The Boy With The Incredible Brain (2005)

The Life of Daniel Tammet

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Date Added: 12 years ago.

Documentary Description

“Numbers are my friends.” (Daniel Tammet). This is your second chance to witness the breathtaking story of Daniel Tammet. A twenty-something with extraordinary mental abilities, Daniel is one of the world’s few savants. He can do calculations to 100 decimal places in his head, and learn a language in a week. This documentary follows Daniel as he travels to America to meet the scientists who are convinced he may hold the key to unlocking similar abilities in everyone. He also meets the world’s most famous savant, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Oscar winning film ‘Rain Man’.

As a baby, Daniel cried constantly and banged his head against the wall. His parents were frantic but all doctors could suggest was that he was understimulated. One afternoon when he was four, an accident changed the way Daniel thought forever. While playing with his brother in the living room he suffered a series of epileptic seizures which transformed his brain chemistry, giving him the gift of synaesthesia. This condition occurs when the parts of the brain responsible for different areas of perception get mixed up. Brain scans of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere might be compensating for damage in the left hemisphere. While many savants struggle with language and comprehension - skills associated primarily with the left hemisphere - they often have amazing skills in mathematics and memory - primarily right hemisphere skills. Daniel began to respond emotionally to numbers, which he started to ‘see’ as complex, beautiful shapes and textures.

Other autistic savants have displayed a wide range of talents, from measuring exact distances by sight to from reciting volumes of encyclopaedias. The British savant Stephen Wiltshire was able to draw a highly accurate map of the London skyline from memory after a single helicopter trip over the city. Unlike other savants, Daniel can describe what is going on in his head. He is fortunate in that, while he possesses many of the capabilities associated with autism, he has no trouble relating to others; he is a charming and incredibly self-aware young man. He talks, awestruck, about seeing the number one as a bright shining light; five as a clap of thunder; and nine as very tall and intimidating: “It’s like having a fourth dimension,” he says.

Soflty-spoken, 26-year-old Daniel lives on the Kent coast but he steers clear of the beach because there are too many pebbles to count. He feels uncomfortable at the thought of a mathematical problem with no solution. Trips to the supermarket are a headache, too; he gets lost dwelling upon every shape, texture, price and arrangement of fruit and vegetables. He can stand transfixed for hours wandering at the pattern of leaves on a tree, and calculate vast sums without consciously trying - he can ‘see’ the answer in his head as a beautiful landscape. And it cannot be said that he struggles with language; he speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto. As if this wasn’t incredible enough, he is in the process of creating his own language, whereby the vocabulary reflects the relationships between language and things.

Tammet has broken the European record for recalling Pi, the mathematical constant, to the furthest decimal point. He says he found it easy because he didn't even have to "think". To him, Pi is a visual story, like a film projected in front of his eyes. "I memorised Pi to 22,514 decimal places, and I am technically disabled. I just wanted to show people that disability needn't get in the way." In this film we see him flawlessly calculating Pi to over 20,000 places, over five hours, to an awestruck crowd of tutors and students from Oxford University.

Daniel’s rare ability to describe his thought processes makes him a goldmine for researchers into the brain. Dr Julian Asher, who also experiences synaesthesia, says Daniel’s visions are uncommonly specific and concrete. Daniel can also have fun with his ability, as we witness in his visit to the US. His first port of call is New York, where he bamboozles the famous chess hustlers of Times Square by memorising the position of every piece on a board.

He also meets Kim Peek, the inspiration for ‘Rain Man’. The shy and introspective Peek appears to have a photographic memory for everything; he can read two pages of a book in around eight seconds, reading one page per eye simultaneously, and remember almost all of it. The two men made a strong connection, bonding over their passion for books and history; Peek held Daniel’s hand tenderly and assured him that there is no reason to fear being different. “One day you’ll be as great as I am,” he jokes to Daniel.

Next, Daniel tests his skills in Las Vegas, as he plays his first-ever game of blackjack. There is too much light and noise for him to concentrate properly, but he wins a devastating hand when he changes his tactics and goes on instinct. Daniel’s final destination is San Diego’s Centre for Brain Studies, where “very sceptical” Shai Azoulai and Professor VS Ramachandran subject him to a battery of tests. If Daniel is cheating, or using traditional mathematical methods, these scientists will catch him out. Despite his jet-lag, Daniel successfully tackles some complex calculations, and then models his mind’s-eye view of various numbers in play-dough.

So far the scientists are impressed. But the sceptics are truly silenced when Shai writes down a version of Pi and asks Daniel to visualise it, while being connected to a skin temperature monitor. Shai has sneakily smuggled some ‘wrong’ numbers into the fractions. Intriguingly, Daniel’s skin reacts sharply whenever he encounters a ‘wrong’ number, proving that he responds emotionally to numbers. Shai is astounded: “This could spawn a whole new field of research,” he stutters. All of Daniel’s claims seem to add up, but he has one more hurdle to jump. The film-makers challenge him to learn Icelandic, one of the world’s hardest languages in just one week. He must then appear on national TV and be interviewed for five minutes in Icelandic.

Will Daniel do it? And what can we learn from this prodigious talent?

Source: Five TV


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