Daniel Tammet

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28 December, 2011 - 08:32
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*edit* i dont retract this statement LOL

maybe that was daniel himself ;P

28 December, 2011 - 08:38
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Oh, i think that person may have been just a big fan of Daniel. Thats understandable considering people like Kim Peek who was just SO amazing. That person really should have been more objective though. Its ok, however, that person likes to believe in Daniel that he has special innate untrained abilities lets let him/her believe.

I want someone like Ben P. to make a spoof video pretending to be Daniel while doing more amazing feats than what Daniel is capable of lol.

5 January, 2012 - 12:56
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spenen wrote:

If there are hundreds of non-savant persons that are more skilled than you in a particular subject you cannot be called a savant.

This isn't quite right, although it's a very common misconception.

The vast majority of people described as savants are people with a mental handicap of some kind (often autism) who display one or more talents that are impressive relative to their abilities in other areas - there's no suggestion that they would be exceptional relative to normal non-savant people. A typical example would be a severely autistic person who had great difficulty with normal day-to-day life who could nonetheless play the piano reasonably well. His piano playing would be described as a savant skill, even if he's no better at piano than a typical normal person who had practiced piano a lot.

So the bar for skills being described as savant skills is not that high. In the popular imagination, "savants" have been associated with amazing, almost superhuman skills in the public mind, perhaps largely based on Hollywood's fictional portrayal in Rain Man.

Indeed, we can ask the question, is there any rock solid evidence of a single savant having memory skills better than top memory competitors? I haven't seen convincing evidence yet, and I'm unconvinced that there are any savants out there who could outperform the top memory champions.

The most well known example is Kim Peek, who is routinely portrayed as having almost superhuman abilities - he is described as having "memorised 11,000 books" and having the ability to speed read two pages at once, one with the left eye and one with the right eye.

There's no doubt that Kim Peek has memorised a massive amount of facts, as he has demonstrated in many public performances. But the evidence for the superhuman claims is, as far as I can tell, virtually non-existent. I am aware of no scientific peer reviewed papers to back up the claims of being able to read separately with each eye, for example, and no published properly controlled tests of his reading speed. The claims that are seen appear to be basically repeating what Kim's father says - not the most convincing source. For example, Kim's father has got into controversy as Dustin Hoffman has accused him of misquoting the actor to exaggerate the extent to which the Rain Man film was based on Kim Peek.

What about Kim Peek's general knowledge? It's undoubtedly spectacularly good; he often demonstrates things like having memorised all the 3 digit zip codes and major highways in the US, as well as having extremely good knowledge of US history and other areas. However, as context for this, it's worth bearing in mind that Peek only became famous late in life (in his late thirties), and by that time he may have spent literally decades obsessively building up that knowledge. So yes, he knows his zip codes, but it's entirely conceivable that he spent years of intense study building up that knowledge, rather than "speed reading" it Rain Man style. I think it's entirely plausible that a normal person, who spent the same amount of time learning the same material, starting at an early age and studying it for decades, could do as well as or better than Kim Peek did.

There are some other reports of amazing abilities, and lots of interviews with scientists, but usually from fairly unconvincing sources (e.g. the documentary "the real Rain Man", which was produced by the same production company that produced the fundamentally misleading documentary on Daniel Tammet).

Daniel Tammet and Kim Peek are two of the most famous "savant memorisers", although their claims to superhuman abilities don't stack up well. I'm unaware of any other similarly impressive savants with more convincing evidence.

Until we see some proper, solid, scientific evidence, I remain skeptical of extraordinary savant claims - I think it's more likely that the best memorisers in the world are normal people with trained memories. And we should challenge the media and scientists when, as they far to often do, they put out claims of incredible memory abilities without proper evidence.

The athletics community wouldn't stand for it if someone claimed to be able to run twice as fast as Usain Bolt, but hadn't run any races under proper controlled conditions with proper timing. We in the memory community should be similarly skeptical of unsupported claims of superhuman achievements.

5 January, 2012 - 13:14
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Tomasyi, very insightful.

10 February, 2012 - 15:35
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Tomasyi wrote:

What about Kim Peek's general knowledge? It's undoubtedly spectacularly good; he often demonstrates things like having memorised all the 3 digit zip codes and major highways in the US, as well as having extremely good knowledge of US history and other areas. However, as context for this, it's worth bearing in mind that Peek only became famous late in life (in his late thirties), and by that time he may have spent literally decades obsessively building up that knowledge.

