Math as Shapes and Sounds

Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant. He can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds. But unlike other savants, who can perform similar feats, Tammet can describe how he does it. He speaks seven languages and is even devising his own language. Now scientists are asking whether his exceptional abilities are the key to unlock the secrets of autism.

Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn’t calculating: there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think…

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