Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More on Synesthesia

I read Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet last week. The reviews for it were outstanding so I was expecting something phenomenal that would blow my socks off with insight, but there weren't many. Most of his memoir was a play by play of his life up to the age of twenty-six. It was interesting, but not ground breaking. Many of his experiences, which he described as if they were unique to someone suffering from autism, could apply to any child who had a terrible time in school and didn't make friends easily. Not to take away from his experience, because there were parts that really grabbed my attention, but overall I wanted to learn more about his experience internally.

In 2004, he set a record by recounting the infinite number sequence of pi up to its 22,514 digit. The feat took five hours and nine minutes. Imagine reciting numbers from memory for five hours. Insanity. As I learned earlier from the documentary (and book), he actually doesn't recite from memory, he sees the familiar landscape of the numbers in his mind and recounts them by their visual properties. This is the reason I am so fascinated by his synesthesia. It all comes down to one questions: Are his visuals of the numbers simply his personal experience or is there a larger connection between what he is seeing and the true nature of numbers?

He began sensing these numbers before he had any preconceived notions about superstitions, mathematics, or religion. So when his descriptions align with commonly held beliefs about certain numbers, I have to wonder if this is more than coincidence. For example, he describes 3 as rounded just like pi, 6 as a hole or void as in the Bible, unlucky 13 as ugly, and the divine 333 as beautiful. Coincidence?

Drawings by Daniel Tammet

Here is a more complete list of his numeral descriptions:

  • 1 is a blast of light.
  • 2 is a movement from left to right.
  • 3 is round and green
  • 4 is shy and quiet and blue
  • 5 is a loud sound like thunder clapping, yellow like lightening
  • 6 is so small it seems like a void, a hard number to experience, like tiny black dots, without distinctive shapes or textures, like gaps or holes
  • 9 is tall and imposing like a skyscraper, immense, blue
  • 11 is friendly
  • 25 is energetic and the "kind of number you would invite to a party"
  • 37 is lumpy like porridge
  • 23, 667, 1179 are big
  • 6, 13, 581 are small
  • 89 is like falling snow
  • 117 is tall and lanky
  • 289 is ugly
  • 333 is beautiful
  • Prime numbers are round like pebbles (2 , 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19,  23,  29, 31...)
Painting by Daniel Tammet of what two numbers look like multiplied. He sees the shape in between and recognizes it by its characteristics. That shape is a number. That number is the answer.

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