I find number sequences and series fascinating, for example the Fibonacci sequence. There is beauty and elegance just in the way the numbers relate to each other, but when they’re expressed geometrically, this particular sequence gives rise to a spiral reminiscent of the Nautilus Shell. Moreover, any two successive numbers stand approximately in the same relation to each other as the Golden Ratio, or 1.6180339887…
Many people share the aesthetic pleasure I experience when I look at number patterns. But there are some individuals who have highly unusual and entirely different sensations in connection with numbers. They perceive numbers and letters as particular colors, for example; a form of synesthetic perception. One such person is Daniel Tammet, a young man with extraordinary mental abilities. He is a “savant”, afflicted with a number of peculiar gifts and challenges related to autism, or more particularly, to Asperger syndrome. Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man is based on the life of Kim Peek, a severely handicapped man who at the same time is blessed with extraordinary mental capacities. He can read books incredibly fast, scanning the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye, while his memory retains every word he’s read. He can instantaneously calculate the day of the week for any date within 2000 or more years. But he can’t button his shirt or tie his shoes.
Unlike Peek, Daniel Tammet leads an independent life and is highly articulate. Scientists who study different forms of autism call him a “Rosetta Stone”, because he can describe exactly what goes on in his head when he performs complex mathematical calculations, for example. When he multiplies two numbers, each number takes on a particular shape. A third shape, the answer, arises between the two, and he can read this number effortlessly. He explains he’s doing math without having to think. Some numbers, 333 for example, are particularly attractive while others such as 289 are unusually ugly. Prime numbers are round and smooth, like pebbles on a beach.
At a convention in Oxford in 2004, Daniel managed to recite the number Pi to up to 22,514 decimal places — a feat that took him over five hours. And he was able to learn Icelandic, considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, within a week. More recently, he did the same with German — studied with a coach for one week, and then gave an interview on German television that impressed the talk show host. He learns intuitively, he claims — by recognizing patterns and developing a feeling for the particular language. That’s how small children learn, and in addition, his synesthesia is a helpful component. Colors, shapes, and feelings form a network that make it easier for him to remember the “gestalt” of a language.
Learning — whether foreign languages or math — should be fun, Daniel explains. Unfortunately, for most kids it’s not. Besides being an advocate for autism, Daniel promotes a method of learning that sounds almost radical: the formation of a system of information which is imbued with intuition and love. Maybe a dose of synesthesia could enliven our schoolrooms.