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Mind over matter

A fascinating exploration of the human brain, written not by a scientist but by an autistic savant in his 20s.

By Daniel Okrent
February 13, 2009: 2:14 PM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- In 2004, a 25-year-old Englishman named Daniel Tammet took his seat in an auditorium in Oxford and proceeded to recite the value of pi to 22,514 decimal places. He speaks 12 languages, including Icelandic (which he learned in a week) and Mnti (which he invented). And he's written two books.

In a way this last feat is Tammet's greatest accomplishment. Autistic savants with gifts as otherworldly as his do not generally function so well in the world we have right here. But Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir and Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Human Brain (both Free Press) manage to unlock the closed universe of a remarkable mind, and along the way reveal quite a lot about more-ordinary minds - mine, for instance, and likely yours as well.

Blue Day, published in 2006, is Tammet's personal story. When he was a child, it was not hard for him to understand that he was different, and if he ever doubted it, the world did not wait long to confirm it. The wiring in his brain made it necessary for him to block his ears to escape distracting sounds, compelled him to hold chestnuts and stones and coins in his hands for psychic comfort, and led him to wear a coat even in hot weather "as an extra protective layer against the outside world." He spoke compulsively, "in very great detail," he writes, "until I had emptied myself of everything that I wanted to say, and felt that I might burst if I was interrupted in mid-flow."

The just-published Embracing explains how a psyche so vulnerable can accomplish what Tammet has achieved. Here he embarks on a broad voyage along the contours of neuroscience, invoking his own experience - for instance, the way he perceives numbers as shapes, and days as colors - to vivify the findings of scores of academic studies and experiments. The first several chapters provoke so many "Hey, listen to this!" exclamations that anyone sitting anywhere near you will learn a lot about cognition. Or feel compelled to flee the room.

Unlike Tim Page, the music critic who wrote about his own Asperger's syndrome in The New Yorker in 2007, Daniel Tammet is not a professional writer. But I don't sense the hand of an editor in his work. In Blue Day he presents himself on his own terms, in his own tones, through an uninflected prose bereft of irony and bare of edge. This also works for much of Embracing, helping make the complexities of neuroscience clear and approachable.

I'll admit that the new book's last three chapters are a fairly pointless ramble through Tammet's unenlightening views on lotteries, Wikipedia, the Electoral College, and other topics far removed from the book's stated purpose. Yet it's impossible not to forgive him, or his absent editors, this indulgence. A mind like Daniel Tammet's deserves to be left undisturbed by the intrusions of others.

Hail to the chief

For book publishers, it's all Lincoln all the time in the month of his 200th birthday. Of the many fine new books about our greatest President, the one I wouldn't miss is James M. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (Oxford), which establishes that he may have been our greatest military strategist as well. To top of page

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