “333” looks like a lumpy glob of oatmeal or porridge.

CARL SULLENBERGER / CHRONICLE
Daniel Tammet takes questions from the audience after his speech on Monday at Stocker Center.

Tammet’s 29-year-old mind is that of an acquired savant, a mind that possesses limitless talent for calculations and boundless capacity for learning.

For Tammet, it comes with a strange price: The things that make up human experience — the numbers, the words, the people — are transformed in his mind into shapes, textures and colors.

The number “11,” he says, looks beautiful.

The number “6” … dark, tiny and cold. 

Tammet, of England, was a guest speaker at Lorain County Community College’s “Meeting Great Minds” series on Monday, where roughly 200 people showed up to learn more about this person that the world simply calls “The Pi Guy.”

“Numbers were my friends — they were the things I played with,” Tammet said, recalling his lonely childhood despite being one of nine children. 

In the mind of a savant:
• Daniel Tammet associates people with colors and numbers. He doesn’t necessarily remember names, but remembers details about a person — their buttons, pins or other items.
He loves prime numbers and children’s books, such as “The Little Prince,” because it taught him to identify what it means to be an outsider, and even taught him a few things about human emotion.
He offered this quote about love from the book “The Little Prince”: “Love is when you look into a sea of a million faces and you see only one.”
Whatever feeling he gets from a person, he associates them with a number that matches that feeling. George Bush, for instance, he associates with the number 6: “dark, tiny and cold.” 

An acquired savant — think Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman” — Tammet has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a minor form of autism characterized by social detachment from other people. As a child, he suffered seizures that scientists suspect may have contributed to his remarkable abilities, which include memorizing vast stores of information in short periods of time.

His international claim to fame came just a few years ago when, for International Pi Day, he memorized what most people know as pi — 3.14 — to more than 22,500 decimal places. The number can continue infinitely.

“Like someone gorging on chocolates, I gorged on numbers,” he said of the feat, which was performed in front of Albert Einstein’s blackboard in a museum. “It took me a long time to get there — over 22,500 numbers, in fact.” 

In short, his childhood was marked by severe isolation from other children, and he found solace in numbers and things of structure: LEGO blocks, buildings blocks, sand and bricks.

“They reminded me of how numbers can be used in your mind — they could be manipulated into any combination,” Tammet said.

As he grew into his teenage years, however, Tammet said he began recognizing his desire but complete inability to interact with other humans and understand intangible, abstract emotions like love.

His achievements on that front — learning to love, laugh, cry and convey all the emotions that come so naturally to regular folks — proved no small feat.

Tammet said he learned to associate the textures, shapes and colors of numbers with actual emotions: When a person said they were sad, he’d think of the number 6 to gain some perspective on their state of mind.

“I’d at least get some sensation of what it meant to be sad,” he said.

His journey to become more human, in a sense, is what makes him so remarkable.

Tammet said neuroscientists have valued him for his keen ability to describe precisely how his mind is processing his higher-level thoughts and calculations, since most acquired savants have remarkable abilities but aren’t able to describe how their thoughts are processed.

Tammet can describe those thoughts, even turning them into drawings and paintings.

What’s more, his capacity for understanding human emotion and the way human beings interact, think, learn and reason is astounding.

He speaks with a thick British accent, and his speech is fast, but also methodic and smooth — hypnotic, to be sure. The crowd of listeners at LCCC’s Stocker Center on Monday were either transfixed by his mesmerizing voice or simply touched by his unbelievable story.

Tammet’s journey to unravel the mysteries of life has pushed him to learn seven languages — including learning to speak Icelandic in just seven days — and meet with some of the 50 other acquired savants who are known to exist worldwide. 

Languages, he said, allow you to “inhabit another world.”

“I liked this idea very much,” Tammet said. “That in my mind, I’m able to inhabit other worlds.”

He’s turned down job offers from people trying to get him to predict trends or shifts in the stock market — likely a lucrative career — and instead focuses on teaching people how to speak new languages through his own Web site, www.optimnem.co.uk.

Through it all, he says his quest to understand life’s mysteries has brought him full circle, with one mystery leading to another.

But his ability to overcome his obstacles — the social introversion and inability to connect with human emotion — has allowed him to be more a part of the human experience. 

Like learning about love.

“Love makes you realize the value of every human life,” Tammet said. “It’s this common thread that connects us all."

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.