Born on a Blue Day

by John Holbo on May 23, 2007

I just read Born On A Blue Day [amazon], by Daniel Tammet. It’s subtitled ‘inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant’. He really is pretty extraordinary – a high functioning autistic savant syndrome synaesthete of the first order. First paragraph:

I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 79, and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and 1. I can recognize every prime number up to 9,973 by their “pebble-like” quality. It’s just the way my brain works.

Tammet is famous for having recited pi to 22,514 digits, from memory, on International Pi day, in 2004, and then he learned to speak Icelandic in only a week. Maybe you saw him on the David Letterman show (I didn’t); or on the BBC documentary Brainman. (YouTube has some bits, including Letterman.) He’s also got a blog.

Anyway, I’m real sorry Wittgenstein never got to read this book. All that stuff about ‘secondary sense’, in Part II of PI - not to mention the fact that Born On A Blue Day reads in this very winning, Wittgensteinian-simple sort of way; strangely affectless, odd-angle parables; the quality of the prose. He describes how he sees pi as a landscape of color and it comes off half way between Data, on Star Trek, and a sort of Tolstoyan-pious, ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ thing. Then, in the final pages, he converts to Christianity, much as Wittgenstein would have wanted him to. (He converts to Christianity after reading Chesterton.)

I still remember vividly the experience I had as a teenager lying on the floor of my room staring up at the ceiling. I was trying to picture the universe in my head, to have a concrete understanding of what “everything” was. In my mind I traveled to the edges of existence and looked over them, wondering what I would find. In that instant I felt really unwell and I could feel my heart beating hard inside me, because for the first time I had realized that thought and logic had limits and could only take a person so far. This realization frightened me and it took a long time to come to terms with it.



thag 05.23.07 at 12:46 pm

very high-functioning. very very high-functioning.

not sure how much this case is representative of autism in general. fascinating in its own right, but maybe a bit misleading if anyone goes away thinking “so that’s what autism’s like, eh?”

he’s right about prime numbers, though. composite numbers look like lego-bricks.


abb1 05.23.07 at 1:02 pm

Is there enough interesting (to a layman) stuff to fill up 300 pages or does this post pretty much tell the whole story?


jholbo 05.23.07 at 2:18 pm

It’s quite a fascinating read, throughout – very personally moving. I recommend it.


Sam 05.23.07 at 3:32 pm

It really is a fascinating read, very entertaining. Much of it’s interest lies in the attempt to comprehend the profound synaesthesia that is Tammet’s every day experience. I would find myself closing my eyes and visualizing numbers or doing calculations in my head, all the while trying to manufacture some tactile or auditory association with the process. Sadly, it didn’t work. I’d suspect a lot or readers of Tammet’s book tried something of the sort as well.


tom brandt 05.23.07 at 4:05 pm

It would be interesting to compare it with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the fictional account of an autistic savant.


Kenny Easwaran 05.23.07 at 4:52 pm

Why would Wittgenstein have wanted such a conversion?


josh 05.23.07 at 7:48 pm

Funny — just the other day I was having a conversation with my advisor, who speculated that Wittgenstein (and Hobbes) were, in fact, themselves very high-functioning autistic savants.
Not sure that I buy it.


hellblazer 05.24.07 at 12:47 am

Read this recently … odd after reading Haddon’s Curious Incident as it is less melodramatic (being non-fiction, after all) but somewhat … monotone.

On a pedantic note: I haven’t got my copy with me, but I *think* there’s a parity error in the `grains of rice on a chessboard’ anecdote? The book gives the total number of grains at the end being an even number, which is rather hard to do if you start with 1 and keep adding even numbers…


John Holbo 05.24.07 at 5:31 am

Kenny, I think Wittgenstein wouldn’t have insisted on it, exactly. But his sympathy for a kind of pietist, Tolstoyan-Dostoyevskian mysticism shows through in notebooks and personal recollections of him by his friends and students. Several of his students seem to have converted to Christianity under his influence, even though he wasn’t himself actually religious. It seems like he wanted to be religious.


