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.
four from field recordings of mind in morningBy Hank Lazer
JUL-AUG 2021 | Poetry
Hank Lazer’s poems in the Brooklyn Rail are from his forthcoming book field recordings of mind in morning (BlazeVOX), which will include links to musical improvisations with composer and banjo player Holland Hopson. Lazer has published thirty-one books of poetry, including COVID 19 SUTRAS (2020, Lavender Ink), Slowly Becoming Awake (N32) (2019, Dos Madres Press), Poems That Look Just Like Poems (2019, PURH – one volume in English, one in French), Evidence of Being Here: Beginning in Havana (N27), (2018, Negative Capability Press), and Thinking in Jewish (N20) (2017, Lavender Ink). In 2015, Lazer received Alabama’s most prestigious literary prize, the Harper Lee Award, for lifetime achievement in literature.
Center for Book ArtsBy Megan N. Liberty
MARCH 2023 | ArTonic
Wandering around the flower district of Manhattan, you may be surprised to see a green flag hanging high above the flowers, signaling the location of the Center for Book Arts (CBA) on the third floor, where it has been located since 1999. As artist and designer Ben Denzer recently wrote to me, Despite coming and going to CBA all the time, I can never really get over how much of an unexpected gem it is. The fact that this book utopia is hiding on the third floor of a random building on 27th street has always made me look at all NYC buildings as if each might contain delightful secrets inside.
from The Ones Who Listen (Book One of the Cywanu Trilogy)By Whit Griffin
APRIL 2023 | Poetry
Whit Griffin is a poet-medium and semi-professional hermit dwelling in Colorado. Author of such nonlinear metaphysical epics as We Who Saw Everything (Cultural Society) and Uncanny Resonance (Book Two, Lunar Chandelier Collective). With visual artist Timothy C. Ely he collaborated on the book Interior Voice / The Great Practice (Granary Books). Along with Eric Baus he is a resident wizard at Common Name Farm, through which he freely gives away visionary elixirs.
from The Nature BookBy Tom Comitta
MARCH 2023 | Fiction
Darwin discovered that evolution proceeds with neither direction nor purpose. The natural world is largely indifferent to plan or plot. Yet we, story-seeking creatures that we are, see the world around us as more completed, more accomplished, than what came before. Tom Comitta’s The Nature Book explores these tensions by stitching together hundreds of fragments in the history of literary writing about the natural worldthis excerpt alone is a collage of ninety-seven novels ranging from Hawthorne to Arundhati Roy. Though the text of The Nature Book is a polyphonic effort of writers, humans are absent from the actual story. In this seamless anthology, we forget that the experience of reading about nature is mediated by human voices and, when suspended in the text, succumb to the magical illusion that we are perceiving the world in itself.