I didn't read Daniel Tammet's first book, Born on a Blue Day (yet) but this book was one of the most fascinating and informative books about the way the human mind works that I've ever read. Daniel Temmet is an autistic savant and talks in this book about how similar autistic and non-autistic minds function. It gave me a whole new perspective on how we learn, remember and process thoughts.
It was particularly helpful to me in understanding how we learn language since I've been learning French for the past 10 years and more recently Italian. It's much more involved than I previously thought but I also came away with the idea that it's possible to learn several languages and be able to function in each of them. According to research it's believed that when a person learns more than one language as a baby and small child, both languages occupy the same small section of the brain, but when learning a second or third language, they are kept in a separate section of the brain. This makes sense since little kids can often go back and forth between languages whereas when I try to switch I can almost feel my brain opening another "compartment".
He discusses IQ tests and IQ and disputes where they can actually measure intelligence. There is a whole section on how the human brain processes information and how we remember things. We often hear that our brains are like computers, just processing information but he shows how they are so much more intricate than even the most advanced computers. There are studies showing that babies can count and he discusses arguments that a "number module" exists within the human brain.
There is so much fascinating information packed into this book and Tammet's writing style makes it all so interesting and not at all a dry subject. I had a hard time putting it down and read the book in two days. The only thing I wish, is that there was a little more about the way his brain processes subjects and information discussed in this book. But from what I understand, his first book, Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant goes more deeply into this. It's a book that I definitely want to read after reading this one.
Autistic savant author Daniel Tammet clearly has a beautiful mind, but the real focus of this important book is the boundless ability of EVERY human brain, "the treasures buried deep within us all." Tammet argues convincingly that the differences between a savant and an average person are not really so great. He debunks myths about savants, many due to the movie Rain Man, that seem to rob the humanity from these rare people. After several chapters explaining how his own mind works, he gives tips on how everyday brains can improve their functioning.
Tammet shows how IQ testing does not show the true intelligence of a person, and is inherently flawed. He agrees with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and shows that when schools espouse this view, student's grades improve.
I found it fascinating to learn that Tammet has trouble remember faces, but numbers are alive for him. "In my head, numbers assume complex shapes that interact to form solutions to sums," he explains. "I do not know where my number shapes come from. I do not know why I think of 6 as tiny and 9 as very large or why threes are round and fours pointy."
Peeking in on such a mind is an interesting experience; I highly recommend it!
Here's the chapter list:
1. Wider Than the Sky
2. Measuring Minds: Intelligence and Talent
3. Seeing What is Not There
4. A World of Words
5. The Number Instinct
6. The Biology of Creativity
7. Light to Sight
8. Food for Thought
9. Thinking by Numbers
10. The Future of the Mind
Rather than talk about what this book is about, I'd like to share how I reacted to it. First, I think mild autistic spectrum disorders probably run in my family, overlapping with ADHD. I'm pretty sure after reading this book that at least one of my family members has Asperger's syndrome, and realizing this helps me understand their social distancing. I'm encouraged to find out more.
I was especially encouraged by the "World of Words" chapter, which deals with language acquisition in general, plus common misconceptions about learning languages beyond one's own initially acquired language. I've always approached learning a second language as if there was something mysterious and hard-wired about the brain that negated my ability as an adult to learn it. After getting all eight questions right in the intuitive sense for word meanings test, I realized that learning new languages does not depend on memorizing strings of words. The techniques for learning a new language Tammet suggests made complete sense to me, and I realized I've failed in the past because I've tried to just memorize words without forming a linguistic gestalt.
Throughout other chapters, what soon became clear to me is that many people are taught to just memorize without an understanding of the underlying conceptual, logical, and systematic relationships. Tammet's explanation of the Dewey decimal system used by libraries was a great AHA! for me. The system is not at all arbitrary, as I had always assumed; new categories are not just tacked on willy nilly. The system not only makes elegant sense to me now, the way the books are organized in a library--with books of a similar nature being located near each other--seems analogous to the way information is stored most efficiently in the brain.
Tammet encourages people who are trying to learn a new language to learn clusters of words that make the words more memorable; he gives the example in English of the words "pen," "paper," "pencil," and "paint": all the words begin with similar sounds and refer to similar objects or those normally used together. As I read about phonesthesia "(where certain sounds become associated with certain meanings)" I realized that this is a major key in helping me not only learn new words but to reach for them directly in thought without having to first find an English word before translating it into the new language--always an impediment for me in trying to get past the basics of a language.
