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Daniel Tammet

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Birth date
31.01.1979
Birth Place
Barking, London, England
Zodiac Sign
Aquarius
Gender
Male
Fields of Expertise
Writing
Languages
English, French
Ocupation
Essayist, memoirist, novelist
Education
Open University
Daniel Tammet

You don't have to be disabled to be different, because everybody's different.

Daniel Tammet is an English essayist, novelist, poet, translator, and autistic savant. His memoir, Born on a Blue Day 2006, is about his early life with Asperger syndrome and savant syndrome, and was named a "Best Book for Young Adults" in 2008 by the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services magazine. His second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, was one of France's best-selling books of 2009. His third book, Thinking in Numbers, was published in 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton in the United Kingdom and in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company in the United States and Canada.

In 2016 he published his debut novel, Mishenka, in France and Quebec. His books have been published in over 20 languages. He was elected in 2012 to serve as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Personal life

Tammet was born Daniel Paul Corney, the eldest of nine children, and raised in Barking and Dagenham, East London, England. As a young child, he suffered epileptic seizures, which remitted following medical treatment.

He participated twice in the World Memory Championships in London under his birth name, placing 11th in 1999 and 4th in 2000.

He changed his birth name by deed poll because "it didn't fit with the way he saw himself." He took the Estonian surname Tammet, which is related to "oak tree".

At age twenty-five, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome by Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge Autism Research Centre. He is one of fewer than a hundred "prodigious savants" according to Darold Treffert, the world's leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome.

He was the subject of a documentary film titled Extraordinary People: The Boy with the Incredible Brain, first broadcast on the British television station Channel 4 on 23 May 2005.

He met software engineer Neil Mitchell in 2000. They lived in Kent, England, where they had a quiet life at home with their cats, preparing meals from their garden. He and Mitchell operated the online e-learning company Optimnem, where they created and published language courses.

Tammet now lives in Paris, France, with his husband Jérôme Tabet, a photographer whom he met while promoting his autobiography. Tammet is openly gay.

Tammet is a graduate of the Open University with a Bachelor of Arts degree with first-class honours in the humanities.

Career

In 2002, Tammet launched the website, Optimnem. The site offers language courses currently French and Spanish and has been an approved member of the UK National Grid for Learning since 2006.

Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.

Born on a Blue Day received international media attention and critical praise. Booklist magazine contributing reviewer Ray Olson stated that Tammet's autobiography was "as fascinating as Benjamin Franklin's and John Stuart Mill's" and that Tammet wrote "some of the clearest prose this side of Hemingway". Kirkus Reviews stated that the book "transcends the disability memoir genre".

For his US book tour, Tammet appeared on several television and radio talk shows and specials, including 60 Minutes and the Late Show with David Letterman. In February 2007, Born on a Blue Day was serialised as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.

His second book, Embracing the Wide Sky, was published in 2009. Allan Snyder, director of the University of Sydney Centre for the Mind, called the work 'an extraordinary and monumental achievement'. Tammet argues that savant abilities are not "supernatural" but are "an outgrowth" of "natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words". He suggests that the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities.

Thinking in Numbers, a collection of essays, was first published in 2012 and serialised as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.

His translation into French of a selection of poetry by Les Murray was published by L'Iconoclaste in France in 2014.

Tammet's first novel, Mishenka, was published in France and Quebec in 2016.

Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing, a collection of essays on language, was published in the UK, US, and France in 2017. In a review of the book for The Wall Street Journal, Brad Leithauser noted that "in terms of literary genres, something new and enthralling is going on inside his books" and that the author showed "a grasp of language and a sweep of vocabulary that any poet would envy".

Portraits, a bilingual first poetry collection, was published in French and English in 2018.

Written in French as a letter to a non-believing friend, the creative non-fiction work Fragments de paradis, "Fragments of Heaven" was published in France and Quebec in 2020.

Scientific study

After the World Memory Championships, Tammet participated in a group study, later published in the New Year 2003 edition of Nature Neuroscience. The researchers investigated the reasons for the memory champions' superior performance. They reported that they used "strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable", and concluded that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or differences in brain structure.

In another study, Baron-Cohen and others at the Autism Research Centre tested Tammet's abilities in around 2005. Tammet was found to have synaesthesia, according to the "Test of Genuineness-Revised", which tests the subjects' consistency in reporting descriptions of their synaesthesia. He performed well on tests of short-term memory with a digit-span of 11.5, where 6.5 is typical. Conversely, test results showed his memory for faces scored at the level expected of a 6- to 8-year-old child in this task. The authors of the study speculated that his savant memory could be a result of synaesthesia combined with Asperger syndrome, or it could be the result of mnemonic strategies.

