Daniel Tammet

Born: 31 January 1979

Occupation: English writer, Essayist, Translator

Challenges overcome: High-functioning Autism, Savant Syndrome and Synaesthesia

Successes, Achievements & Awards:

Daniel Tammet was born Daniel Paul Corney and raised in Barking, East London, England, and the eldest of nine children. Daniel is an English writer, essayist and translator who is an Autistic Savant.

He suffered epileptic seizures as a young child, which he subsequently outgrew following medical treatment. At age twenty-five, he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism (Spectrum) Research Centre at Cambridge University. Daniel Tammet is one of fewer than a hundred “prodigious savants” according to Dr. Darold Treffert, the world’s leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome.

Daniel Tammet has been “studied repeatedly” by researchers in Britain and the United States, and has been the subject of several peer-reviewed scientific papers. Professor Allan Snyder at the Australian National University has said of Daniel Tammet: “Savants can’t usually tell us how they do what they do. It just comes to them. Daniel can describe what he sees in his head. That’s why he’s exciting.” In his memoir, Daniel Tammet states experiencing a synaesthetic and emotional response for numbers and words and has described that in his mind, he sees, each positive integer up to 10,000 and they each have their own unique shape, colour, texture and feel. He has described his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi, though not an integer, as beautiful. The number 6 apparently has no distinct image yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large, towering, and quite intimidating. Daniel decided to change his birth name from Corney to Tammet by deed poll because it visually didn’t fit with the way he saw himself in his mind. He took the word Tammet from the Estonian word for ‘oak tree’.

Daniel Tammet twice participated in the World Memory Championships in London under his birth name, Corney, placing 12th in 1999 and 4th in 2000. In 2002 Tammet launched the website, Optimnem with his previous partner. The site offers language courses and has been an approved member of the UK’s National Grid for Learning since 2006.

Daniel Tammet holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004. Daniel Tammet was the subject of a documentary film entitled (in the UK) The Boy with the Incredible Brain, first broadcast on the British television station Channel 4 on 23 May 2005.  Daniel Tammet is a polyglot, which means he is interested in languages and because he has sufficient intellect he can optimize his learning technique so he can learn a new language easily.

In ‘Born On A Blue Day’ which is a memoir of a life with Asperger’s syndrome, which has received international media attention and critical praise, where he writes that he ‘knows’ ten languages: English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Icelandic and Welsh. In the Booklist’s Ray Olson stated that Daniel Tammet’s autobiography was as fascinating and assimilated it to Benjamin Franklin’s and John Stuart Mill’s autobiographies. Kirkus book review have also stated that in the book “transcends the disability memoir genre.” For his US book tour, he appeared on several television and radio talk shows and specials, including 60 Minutes and Late Show with David Letterman. In February 2007 Born on a Blue Day was serialised as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.

In his second book ‘Embracing the Wide Sky’, Tammet writes that he learned conversational Icelandic in a week and then appeared on an interview on Kastljós on RÚV speaking the language.

Daniel Tammet’s second book, Embracing the Wide Sky was published in 2009. Professor Allan Snyder, director of Sydney University’s Centre for the Mind, called the work ‘an extraordinary and monumental achievement’. Tammet argues that savant abilities are not “supernatural” but are “an outgrowth” of “natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words.” He suggests that the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities.

After the World Memory Championships, Tammet participated in a group study, later published in the New Year 2003 edition of Nature Neuroscience. The researchers investigated the reasons for the memory champions’ superior performance. They reported that they used “strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable,” and concluded that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability or differences in brain structure.

In another study, Simon Baron-Cohen and others at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge tested Tammet’s abilities in around 2005. He was found to have synaesthesia according to the “Test of Genuineness-Revised” which tests the subjects’ consistency in reporting descriptions of their synaesthesia. He performed well on tests of short term memory (with a digit-span of 11.5, where 6.5 is typical). Conversely, test results showed his memory for faces scored at the level expected of a 6–8 year old child in this task. The authors of the study speculated that Tammet’s savant memory could be a result of synaesthesia combined with Asperger syndrome, or it could be the result of mnemonic strategies.

