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The Synesthetic Savant

Stump, Elizabeth

doi: 10.1097/01.NNN.0000267390.71049.8e
Department: the Waiting Room: Reading Room

Daniel Tammet was born on a blue day—a Wednesday, to be exact. Tammet knows this because in his mind, Wednesdays are always blue. The 27-year-old Englishman perceives numbers as having shapes, colors, textures, even personalities: “The number 11 is friendly and 5 is loud,” he says, “whereas 4 is shy and quiet—it's my favorite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself.”

Scientists call this visual and emotional experience of numbers or words “synesthesia,” a rare neurological condition that results in an intermingling of the senses. Synesthetes can do things like “hear” colors and “taste” words.

Tammet also has Asperger's syndrome, a mild and high-functioning form of autism, and savant syndrome, which allows him to perform massive mathematical computations in his head in the time it takes most of us to remember what we ate for dinner on Thursday. In Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant (Free Press, 2007), Tammet describes what it's like to possess these remarkable mental gifts and to cope with the burdens they bring. His autism, for example, makes him sensitive to crowds and noise, and he has difficulty socializing, thinking abstractly, and empathizing.



In spite of these obstacles, Tammet tells his story in clear, moving prose. He recounts a childhood marked by solitude, followed by his gradual self-awareness and increasing ability to interact with others (including savant Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man). The book closes with an account of Tammet falling in love.

Tammet's candid musings on his inner life are as thorough as his need for order. We learn that he eats exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast every day. In recalling travel experiences, he includes detailed packing lists and shares his anxiety, his need for mental preparation, and the reassurance he receives from friends.

His gradual successes with developing and sustaining relationships—Tammet actually uses numbers to help him understand others' emotions and empathize—are hallmarks of this book. “Everyone is said to have a perfect moment once in a while, an experience of peace and connection…in that hour he would be closer to the mystery of what it is to be human. It would be like having a glimpse of heaven.”

In this inspirational coming-of-age tale, Tammet's growth parallels the path of self-discovery that we all face. Born on a Blue Day highlights one of the nicer ironies of life, that our individual differences can be the very things that help us connect with other people.

Elizabeth Stump

Copyright © 2007, AAN Enterprises, Inc.