Who among us doesn’t remember the scene in Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman glances at the box of toothpicks that has been spilled and calmly informs his brother that two toothpicks are missing. The film was loosely based upon the true life story of Kim Peek, a Savant who lives in Salt Lake City.
When he was born, Kim was diagnosed with autism. Doctors advised his father to place him in an institution, waning that Kim would never be able to learn. Fortunately, his father disregarded the doctors and raised him at home. When Kim learned to read at the age of two, the doctors were astonished. Eventually his diagnosis was changed to Savant Syndrome, a rare condition in which persons with developmental disorders have one or more areas of brilliance that are in contrast with the individual’s overall limitations.
To this day, Kim reads as many as eight books a day. A page that might take a normal person three minutes to read will take Kim about 10 seconds. He reads the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye and retains about 98% of it. Unlike other Savants, whose abilities are usually restricted to one or two subject areas, Kim has 15 areas of interest, but he can’t reason out mathematical problems.
Enter Daniel Tammet, another of the world’s few Savants. Daniel’s two areas of expertise are math and language. He can do calculations to 100 decimal places in his head and once recited the number for Pi up to 22,500 decimal places. He sees numbers as visual images and claims that he sees a unique image for every number up to 10,000. He even successfully learned one of the world’s most difficult languages, Icelandic, in just a week. Daniel is especially unique because he is not encumbered with the level of social disability that most Savants exhibit. He is high functioning enough to live and work in mainstream society.
The documentary below follows Daniel as he travels to America to meet with scientists who are convinced he may hold the key to unlocking similar abilities in everyone – literally the “little Rain Man in each of us.” It is a long video – approximately 48 minutes – but fascinating to watch if you have the time. If not, there are dozens of shorter video clips about Daniel, “the boy with the incredible brain,” on YouTube.com. Indeed, David claims that anyone can be trained to do what he does, albeit perhaps not as quickly.
No one really knows why Savants exist or how their brains and thought processes work, but because of Daniel, scientists are now able to study this rare ability. For his part, Daniel is fully aware of not only how different he is, but also how lucky he is. At the end of the video he comments that “the line between profound talent and profound disability seems really a surprisingly thin one.”