I was most drawn to the linguistic discussions in the book, but Tammet also covers visual, numerical, and other forms of apprehension and thought. Clear examples of what he is discussing are included so the reader can really visualize what he is talking about, and he gives examples to test comprehension as he goes along. He also dispels magical notions of what "genius" is and simultaneously gives us a means of drawing on our own creative intelligence--which, he is quick to tell us, is far more profound and powerful than that of the computers our brains are misguidedly compared to.
I laughed out loud when Tammet confirmed for me what I've suspected for quite some time: Drinking too much information too often through the firehose of the Internet can make you stupid! After reading this book, I can see why that is true! Time to restrict surfing like I restrict watching TV.
on January 30, 2012
What an odd book Daniel Tammet has written. Purportedly an overview of modern brain science, it stumbles from one topic to another, from developmental linguistics to synesthesia to systems of measuring intelligence to the nature of creativity to formal logic to optical illusions, and on and on. But perhaps not surprisingly given the breadth of coverage, the discussion of each topic is quite shallow. People who already know about any of these topics won't learn much from this book--and neither will people who don't.
Tammet has Asperger's syndrome and savant syndrome. He tells you that early in the book, but it's also apparent in the cadence of the writing, which focuses heavily on enumerations of ideas: for example, at one point he gives a long account of the categories in the Dewey decimal system, which he prefers as an information access scheme to computer-based search. He insists repeatedly and relentlessly that brains can't possibly function like computers, presumably to refute the stereotype of autistic savants as having brains that are computerlike. Unfortunately, his understanding of modern computer science, and especially artificial intelligence, is seriously flawed.
Another problematic aspect of the book is the author's focus on his own perspectives and achievements, which are hard to assess. As illustration of how creative he is, he tells us about Manti, a language he has been creating since he was a child, "based on the lexical and grammatical structures of Baltic and Scandinavian languages (a particular fascination of [his])." The book also has lots of advice for the reader. He tells us his ideas on how to learn foreign languages--Tammet claims he can become conversationally fluent in a new language over the course of a weekend. And he tells us how to avoid information overload: turn off your cellphone after work. Or how to Google effectively: use quotation marks.
I'd hoped that while Tammet's book might not provide a terribly useful exposition of brain science, it might be helpful in understanding what it is like to have autism. But there are other books, notably those of Temple Grandin, that do a much better job of that.
Daniel Tammet, a prodigious savant with particularly phenomenal gifts in mathematics and languages, takes his readers on a journey through the human mind, armed with the latest research and with his own insights as a high-functioning autistic person. Tammet asserts that all minds--not just those of incomparable geniuses, such as Mozart, Einstein,or Tolstoy -are amazing, and we are in essence more alike than different.
Tammet takes on stereotypes, myths, and wrong thinking and science; to show that savants are much like the rest of us, and that it is our thinking that makes us human. Daniel can calculate pi to 22,514 places, yet he confronts notion that people like him are "human calculators". He demonstrates that artistic savants, like musician Matt Savage, and visual artist Steven Wiltshire, produce creative and original works, just as non savant artists do. They are not like robots who just "spit back" what they see or hear, but use their personal interpretation and inventiveness to create beauty.
Daniel is a "synthesete", meaning, in his case, that he experiences numbers as visual images having color and shape. This has to do with unusual connectivity of different parts of the brain. Likewise, temporal lobe epilepsy, believed to be behind the creative processes of Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allen Poe; and mental illness, as in the case of John Forbes Nash ("A Beautiful Mind"), both cause "brain storms" of hyper connectivity. But all brains have neurological connectedness, and this ability to link seemly unrelated ideas and come up with original insights is the essence of creativity.
I enjoyed the chapter 4, "A World of Words", including tips on learning a foreign language. I was amused by the paragraphs in Chapter 8, about "The Sokal Affair" and "Henryk Batuta", two hoaxes that fooled many people, including experts. I ended up liking chapter 9, "Thinking in Numbers", despite my fear of math. He shows how essential "number thinking" is, using primarily simple statistics and the science of logic, which he explains clearly and illustrates with real-life examples. My favorite part of this chapter was the three pages where he discussed the assertion that the world is dangerously overpopulated. (Not going to tell you; you'll have to read it!)
As you see, there is a lot of food for thought in Tammet's latest book, which he tries to tie together under the concept of "Embracing the Wide Sky" of the mind. Overall, I liked it very much. I also highly recommend his "Born on a Blue Day", which is more of an autobiography; a warm and well written account of an unusual mind.
on April 22, 2012
Don't read this because you want an exhaustive and in-depth review of brain science, and certainly don't read this because you want to learn how to become a genius. Read it because you want a greater appreciation of who we are, the miracles of everyday perception.