I was thinking about what you wrote after reading this article:
http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-04/ff_perfectmemory?curr...

(Seen in Yan's comment on this article.)

It appears that someone with normal memory abilities can memorize vast amounts of information if they spend enough time on it.

13 February, 2012 - 10:37
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In contrast, I just read 2008 book "The Woman Who Can't Forget," which is about Jill Price, a woman with natural perfect autobiographical memory. On page 23, she describes being given a 4x13 matrix number recall test. After studying matrix for 3 minutes and 52 seconds, she could recall only 7 out of 52.

She describes herself as "horrible at memorizing" and says she was a C student in school.

My thought was if she has a true gift in one memory area, why not use techniques to at least get superior in other areas?

Maybe that's Daniel.

13 February, 2012 - 11:49
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Smartings wrote:

she describes being given a 4x13 matrix number recall test. After studying matrix for 3 minutes and 52 seconds, she could recall only 7 out of 52.

.

If her biographical memory is perfect then she should be able to remember the matrix tomorrow. :-)

I've never heard of Tammet disparaging mnemotechnics.

17 February, 2012 - 12:07
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Smartings wrote:

In contrast, I just read 2008 book "The Woman Who Can't Forget," which is about Jill Price, a woman with natural perfect autobiographical memory.

Well, according to some scientists who studied Jill Price, she has a naturally perfect autobiographical memory.

But take a look at this article:
http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-04/ff_perfectmemory

Here you find the alternative story. She obsessively writes down everything that happens in her life in a journal, and then obsessively revises it. That doesn't sound like someone with a naturally perfect memory, or even necessarily an above average memory. It sounds like someone who works hard at remembering her life, and who could be expected to have a well trained memory for autobiographical details.

Once again, we find someone who claims to have a superhuman memory, and whose claims have been widely accepted in the media, books, and even by many scientists. But these claims crumble when you take a good hard skeptical look at the facts - there are much more mundane and straightforward explanations for the apparently superhuman memory.

Just like with Daniel Tammet.

17 February, 2012 - 12:33
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Josh Cohen wrote:

It appears that someone with normal memory abilities can memorize vast amounts of information if they spend enough time on it.

On the subject of people that memorise large amounts of information after spending a lot of time on it, but without using conventional mnemonics, the Indian memorist Rajan is an interesting case. He used to hold the world record for pi (at 31,811 digits, set in 1981). The first scientists who studied him thought that he had a naturally superior memory. However, this later study cast doubt on that, and suggests his memory is down to lots of practice:
http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/P_Delaney_Uncovering_2004.pdf

What's notable about this is that even though he has a trained memory, it doesn't appear that he is using the method of loci like all the modern memory champions. Instead, he says he recognises patterns (eg familiar numbers like telephone area codes, and some palindromes like 131), which sounds much more like the way that untrained people would try to remember numbers without memory techniques.

If this is true, his memory might be a good case study of what is possible with just brute force practice, rather than carefully studying the best memory techniques.

17 February, 2012 - 16:17
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20 cases so far according to
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperthymesia

But note...
'K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University does not believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the skills of (Jill Price) need additional explanation: "Our work has pretty much concluded that differences in memory don't seem to be the result of innate differences, but more the kinds of skills that are developed." '

18 February, 2012 - 02:44
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What do people think of Shereshevsky? I started having some doubts about him, especially since reading Moonwalking with Einstein. "S" may have synesthesia, but he was a trained mnemonist who used the method of loci.

If modern day scientists are making these very large research mistakes, why not Luria too? Are there any writings about "S" other than Mind of a Mnemonist?

18 February, 2012 - 20:07
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Good point, Josh. I always devoured those stories of prodigies and geniuses and even savants. It put me on the road to a hobby of trying to mimic those abilities. I remember Oliver Sacks writing that even savants with special skills spent enormous hours obsessively honing those skills. It might even explain Kim Peak.

18 February, 2012 - 21:43
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If Jill Price uses her strange diaries as autobiographic mnemonic, why wouldn't she use other methods for her 7 out of 52 number recall?

I mean Mozart was a music prodigy but no one would say he's cheating if he studied music.

