“Born on a Blue Day” (publ. 2007) is an extraordinary memoir written by a young British autistic savant, Daniel Tammet. His mental capacities are so remarkable that he was able to recite Pi to the 22,514th digit and holds the British and European record.
The author writes about his unique way of thinking called “synesthesia,” in which he sees numbers, letters and musical notes as colors and shapes. One of about 100 people in the world with his abilities, scientists believe that they are a consequence of hyperactivity in his brain’s left pre-frontal cortex.
Tammet is able to multiply vast numbers without having to write anything down. He is a gifted linguist and is fluent in 10 languages - English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, and Icelandic (which he learned to speak in one week!).
As a child his father introduced him to chess by taking him to the local chess club. Daniel was instructed by one of the older members and after familiarizing himself with the moves of the different pieces and then visualizing them moving in mathematical configurations, he beat his teacher in his first game. He went on to win many matches.
This engaging memoir tells the often painful story of Daniel growing up, isolated because of autism, Asperger’s and an early epileptic episode that almost killed him. As a child he was so unusual that he had no friends, which he did not miss because he was happy spending time alone in his room thinking.
Daniel only learned to become empathic (a problem for those with autism and Asperger’s) by associating his feelings about numbers and colors to feelings others experience in their lives. He wrote:
“Emotions can be hard for me to understand or know how to react to, so I often use numbers to help me. If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it. If I read in an article that a person felt intimidated by something, I imagine myself standing next to the number 9. Whenever someone describes visiting a beautiful place, I recall my numerical landscapes and how happy they make me feel inside. By doing this, numbers actually help me get closer to understanding other people.”
Daniel describes his obsessive and compulsive need for order and routine in life, explaining:
“I eat exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast each morning; I weigh the bowl with an electronic scale to make sure. Then I count the number of items of clothing I'm wearing before I leave my house. I get anxious if I can't drink my cups of tea at the same time each day. Whenever I become too stressed and I can't breathe properly, I close my eyes and count. Thinking of numbers helps me to become calm again. Numbers are my friends, and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality… No matter what I’m doing, numbers are never very far from my thoughts.”
Tammet is often poetic, especially when describing his love of numbers and words through color and texture:
“There are moments, as I'm falling into sleep at night that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers -- hundreds, thousands of them -- swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when I'm having difficulty falling asleep, I imagine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts.”
Despite his Asperger’s and autism, Daniel lives independently. When he was in his early 20s he told his parents that he was gay, soon fell in love, and moved in with his lover/partner.
Daniel Tammet is a wonderful story teller, and to read his words is to enter a unique world. He is a descriptive, honest and often touchingly vulnerable writer.
People have often asked him how he feels about being a human “guinea pig” to scientific researchers of the human brain. He does not mind because he knows that what is learned will expand knowledge of how the brain works. He is also interested in understanding himself better and says he wrote this book so that his family will understand him better.
This memoir is not only a fascinating read, but is important in understanding the nature of a true savant and the condition of autism and Asperger’s.
You can read an excerpt from "Born on a Blue Day" here: