Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet, (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2006)
I know that some folks can tune in to the wonders of the human mind through meditation or more mundane forms of introspection, but I love to read memoirs. They give me a window into other people's minds and provide a vantage point from which to ruminate about my own thought processes.
This book is a fascinating account of Tammet's mental life, but it is much more. Tammet has a truly extraordinary mind and he has had an extraordinary life. The title of his book refers to his birthday, Jan. 31, 1979. It fell on a Wednesday, and in his mind Wednesday's are always blue.
He has Asperger's syndrome, which is a relatively mild from of autism. Up until recently, it was thought that autistic people lacked the capacity to relate to others. At the worst, they could be rage-filled and destructive, and unresponsive to the love offered to them. Many times they seemed uneducable. Tammet gives the lie to this.
As his account shows, the kinds of disabilities that he was faced and the response of other people to his seemingly bizarre behavior meant that he suffered a great deal of frustration and frequently withdrew from social contact. Making friends for him was difficult for him; even understanding his parents and siblings was hard. Hard but not impossible, as he relates in the book.
He uses himself as an example of the problems faced by someone who is autistic, even on the high end of the spectrum as he is. In many ways his brain is far less functional than that of the average person. He has great difficulty processing auditory signals, so that he easily fogs out in conversation unless he concentrates fiercely.
He has poor balance. As a boy he would watch his feet, and rarely make eye contact with others. His mother had to teach him to look up and look people directly in the eye. He lacked ordinary social skills so that in conversation, he would tend to speak without pausing for the other person to reply. He fixated on objects.
He also to this day, has difficult understanding abstractions, from simple formulations such as the use of double negatives in a sentence to the more complex concept of how people deliberately mislead others in order to dissimulate.
Tammet explains his mental processes and how they made social contact extraordinarily difficult for him. One of the problems for autistic people is there inability to pick up cues from others. The way their minds work is so different. It is also not easy for them to process conceptual information. They cannot intuit the emotional states of others, and therefore respond appropriately to signals from them -- to pick up the cues that we normally respond to automatically, that let us infer when another person is happy or angry or amused.
But, difficult is not impossible. Tammet has developed strong loving ties to his family, to his lover Neil, and to his many friends. These relationships did not develop easily -- but then relationships that count rarely do in the long run. The people who were and are close to him, whom he came to love in return, willing to make the effort to understand his problems and were willing to help him to relate despite his disabilities. Things that to most people are intuitive he had to learn, with great difficulty.
Along with his disabilities, Tammet also has extraordinary mental abilities that have given him a highly developed ability to visualize. The way in which he perceives reality gives him skills that the rest of us lack. This allows him to perform prodigious feats of memory. He can rapidly calculate the day of the week of dates going back 2000 years. He has a phenomenal ability to calculate numbers, because he can hold in his mind simultaneously, the steps of a problem that that the average person would need to treat sequentially and note down on paper. For the same reason he is a whiz at chess and card games.
Combined with this he has another rare mental anomaly called synesthesia that seems to come from a mixing of the senses, so that he sees numbers and letters (as they are written on a page) as if they had texture and color. He reports a high degree of sensual and emotional responsiveness to colors and shapes. He is also extremely sensitive to sensual stimuli so that many experiences that to us are ordinary, to him are discomfiting if not painful.
Tammet suggests the character of the autistic brother Raymond Babbit, played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film Rain Man is a point of reference for the reader. He says that like Babbit, he has an almost obsessive need for order and routine in order to control his environment. An ordered environment gives him the best shot of overcoming his disabilities so that he may understand and respond appropriately to what is happening around him.
Up until the recent past it was thought that autistic people lacked the capability to relate to others. They were believed to be rage-filled and destructive, incapable of loving and unresponsive to the love offered to them. Tammet shows us that is just a form of ignorant prejudice. He has written a wonderful book and I think he must be a wonderful person to know.
About the Author: Carol White is Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: aaron barlow, cho, standingup, roxy