28 February, 2012 - 16:53
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Josh Cohen wrote:

What do people think of Shereshevsky? I started having some doubts about him, especially since reading Moonwalking with Einstein. "S" may have synesthesia, but he was a trained mnemonist who used the method of loci.

If modern day scientists are making these very large research mistakes, why not Luria too? Are there any writings about "S" other than Mind of a Mnemonist?

I'm skeptical about Shereshevsky. The doubts start on page 1 of Luria's book, where S, at the age of 29, doesn't appear to realise that other people don't have perfect memories. Really? At the age of 29, he's never noticed that other people forget things? Wouldn't it have been rather obvious at school? The impression is that S is not being entirely forthright with Luria, but Luria goes along with it anyway.

It's entirely plausible that S had learned conventional mnemonic techniques. His parents ran a bookshop, and books on conventional mnemonics were certainly available in Russia in this period (eg this one http://stepanov.lk.net/mnemo/slo00.html ). But Luria seems to have no real understanding of mnemonic techniques, and without that understanding, he's not well placed to judge S's performance.

I'm unaware of any other sources on S other than Luria's book; I've had a look at some Russian sources and found nothing. There's no evidence that he was particularly famous; I suspect he was just another moderately successful memory performer, of which there are many examples.

And did he really have synaesthesia? This was a time when it was frankly rather fashionable for artists and poets to say they had synaesthesia. It's plausible that he really did have synaesthesia, but similarly it's also plausible that he was making it all up.

The example of S is often quoted as if it was uncontroversial fact. This is rather questionable, when we consider how much dodgy science came out of the Stalin era Soviet Union.

Skepticism is well justified here.

3 March, 2012 - 01:16
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I'm surprised that no one has ever checked Luria's notes and papers. By itself, the book isn't strong evidence.

There are no sources listed here other than Mind of a Mnemonist:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Shereshevskii

9 March, 2012 - 15:54
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There's an interesting debate here:
http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/debate/talent_or_practice_what_...

I've raised the Daniel Tammet case in the comments, and had a reply from Darold Treffert, an expert on savants who has studied Tammet.

9 March, 2012 - 16:13
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Thanks for the link. I'm interested in seeing how the discussion continues. :)

9 March, 2012 - 19:42
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Tomas, I thought your comments to Treffert were very well written and compelling.

9 March, 2012 - 21:16
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Tomas your responses were well thought out! I'm eager to see the response of the "savant" expert. I hope that he doesn't resort to ad hominem attacks as did other people on the ted channel to my comment.

19 March, 2012 - 12:04
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There has been another exchange of comments between me and savant expert Darold Treffert:
http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/debate/talent_or_practice_what_...

Treffert's replies caught me by surprise - he really does seem to believe some fairly far-out ideas. In particular, he claimed that some savants know "how to calendar calculate, never having seen a calendar". That seems to me to be an extraordinary claim - calendars are everywhere, so how on earth would you prove someone hadn't seen a calendar? He appears to have a theory that savants have this ability genetically hardwired into their brains, which sounds like a fringe theory to me.

I'm increasingly skeptical of the whole field of savant research - Treffert and others seem to be all to ready to believe a claim that someone has amazing inborn abilities, without first looking at more straightforward explanations. His reaction to the Tammet case seems to confirm this - he doesn't appear interested in evidence that Tammet might not be an amazing savant, however good it is.

19 March, 2012 - 12:44
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Apparently Tammet has featured in a new documentary, "My extreme affliction", which aired on Saturday. Has anyone seen it? You can watch it streamed on the ABC site if you're in the US (which I'm not).

19 March, 2012 - 13:34
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Thanks Tomaysi. Extraordinary People used to be one of my favorite books. Now it seems very iffy. The Extreme Affli ction show isn't up online yet. Hulu also has it. If I can I'll embed it in my blog.

