Monday, April 4, 2011

Viewpoints on Autism

Yet another look at the world of Autism from our book Tasting the Universe by Maureen Seaberg. This excerpt comes from Chapter 9: Behind Blue Eyes as she speaks with Daniel Tammet, an author who brought his experiences to the world through his memoir Born on a Blue Day.

I wander into a tiny pet shop off Pont Neuf in Paris; it is filled with the most richly colored avian species I have ever seen. The parrot there, he is the primordial green of my Saturdays; the cap of that finch is the powdery blue of both the note and the letter C; another bird I don’t recognize is the scarlet of E but also the plaintive cry of the cante jondo song that accompanies flamenco dance. Is it the birds or is the light different in France, I wonder. For it is here that the symbolist poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire appropriated their drug-induced cross-sensory experiences for their work; here that the true synesthetic composer Olivier Messiaen first drew a breath; and here that the likely synesthete Vincent Van Gogh painted with his thick and richly hued oils. And it is in France that the most remarkable synesthete in the world, the savant Daniel Tammet, has now taken up residence.

The Brit Daniel Tammet has taken his beautiful mind to fairer environs. As we chat via Skype, a graphic of the flag of France is visible next to his number on the computer screen. He talks with me about this hopeful new chapter in his life from his hilltop perch in the old papal city on the Rhône. He has moved to Avignon in the South of France, a far cry from the working class neighborhood in London he once knew. There, his childhood was marred by seizures, which he describes in his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day. His world was as limiting as the Asperger’s syndrome that also challenged him. But now, he has fallen in love with a talented French photographer and, subsequently, with the art-filled, inspiring surroundings. As miraculous as his mind is, it also exhibits a good deal of common sense. With those empathic, sensitive mirror-touch neurons, he is taking good care of himself. If he must live with this body and soul that feel and see so much, shouldn’t his environment be nourishing and as gentle as he is? Tammet agrees:

I think as a child my autism [Asperger’s syndrome is a milder form of this disorder] was obviously an overriding influence; I was very stunted in a sense that I wasn’t so into the world, and that included the world of art. I was very much in retreat. But since then the evolution has been a result of a lot of work, a lot of love, and a lot of effort, and today, art plays a big role in my life—all kinds of art: painting, literature, and so on. Being in France, being in the South of France, in Avignon, it’s a very historical city. The Popes moved [here] in the Middle Ages for a period of time and the palace where they lived is still in the city. And I have an apartment in the hills of Avignon. I have a view of the whole region, the whole city, the mountains. It’s very inspirational. It’s wonderful for an artist, I think, as I aspire to be.

Mr. Tammet has begun painting and drawing his glorious numbers, the ones that dance on a landscape in his mind in color and movement in such a way that he was famously able to memorize the number Pi to 22,500 places—and even more in recent times. And he has begun writing fiction to better exercise a synesthetic mind ripe with metaphors.“It’s a very inspiring environment and one very different from the one I grew up in, being born in a very poor part of working class London. There is a lot of art here and I visit museums and I go to galleries [...] [I]f you want me to give you names there are so many, but I could cite the usual suspects like Vincent Van Gogh, for example, who worked [in Arles] very close to where we live now. I often visit the museum here where many of his paintings are kept and stay in touch about his work, about his life. There are some similarities [between us].”

Mr. Tammet says that he is very moved by the parallels in their lives. “He’s someone who had epileptic seizures, like I had as a child, in his case unfortunately those seizures continued throughout his life. That may have contributed to his creativity. And he was also a very spiritual person. He was at one point considering, before he became an artist, entering the monastery and dedicating his life to religion.” I can’t help but hear Don McLean’s song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” when Mr. Tammet, characteristically soft-spoken and thoughtful, speaks of Van Gogh. I try to imagine Daniel’s world, echoing the singer’s lyrics, reflected in Daniel’s eyes of china blue.

His move to France a few years ago is “obviously a different story from the one I wrote in Born on a Blue Day, which is a part of my life which finished in 2005. And so much in my life has changed since [then] in terms of my personal development, the development of my ideas, my creativity, and my personal life, as well. Some of those changes [are] obviously positive, 100- percent positive, and some of them obviously are sad endings; always sad in [the] sense that you give something up in order to gain something new. But I’m very happy where I am today.” Mr. Tammet is a noted polyglot who speaks French fluently and once learned Icelandic in a week when someone challenged him to be interviewed in that difficult tongue on a talk show there. Now he uses French every day but continues to write in English.

Though he is grateful to science for healing his seizures, his retreat is as much a break from that clinical world (chronicled in two previous books and countless scientific papers about him) as it is from his humble and painful roots. He has been pricked and prodded, hooked to electrodes and even lie-detector tests by well-meaning scientists around the world interested in his special case. “As a young child, I was obviously healed by what science made possible. But I think there is a danger in areas of quantifying, in areas of analyzing, in taking such a purely objective view of something which is also subjective, the experience of having a brain, having a mind. Our thoughts and our feelings, of course, are not wholly objective, they’re inherently subjective. And that’s the danger, and I think as long as we’re aware of it and can push back against it, I don’t think that these two views are necessarily incompatible.”

We talk about how his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, called for science to take a more inward look at people with different minds. The title was inspired, he says, by an Emily Dickinson poem.“What I was aiming to do in that book is to put forth a vision of the mind from the inside out…. [W]hat I mean by that is that neuroscientists have hypotheses, have theories about how the mind works and they approach the subject almost invariably according to scientific method—from the outside looking in—to guess about how it might be to be like a savant, how it might be to be creative, synesthetic, and so on, and then apply those theories to the evidence and see how they work. [O]f course this process isn’t without flaws [but] what I want to do is make a contribution to the literature and to the debate….” Though he provides a fresh perspective, he is both sensitive to the evidence and personally revealing. “[O]bviously the difference is that I, having synesthesia, and having savant syndrome, can give that internal perspective that scientists previously lacked, more or less. And it’s one that is becoming more available as other savants are being diagnosed; high-functioning savants who are able to express themselves, who are successful in their adult lives. And so what I’m interested in doing, or what I did in that second book, was to explore how savant minds work and what makes me different, but also what makes me similar.”

He tries to speak to a common humanity in advocating for synesthetes and savants, both of whom “are generally thought of as [...] marginal phenomena, [whereas] in fact I think they’re central to how we understand ourselves and how we understand the human mind and how it works.” He also credits his synesthesia as being the lynchpin of his abilities. “I think that synesthesia not only gives me those abilities, but curiosity about those abilities and how they work, how they vary depending on a person’s environment and culture and so on, and biology and the different kinds of synesthesia.” Although I’m happy to hear him speak so positively about the gift we hold in common, his abilities are far beyond my own and those of most other synesthetes I know. His synesthesia has combined with his Asperger’s and savant syndrome to create something quite extraordinary. Three “deficits” end up creating a kind of alchemy that puts him in a very rare category of ability that has even inspired an eponymous documentary (Brain Man). That said, he’s loathe to see himself as anything but merely human. “For some reason I really dislike the term “human computer” or “human calculator” that people sometimes attach to my story and to [those of] other savants,” he says.

Maureen Seaberg has lectured on synesthesia and spirituality at the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference at the University of Arizona–Tucson. She herself has higher and lower synesthesia—both concepts and forms appear to her in color (her k's are teal and her 8's are aubergine). A journalist for 20 years, Maureen has had articles featured in the New York Times, the Daily News, Irish America, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications. She has also covered breaking news for MSNBC and appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS.

Maureen will be a featured speaker at the Tibet House in New York on Thursday, April 14th.

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