Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Brain Man, One Man's Gift May Be The Key To Better Understanding The Brain - CBS News

Brain Man, One Man's Gift May Be The Key To Better Understanding The Brain - CBS News:

"Twenty-four years ago, 60 Minutes introduced viewers to George Finn, whose talent was immortalized in the movie 'Rainman.' George has a condition known as savant syndrome, a mysterious disorder of the brain where someone has a spectacular skill, even genius, in a mind that is otherwise extremely limited.

Morley Safer met another savant, Daniel Tammet, who is called 'Brain Man' in Britain. But unlike most savants, he has no obvious mental disability, and most important to scientists, he can describe his own thought process. He may very well be a scientific Rosetta stone, a key to understanding the brain.


It is estimated there are only 50 true savants living in the world today, and yet none are like Daniel. He is articulate, self-sufficient, blessed with all of the spectacular ability of a savant, but with very little of the disability. Take his math skill, for example.

Asked to multiply 31 by 31 by 31 by 31, Tammet quickly – and accurately – responded with "923,521."

And it’s not just calculating. His gift of memory is stunning. Briefly show him a long numerical sequence and he’ll recite it right back to you. And he can do it backwards, to boot.

That feat is just a warm-up for Daniel Tammet. He first made headlines at Oxford, when he publicly recited the endless sequence of numbers embodied by the Greek letter "Pi." Pi, the numbers we use to calculate the dimensions of a circle, are usually rounded off to 3.14. but its numbers actually go on to infinity.

Daniel studied the sequence – a thousand numbers to a page.

"And I would sit and I would gorge on them. And I would just absorb hundreds and hundreds at a time," he tells Safer.

It took him several weeks to prepare and then Daniel headed to Oxford, where with number crunchers checking every digit, he opened the floodgates of his extraordinary memory.

Tammet says he was able to recite, in a proper order, 22,514 numbers. It took him over five hours and he did it without a single mistake.


Daniel was recently profiled in a British documentary called “Brainman.” The producers posed a challenge that he could not pass up: Learn a foreign language in a week – and not just any foreign language, but Icelandic, considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn.

In Iceland, he studied and practiced with a tutor. When the moment of truth came and he appeared on TV live with a host, the host said, "I was amazed. He was responding to our questions. He did understand them very well and I thought that his grammar was very good. We are very proud of our language and that someone is able to speak it after only one week, that’s just great."

"Do you think that Daniel, in a certain way, represents a real pathway to further understanding the brain?" Safer asks Dr. Ramachandran.

"I think one could say that time and again in science, something that looks like a curiosity initially often leads to a completely new direction of research," Ramachandran replies. "Sometimes, they provide the golden key. Doesn't always happen. Sometimes it's just mumbo-jumbo. But that may well be true with savants."

Daniel continues to volunteer for scientists who want to understand his amazing brain. But he is reluctant to become what he calls “a performing seal” and has refused most offers to cash in on his remarkable skills.

"People all the time asking me to choose numbers for the lottery. Or to invent a time machine. Or to come up with some great discovery," he explains. "But my abilities are not those that mean that I can do at everything." "

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