19 March, 2012 - 13:51
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Sheesh cheap journalism mixed with poor science:

Mega-Brain: On the outside, Daniel Tammet seems unremarkable, but behind his bookish exterior lies a superhuman gift, one of the most extraordinary brains man has ever seen. Tammet is a mathematical genius, capable of astronomical calculations instantly. He says he was born with the ability to experience numbers in an exceptionally vivid way, and is also a gifted linguist, speaking 9 languages. Yet because of his Asperger's diagnosis, he cannot drive a car. Nick Watt reports. (OAD: 6/1/10)

Read more: Listings - 20/20 on ABC | TheFutonCritic.com http://www.thefutoncritic.com/listings/20120315abc02/#ixzz1pb8mrQb9

20 March, 2012 - 13:30
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Okay i agree with all that you all said. But i still don't understand a thing and that concern the 4th part of the video " The boy with the incredible brain "...
At 8:16 to the end.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWFoiay3qJQ

He wasn't supposed to know that they will trick him ? So he manage to guess what they did ? Because that mean that in a certain way, he is intelligent ( to trick people, and to avoid their trick ) ?

24 March, 2012 - 03:12
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cacamane wrote:

But i still don't understand a thing and that concern the 4th part of the video " The boy with the incredible brain "...
At 8:16 to the end.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWFoiay3qJQ
...

Interesting question. The relevant bit of the video - where Tammet is described reacting to "trick" numbers inserted into Pi - is one of a number of tests that Ramachandran's team put him through, although it was never written up. There's a poster describing some of their other results here: http://postcog.ucd.ie/files/Azoulai_CNS05.pdf. That includes the caveat that he "... may be performing almost all of his mental feats by pure memorisation".

For Tammet to have passed the tests described in the poster and documentary implies one of two things are true - either he genuinely does have synaesthesia and uses it to memorise, or he has guessed exactly what the researchers are looking for and is deliberately giving the results the researchers want. I think it's entirely possible that Tammet had done a lot of background research on synaesthesia; there are plenty of books on the subject and Tammet's second book "Embracing the wide sky" shows that Tammet is both interested in, and well capable of understanding, academic research on the subject.

That doesn't entirely address the bit you highlight in the video, where the researchers insert "surprise" figures into Pi, which Tammet says is a beautiful number. I would note that mathematically, the digits of Pi are essentially indistinguishable from random , so they are not inherently more beautiful than any other set of random numbers. The only way that he could find them beautiful is because he is highly familiar with them (which is what you would expect from someone who has spent ages learning them), so he notices immediately and reacts when there is a digit out of place. Reacting when he sees an unfamiliar figure doesn't suggest to me any connection with synaesthesia; it just means he knows the number well and is surprised when he sees digits out of place.

In summary, I don't think the test proves much about anything. It would be interesting to try the test on someone else who knew pi well, to see if they got a similar result.

18 April, 2012 - 08:00
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Here's a related memory challenge if anyone here is interested in testing the difficulty of performing those feats:
Memorize All the Prime Numbers up to 10,000

18 April, 2012 - 08:04
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To respond to the OP. (And sorry, I go on a long time on this opinion piece.)

Josh Cohen's response (the first response) provides a link (http://web.archive.org/web/20010509154357/http://www.danieltammet.com/ab...) to an archived version of something written in the first person by "Daniel Tammet" (it's the Internet, so this could quite possibly not be Tammet at all). From that page, I want to point out five things:

1. World-class mentathlete, memory sport pioneer, personal empowerment coach, spiritual development teacher and speaker and a leading authority on Mindpower and Human Potential

2. My own interest in memory and conversely Memory sport was sparked by my casual acquaintance with a children’s book on broad memory concepts for better exam performance at the age of 15. The following year I passed my GCSEs with some of the year’s best results and subsequently performed well at A-level, mastering French and German along the way with the help of these tried-and-tested techniques.

3. Following teaching stints in Scandinavia and as a volunteer lecturer of English in Eastern Europe, I competed for the first time at the World Memory Championships in London in 1999, managing 12th place overall.

4. Thereafter, my obsession with the sport grew, and following months of strenuous training and hard work I climbed into the World’s Top-5 rated Memory sportsmen.

5. Increasingly, I take time out of my teaching and training schedule to give interviews and talks on the subjects of Memory sport, Genius and the Soul, Mindpower, Human Potential and Personal Development. Besides devising my website, I have plans to give talks at Universities and other organisations and to establish ‘Mnemon’ memory skills clubs, based on the chess club concept currently popular in schools.

