Monday, March 22, 2010

The Mind's Eye of a Perfectly Imperfect Savant

I've been studying, for about six years now, about gifted visual-spatial learners. I've become fascinated with how the brain works, and over the years I've come to realize that we just might be holding back our ability to learn in a more efficient way. Visual spatial learners are able to learn more efficiently, but surprisingly do not do well in a classroom setting. Classroom learning actually hampers their abilities and as a result the classroom becomes a restrictive environment.

Careful. I've got a soap box on this one.

Visual-spatial learners think in pictures, not words. They are able to learn new concepts in great leaps, and can't stand drill and practice. They have a picture in their brain, sometimes it is a movie, sometimes not, and this picture is their understanding of how the world works. When they learn something new, it changes their entire picture of the world, and links things together in most unusual ways. Speaking to these children is pretty interesting, because they seem as though they are jumping from one topic to another randomly, but they can instantly follow the link in their heads from each subject so that it's not random at all.

Enter Daniel Tammet. He could possibly be the posterboy for perfectly imperfect, because it is through his imperfections that he shines. He was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was young, and it is believed that one of his seizures brought about the amazing things his brain can do. He also has Asperger's Syndrome. There are a few reasons why he is so amazing.

First and foremost, he is unique among savants because of his ability to articulate how his mind works. As a result, he has been studied by Scientists in an effort to understand the brain's capabilities.
Second, he is a visual-spatial learner on steroids. He talks about seeing numbers, and the numbers he sees are moving things, with texture and color. He sees numbers as though they were landscapes. Amazing. I'd love to get a glimpse of how his brain pictures things.
Lastly, he now holds the record for being able to recite the digits of Pi to 22,514 places, or digits. It took him five hours and he was able to learn it in a week. He does the same with languages.

What would have happened if this visual-spatial savant had never had epilepsy? Or never had Asperger's, which may be the reason he is able to concentrate so well? Or what if he just kept his abilities to himself? What Scientist are finding is that while Daniel is able to do these extraordinary things so quickly, it is not out of bounds for non-savants to do these things as well, albeit at a lesser extent. Scientists have also found that because he thinks in pictures, he doesn't have to THINK about how to do these math problems. They are just in his picture and he finds them. Wow.

Here is Daniel Tammet on Letterman.

A longer, more interesting story about him is on the Science Channel.

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