How Intelligent Can Your Brain Be?

Here’s an interview with Daniel Tammet, the man who recited pi (that’s the mathematical constant for 3.1416) up to 22,514 decimal places.

Tammet is an autistic savant, which means he has a rare condition in which people like him have one or more areas of expertise, ability, or brilliance that are in contrast with their overall limitations. Inside his mind, here is a video to meet him, and below are thinking tips from an extraordinary brain. You may never recite calculations like Rain Man, but you can still learn to improve cognitive performance with advice from this interview with a savant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXG-1YLGAS0

LEHRER: Your recent memoir, Born on a Blue Day, documented your life as an autistic savant. You describe, for example, how you are able to quickly learn new languages, and remember scenes from years earlier in cinematic detail. Are you ever surprised by your own abilities?

TAMMET: I have always thought of abstract information—numbers for example—in visual, dynamic form. Numbers assume complex, multi-dimensional shapes in my head that I manipulate to form the solution to sums, or compare when determining whether they are prime or not.

For languages, I do something similar in terms of thinking of words as belonging to clusters of meaning so that each piece of vocabulary makes sense according to its place in my mental architecture for that language. In this way I can easily discern relationships between words, which helps me to remember them.

In my mind, numbers and words are far more than squiggles of ink on a page. They have form, color, texture and so on. They come alive to me, which is why as a young child I thought of them as my “friends.” I think this is why my memory is very deep, because the information is not static. I say in my book that I do not crunch numbers (like a computer). Rather, I dance with them.

None of this is particularly surprising for me. I have always thought in this way so it seems entirely natural. What I do find surprising is that other people do not think in the same way. I find it hard to imagine a world where numbers and words are not how I experience them!

LEHRER: In Embracing the Wide Sky you criticize the IQ test as a vast oversimplification of intelligence. You write: “There is no such thing as proofs of intelligence, only intelligence.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

TAMMET: When I was a child, my behavior was far from being what most people would label “intelligent.” It was often limited, repetitive and anti-social. I could not do many of the things that most people take for granted, such as looking someone in the eye or deciphering a person’s body language, and only acquired these skills with much effort over time. I also struggled to learn many of the techniques for spelling or doing sums taught in class because they did not match my own style of thinking.

I know from my own experience that there is much more to “intelligence” than an IQ number. In fact, I hesitate to believe that any system could really reflect the complexity and uniqueness of one person’s mind, or meaningfully describe the nature of his or her potential.

The bell curve distribution for IQ scores tells us that two thirds of the world’s population have an IQ somewhere between 85 and 115. This means that some four and a half billion people around the globe share just 31 numerical values (“He’s a 94,” “You’re a 110,” ”I’m a 103”), equivalent to 150 million people worldwide sharing the same IQ score. This sounds a lot to me like astrology, which lumps everyone into one of twelve signs of the zodiac.

Even if we cannot measure and assign precise values to it in any “scientific” way, I do very much think that “intelligence” exists and that it varies in the actions of each person. The concept is a useful and important one, for scientists and educators alike. My objection is to thinking that any ‘test’ of a person’s intelligence is up to the task. Rather we should focus on ensuring that the fundamentals (literacy, etc.) are well taught, and that each child’s diverse talents are encouraged and nourished.

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