I wish to start with number 3. The documentary (Boy With the Incredible Brain) was in 2005. I need to go into a little bit of what goes on in journalism. A documentary by the BBC is a monetary proposition. No one wants to spend money and time on something that falls apart as soon as it's looked at TOO sceptically. Think about it. Rarely do journalists and documentarians set out to "gotcha" their subjects. It's a deliberate blind spot. If you keep going back to your boss, "Yeah, it's all a fake," you will be fired because are not producing footage. The Internet page, if by Tammet, mentions teaching stints in "Scandinavia" at some point before 1999. For a linguist and a mnemonist/synesthist, Icelandic is a very attractive language because of its difficulty. Coupled to Tammet's visit to the region (technically, Sweden and Norway make up Scandinavia, but some definitions include Denmark and Iceland), a rigorous testing would not have included Icelandic as a possible language. The BBC should have asked Tammet to produce his passport so that they could see where he'd been to,and then select more carefully. Perhaps Turkish or Korean.

Points 2 and 4 discuss developing mental techniques. These, for me, are real dealbreakers. If this is a natural talent that Tammet has, why would he need those techniques? Points 1 and 5 introduce "woo-woo" about "personal empowerment" and "spiritual" advising. I have never -- and I mean never -- found someone who makes these sorts of "personal empowerment" kind of claims to actually be all that useful. It's just like self-help books. What, exactly, gives Tammet certification in personal empowerment or spiritual advising? Did he take a degree? A workshop? Or is he just saying he can do it as a fiat diktat?

Point 1,2, 4, and 5 lead me to one conclusion. In the psychic trade, the way it works is that the psychic makes some vague statements, takes a few good guesses, and asks some leading questions. "You're troubled. I sense there's something about money to it. Your marriage to your husband is under a lot of strain." I can make all those statements by two facts alone: 1. You've come to a psychic, and 2. You have a wedding ring. Barring something like, "My husband died three years ago but I still wear the ring," the psychic is going to be right so much more often than not. Anyway, after a while, the psychic has a tendency to actually start believing in his or her own "powers." It is no longer intelligent guessing and careful cold-reading; it's a power than can't be explained.

I think Tammet has that going on more than I think he has synesthesia. He is a highly trained mnemonist who, by the statements in Foer's book, has gone through periods of having no money. I need to go into that in a little more detail.

Having no money transcends being a bummer or depressing. It is, literally, one of the most stressful things in the world, especially to someone with a bright, inquisitive mind. You can't do anything. You can't go to the movies, you can't go out for drinks with friends, you can't take up fancy cooking, you can't DO anything. You stay at home. You take walks. You watch other people enjoying themselves, and you get a little bitter, a little resentful, a little angry. If it only happens for a short while, that's one thing. But, as many people figured out during the economic collapse, you can be without money for YEARS. And when it happens, for a lot of people, it becomes the real gamechanger. I think Tammet came to a very real-world decision: he didn't want to be poor. Period. And that means that he has reinvented himself, to the point where he actually believes his new story himself. People who go around offering self-empowerment don't do it for free, and they are selectively identifying an audience of people who will be least likely to complain. Spiritual advice? Let's not enough start on the refund rate on that sort of thing.

I suspect that Tammet's abilities would not be "unique" were they examined by scientists thoroughly trained in detecting flim-flam. James Randi demonstrated this research problem years ago in something called the Alpha Project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Alpha). A trained magician can pull a lot of tricks (no pun intended). And I think that Tammet is a pretty skilled magician who has decided he no longer wants to live like a hobo.

I don't fault him for that. That he's probably wasting the time of scientists who could be doing more important research, I do have a problem with.

18 April, 2012 - 10:12
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I haven't read the entire conversation, but those tests can be wrong. I have always had a great memory, yet one of the tests I was given said I had a worse memory than 99% of the population, because I couldn't draw.

20 April, 2012 - 07:56
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Is anyone else interested in developing their mental abilities to such a degree that they are labelled by scientists as one in a billion with a unique brain?

I am very tempted to keep my training secret from friends and work colleagues and then I'll just say I got hit over the head and woke up and now I am a genius.

20 April, 2012 - 08:37
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Memoriserman wrote:

Is anyone else interested in developing their mental abilities to such a degree that they are labelled by scientists as one in a billion with a unique brain?

I am very tempted to keep my training secret from friends and work colleagues and then I'll just say I got hit over the head and woke up and now I am a genius.

Kind of. Just trick the everloving crap out of people. The memorization would be hard, but I waas very close to Aspergers when tested, so not so hard to fake. :)

This is awful that we're even joking about this.

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