Baron-Cohen, Bor and Billington investigated whether his synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome explained his savant memory abilities in a further study published in Neurocase in 2008. They concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region (the left prefrontal cortex), which results from his Asperger syndrome and synaesthesia. On the Navon task, relative to non-autistic controls, Tammet was found to be faster at finding a target at the local level and to be less distracted by interference from the global level. In an fMRI scan, “Tammet did not activate extra-striate regions of the brain normally associated with synaesthesia, suggesting that he has an unusual and more abstract and conceptual form of synaesthesia.” Published in Cerebral Cortex (2011), an fMRI study lead by Professor Jean-Michel Hupé at the University of Toulouse (France) observed no activation of colour areas in ten synaesthetes. Hupé suggests that synaesthetic colour experience lies not in the brain’s colour system, but instead results from “a complex construction of meaning in the brain, involving not only perception, but language, memory and emotion.”

In his book Moonwalking with Einstein (2011), science journalist and former US Memory Champion Joshua Foer speculates that study of conventional mnemonic approaches has played a role in Daniel Tammet’s feats of memory. While accepting that Tammet meets the standard definition of a prodigious savant, Foer suggests that his abilities may simply reflect intensive training using standard memory techniques, rather than any abnormal psychology or neurology per se. In a review of his book for the New York Times, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz described Foer’s speculation as among the book’s few “missteps”, questioning whether it would matter if Tammet had used such strategies or not.

Thinking in Numbers, a collection of essays, was first published in 2012 and serialised as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tammet – cite_note-24

Daniel Tammet now lives in Avignon, France with his new partner, Jerome Tabet, a French photographer whom he met while promoting his autobiography. Daniel has described his previous life before he met Jerome as very simple and regimented but since travelling constantly and giving lots of lectures it has changed him and made him much more open and much more interested in the full potential of what his mind could do.




Challenges Overcome

High-functioning Autism, Savant Syndrome and Synaesthesia

Disability Definitions

High-functioning Autism

High-functioning autism (HFA) is a term applied to people with autism who are deemed to be cognitively “higher functioning” (with an IQ of greater than 70) than other people with autism. Individuals with HFA or Asperger syndrome exhibit deficits in areas of communication, emotion recognition and expression, and social interaction. The amount of overlap between HFA and Asperger syndrome is disputed. While most researchers agree that the two are distinct diagnostic entities, others argue that they are indistinguishable.



Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

Difficulties have been recognized in adequately defining synesthesia: Many different phenomena have been included in the term synesthesia (“union of the senses”), and in many cases the terminology seems to be inaccurate. A more accurate term may be ideasthesia.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).

Only a fraction of types of synesthesia have been evaluated by scientific research. Awareness of synesthetic perceptions varies from person to person.

Although synesthesia was the topic of intensive scientific investigation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was largely abandoned by scientific research in the mid-20th century. Psychological research has demonstrated that synesthetic experiences can have measurable behavioral consequences, and functional neuroimaging studies have identified differences in patterns of brain activation. Many find that synesthesia aids the creative process. Psychologists and neuroscientists study synesthesia not only for its inherent appeal, but also for the insights it may give into cognitive and perceptual processes that occur in synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike.

Synesthesia. (2015, May 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:34, June 4, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Synesthesia&oldid=663816557

Download our Library List for further reading on many of the disabilities featured in this site

Information sources:

Please click on the information links below to find out more.


Thinking in Numbers, a collection of essays, was first published in 2012 and serialised as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the United Kingdom.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tammet – cite_note-24aniel Tammet. (2015, May 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:00, June 8, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Daniel_Tammet&oldid=662943245

Image Source: Wikicommons

Explore other characters...