Neural Networkingby Katie Rolnick
Daniel Tammet, Embracing the Wide Sky (Free Press, 2009)
In his new book, Embracing the Wide Sky, author Daniel Tammet attempts to correct persistent social ideas about autism, savants, and the creative mind. He is motivated, in part, by the misperceptions he personally encounters (he describes himself as a “high functioning” autistic and has savant abilities in math and language). In particular, Tammet wants readers to understand that unusual minds are not supernatural or abnormal. Furthermore, he believes that conceiving of the brain using the analogy of a computer is both inaccurate and unfruitful. Basing his ideas on scientific studies and highly attuned self-analysis, Tammet tries to ease the social tensions of his condition by showing how his brain and mental capabilities can be analyzed humanely and for our collective benefit.
Tammet is aware that scientific discussion is sometimes overwhelming for non-scientific minds. To that end, he approaches his topic with careful consideration for lay readers. The introduction gives a concise overview of the book’s contents and each chapter is meticulously organized. Everything is explained in plain language, like a sort of neuroscience-for-dummies handbook. In addition to summarizing important research developments, Tammet puts forth his own ideas and hypotheses about the brain’s functioning. His hobby-horse is debunking the popular computer-model of the brain, but he also offers replacement explanations based on his lifelong pursuit to understand how his own mind works.
According to Tammet, savants are “individuals with a developmental disorder (usually, but not always, autism) who possess extraordinary abilities related to their condition in one or more fields.” But Tammet, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is classified as a “prodigious savant,” someone whose abilities “would be considered exceptional even if they occurred in someone without any developmental disability.” Tammet believes that his abilities are the result of “hyperconnectivity” between areas of his brain that would, in more commonly functioning brains, be inhibited. He goes on to detail studies that support this theory as well as using it as a lens through which to examine his own experience, which includes a form of synesthesia that gives numbers particular shapes in his mind.
He pushes this theory of hyperconnectivity further, using it to explain creativity and imagination. Van Gogh, mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. (made famous by the film A Beautiful Mind), and a set of twins who developed their own language (complete with grammatical structure) are all fodder for Tammet. His theory and analysis techniques seem plausible and, as he frames it, more accepting of a wide range of minds. Each chapter ends with Tammet reminding us that we too are capable of greatness.
Most of the book functions as a fascinating and easy-to-understand primer—from innate infant language abilities to visual trickery. Tammet is particularly successful when explaining and condensing the foundation of brain functioning. He stumbles when he tries to apply this information to the way we experience the world around us. Because the early chapters of the book are explicit and intentional in their discussion of the brain, the reader loses focus when Tammet’s guiding hand disappears. He looks at the influx of information constantly bombarding us from the Internet, 24-hour cable news cycles, and the landscape of advertising, but the mind framework is missing. We wonder why Tammet is referencing Orwell’s “Newspeak” and how it’s related to Wikipedia. The connection is there, but it’s loose and incomplete.
By the time Embracing the Wide Sky gets to the mathematical support for America’s electoral college, the reader may be engaged, but has almost certainly forgotten what this has to do with hyperconnectivity or uncommon minds. Tammet tries to remind us with his conclusion, which looks ahead to the ways science might help enhance individual capacity, making sure to get one last jab in at computer-model adherents. It’s a future filled with possibility, aided by the help of technology but, as Tammet sees it, grounded in the biological depths of our minds. And even science can’t yet see the bottom.
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.