Some selected quotes/ideas:
1. "Our brains absorb line, color, depth, shading, motion, and more, and convert the 2D retinal image into 3D in the blink of an eye."
2. Memories are not bits of data but complex patterns of story, imagery, and emotion.
3. There is a common confusion between information and ideas. The mind thinks with ideas, not information. Ideas define, make sense of, and create information. Some of the greatest ideas, e.g., "all men are created equal," do not contain any information at all.
4. The importance of a personal worldview is that it helps us put info back into perspective, giving it an intuitive place in our minds like the books in the library.
5. "Treat each new piece of information you read or watch or hear as a potential piece in a puzzle, rather than simply as an end in itself. Acquiring information is not the same as learning, or thinking, or living for that matter. Bits of information are what we use to build reflections, evaluations and understanding in our minds. Like each one of us, these dots of data make most sense when they contribute to something greater than themselves."
on February 6, 2010
Daniel Tammet's memoir was interesting to read because it gave an insightful picture of the world and mind of a high-functioning autistic person. His second book is no more than a mish-mash of various results Mr Tammet has found in the literature, his opinions on a very broad range of topics (like voting and dieting) but very little by way of insight. I hoped he would reveal how he performs his mental feats to do with language and calculation. He does give a few vague indications, but the questions I would like to hear answered, eg how combining two shapes can result in a third shape that gives the result of a multiplication, are not touched on. He avoids specifics throughout the book, preferring to range widely but shallowly across many topics. Very little meat in this sandwich.
on May 23, 2009
Tammet is a fine writer and his first book, the autobiography "Born on a Blue Day" was illuminating. This second book is a bit less so, because he allows himself to wander from the subjects he knows best and gets into the weeds.
Chapters 1 (about savantism), 3 (about memory), 4 (about words) and 5 (about numbers) are all interesting takes, with unique insights from the mind of a prodigious savant. These four chapters make the book worth reading, IMO.
On the other hand chapters 2 (IQ measurement), 6 (creativity), 7 (vision), 8 (organization of knowledge), 9 (innumeracy) & 10 (brain enhancement) are all plebeian treatments, with tired examples and a rather tedious style ("X says in his book Y that..."). Daniel tries to tie all these disciplines together into a sort of unified theory of mind, but the trouble is he really only knows his own inner workings well. When he recommends that poor people invest money toward a brighter future, or that over-population can't be a problem because Holland has high population density, he is really only showing his lack of worldliness.
Hopefully his next book will be a chip shot back onto the green.
on May 11, 2016
Daniel Tammet as an autistic savant has special insight into special minds. I found this book interesting and informative in relation to causes of abnormalities in brain functions. The author has personal life experiences in living with special mental states. He explained that the sections of the brain that should stay separately functioning in some people are working all at the same time. This causing cross communication between different regions of the brain, a convergence of normal thoughts, memories and feelings. Such hyper connectivity may help explain many forms of exceptional creativity. Daniel Tammet also discusses math and language basics of early childhood development.
I read his book, "Born on a Blue Day" first and found the explanation of how it feels to have a condition like his fascinating and wanted to read his second book. I have enjoyed both.
on January 11, 2011
This is the second book from Daniel Tammet after his superb memoir `Born on a Blue Day' and whilst it is quite good, it is also lacking a certain something. Don't get me wrong, I found this interesting to read and it had some insightful moments in it, but it is decidedly unoriginal. In fact there is a huge overlap of information with another book I have read recently (`Bounce By Matthew Syed) which was about sports achievement and excellence. This looks at our brains and how it functions and the outstanding feats it is capable of. The only problem is is that I have previously read virtually all of this information in other books about the brain. However, this is well written, although less intimate than his memoir and offers a unique insight into Daniels savant syndrome. This covers topics such as basic neuroscience, IQ tests, memory, language, number sense, creativity, perception, information in society, the benefits of thinking mathematically and the future of the human mind with insight into injury treatment and linking our minds with technology. There are some diagrams littered throughout to illustrate various points raised which help to clarify. If you haven't read any books about the brain then this will be deeply fascinating and engaging, but if, like me, you have already done some rudimentary reading on the nature and working of the brain then this book will feel slightly anticlimactic and a disappointment. Overall, this is an interesting introduction to our brain, but only for those who are new to the topic.
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