In a further study published in Neurocase in 2008, Baron-Cohen, Bor and Billington investigated whether Tammet's synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome explained his savant memory abilities. They concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region the left prefrontal cortex, which results from his Asperger syndrome and synaesthesia. On the Navon task, relative to non-autistic controls, Tammet was found to be faster at finding a target at the local level and to be less distracted by interference from the global level. In an fMRI scan, "Tammet did not activate extra-striate regions of the brain normally associated with synaesthesia, suggesting that he has an unusual and more abstract and conceptual form of synaesthesia". Published in Cerebral Cortex 2011, an fMRI study led by Jean-Michel Hupé at the University of Toulouse France observed no activation of colour areas in ten synaesthetes. Hupé suggests that synaesthetic colour experience lies not in the brain's colour system, but instead results from "a complex construction of meaning in the brain, involving not only perception, but language, memory and emotion".

No relationship is without its difficulties and this is certainly true when one or both of the persons involved has an autistic spectrum disorder. Even so, I believe what is truly essential to the success of any relationship is not so much compatibility, but love. When you love someone, virtually anything is possible.

In his book Moonwalking with Einstein 2011, Joshua Foer, a science journalist and former US Memory Champion, speculates that Tammet's study of conventional mnemonic approaches has played a role in the savant's feats of memory. While accepting that Tammet meets the standard definition of a prodigious savant, Foer suggests that his abilities may simply reflect intensive training using standard memory techniques, rather than any abnormal psychology or neurology per se. In a review of his book for The New York Times, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz described Foer's speculation as among the few "missteps" in his book. She questioned whether it would matter if Tammet had used such strategies or not.

Savantism

Tammet has been studied continuously by researchers in Britain and the United States, and has been the subject of several peer-reviewed scientific papers. Allan Snyder at the Australian National University has said of him: "Savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do. It just comes to them. Daniel can describe what he sees in his head. That's why he's exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone."

In his mind, Tammet says, each positive integer up to 10,000 has its own unique shape, colour, texture and feel. He has described his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi, though not an integer, as beautiful. The number 6 apparently has no distinct image yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9, which he says is large, towering, and quite intimidating. He describes the number 117 as "a handsome number. It's tall, it's a lanky number, a little bit wobbly." He described David Letterman with the number 117 in these terms when interviewed on the Letterman Show. In his memoir, he describes undergoing a synaesthetic and emotional response for numbers and words.

Tammet set the European record for reciting pi from memory on 14 March 2004 - recounting to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes. He revealed in a French talk show on Radio Classique on 29 April 2016, that this event inspired Kate Bush's song "Pi" from her album Aerial.

He is a polyglot. In Born on a Blue Day, he writes that he knows ten languages: English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Icelandic, and Welsh. In Embracing the Wide Sky, he writes that he learned conversational Icelandic in a week and appeared on an interview on Kastljós on RÚV speaking the language.

Works

Non-fiction

  • Born on a Blue Day 2006
  • Embracing the Wide Sky 2009
  • Thinking in Numbers 2012
  • Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing 2017
  • Fragments de paradis 2020, in French

Novels

  • Mishenka 2016, in French

Poetry

  • Portraits 2018, bilingual edition English / French

Essays

  • "What It Feels Like to Be a Savant" in Esquire August 2005
  • "Open Letter to Barack Obama" in The Advocate December 2008
  • "Olympics: Are the Fastest and Strongest Reaching Their Mathematical Limits?" in The Guardian August 2012
  • "What I'm Thinking About ... Tolstoy and Maths" in The Guardian August 2012
  • "The Sultan's Sudoku" in Aeon digital magazine December 2012
  • "Languages Revealing Worlds and Selves" in The Times Literary Supplement September 2017

Translations

  • C'est une chose sérieuse que d'être parmi les hommes 2014, a collection of poems by Les Murray translated by Tammet into French

Forewords

  • Islands of Genius 2010, by Darold A. Treffert

Songs

  • 647: co-writer of the song with musician Florent Marchet on his Bamby Galaxy album January 2014

Short films

  • The Universe and Me 2017 Collaboration with French film maker Thibaut Buccellato.

Mänti

Mänti is a constructed language that Tammet published in 2006. The word Mänti comes from the Finnish word for "pine tree" mänty. Mänti uses vocabulary and grammar from the Finnic languages. Some sample words include:

Awards

  • American Library Association Booklist magazine "Editors' Choice Adult Books" 2007 for "Born on a Blue Day"
  • The Sunday Times "Top Choice of Books" for "Born on a Blue Day"
  • American Library Association Young Adult Library Services magazine Best Books for Young Adults" 2008
  • Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads "Selection for 2012" 2011
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts 2012
  • American Library Association Booklist magazine "Editors' Choice Adult Books" 2017 for "Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing"
  • The New Zealand Listener The 100 Best Books of 2017 for "Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing"
Best Known For: Born on a Blue Day (2006)
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Number of spouses: 1
First Marriage To: Jérôme Tabet
Resident Of: Paris, France
Citizen Of: United Kingdom
Awards: American Library Association Booklist magazine "Editors' Choice Adult Books" (2007), American Library Association Young Adult Library Services magazine Best Books for Young Adults" (2008), Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (2012), American Library Association Booklist magazine "Editors' Choice Adult Books" (2017)
Discussion
Daniel Tammet

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