Sam C 05.24.07 at 10:16 am

Wittgenstein as autistic I can believe. Hobbes, though? Vastly aware of his audience; full of jokes and political innuendo; insistent that in reading himself, he could read the whole of humanity; apparently a very good drinking companion. Doesn’t sound like a stereotypical autist to me. Did your advisor offer any reasons for thinking so, Josh?


John Emerson 05.24.07 at 10:54 am

Another good book by someone with Aspergers is “Discovering my autism” by Edgar Schneider. Schneider was a professional mathematician and music lover but had problems with even the simplest personal relationships, and was institutionalized for a considerable period under a misdiagnosis.

Aspergers is like autism, or a form of autism, but it’s very dissimiliar to the severe forms, which make people incapable of the simplest functioning. Using the umbrella term is misleading and tends to have the effect of unnecessarily stigmatizing those with Aspergers.

I think that it’s reasonable to ask about Aspergers for any very high-functioning person who is extremely rude, inconsiderate, and socially inept. “Madness is the absence of work” as Foucault said. Those with Aspergers who were in a situation to be productive tend to be surrounded by people who effectively take care of them and protect them.

I am less enthralled by the Temple Grandin story; buidling painless slaughterhouses seems like a rather dubious and ambiguous achievement.


daelm 05.24.07 at 10:59 am

wittgentein is commonly conisdered to be a paradigm case of asperger’s/HFA. after-the-fact diagnoses are pretty much pure entertainment, but nevertheless.


Barbara 05.24.07 at 2:51 pm

Re: Temple Grandin. Like many of her fans, I first began reading her because my kid has autism. She’s very active in the autism community — she speaks at conferences, writes columns in autism magazines, etc. — and has been quite a force in helping us neurotypicals understand autism.

She was a pioneer, if not THE pioneer, of high-functioning autistics publically identifying themselves as autistic and explaining the positive side of autism. She has just as much as a career as an autism spokesperson as she does as an animal scientist. In fact, I remember reading that she purposely divides her time in half between the two fields.

When I read her account of her work as a designer of slaughterhouses, I was surprise to find myself looking at her through a different lens — one provided by being a Jew. We Jews have an extensive tradition of ritual slaughter, after all (as of course, do many other religious groups). It’s a part of Judaism I admit I’ve long been very ambivalent about because its usual practice falls way short of its stated purposes.

Temple Grandin’s design work is deeply informed by her philosophical struggles with the contradictions of life requiring that we take other life — needless to say, survival requires eating and everything we eat was first alive. A lot of the second half of her book “Thinking in Pictures” is about the issues surrounding eating meat and what it means to be humane. I often say she’s the world’s only true shocket (kosher slaughterer) because I think she takes something profane and makes it as elevated as it can be.

And she’s as concerned with the effects slaughterhouses have on their workers as she is with the animals. I think you sell her short, John Emerson.


josh 05.24.07 at 8:07 pm

Not really sure what the basis for the Hobbes-as-HFA is — my advisor mentioned that H was reportedly socially awkward, didn’t really know how to behave around other people, dressed strangely, etc. Which all seemed rather weak to me — if that’s the standard, many of the people I know are HFA.
But my advisor is something of a Hobbes expert, so who am I to dismiss the claim?


John Faughnan 05.27.07 at 4:32 am

Re: John Emerson: “Aspergers is like autism, or a form of autism,… Using the umbrella term is misleading and tends to have the effect of unnecessarily stigmatizing those with Aspergers.”

Stigmatizing. Hmm.

Try reading it this way:

“Ischemic heart failure is like dilated cardiomyopathy, but using the umbrella term unnecessarily stignatizes those with dilated cardiomyopathy”.

Or try substituting a gender preference or ethnic origin for “Aspergers” and “Autism”.

Then think about what you mean by “stigmatizing” and stigmata, and what precisely is the target of shame in this example?

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