Englishman Daniel Tammet holds the European record for memorization and recitation of Pi (22,514 digits in around 5 hours). He can also do math problems like 37 to the 6th power in his head, computing answers to more digits than a scientific calculator can.
I just watched a documentary about him a friend sent me, and found Tammet likeable and charming. The doc I watched implies that his articulateness and relative normalcy is an extreme rarity, as “savants” (formerly “idiot savants”) like him, people with extremely unusual and powerful mental gifts, are commonly also profoundly mentally disabled — thus the “idiot savant” term once used.
Gifts like Tammet’s come at a price, usually mental retardation and profound autism. But while Tammet is a high-functioning autistic, he’s hardly mentally challenged or socially defective. He’s articulate and socially capable, something that astounds the scientists studying him as they realize he has remarkable savant abilities (he’s one of only 50 people in the world with such abilities, one scientist says) and can also, as some savants cannot, clearly communicate how he does what he does.
Tammet’s computational secret weapon is synethesia, a condition he developed after a series of seizures in childhood. He says that every number through 10,000 has a distinct appearance to him: the number one shines like a beacon; six is indistinct, a number he says he sometimes senses through its absence (he also says it reminds him of himself).
He can “envision” Pi, experiencing it as an image in which he can recognize the numbers involved. One scientist comments that Tammet is not so much memorizing Pi as moving through a mental landscape that represents a computation of Pi.
He also speaks 11 languages as of this writing according to Wikipedia, as his astounding memory makes learning any language easy. The finale of the documentary is his attempt to learn Finnish in one week and be interviewed, in Finnish, on national television.
You know he pulls it off. The fun is in watching his Finnish teacher come to understand exactly who it is she is dealing with as she watches a quiet young pupil learn a new language in seven days.
Watch the documentary here. It’s only about 48 minutes long and absolutely worth your time.