Book Review: Embracing the Wide Sky – by Daniel Tammet

The title of this book is actually “Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind.” Daniel Tammet, the autistic savant who wrote Born on a Blue Day, provides us with a very effective summary for the layman on how the brain works.

While Tammet gave us a view of the workings of an autistic savant’s mind in Born on a Blue Day, this book is a tour of cognition and its various aspects and subcategories, written not by a cognitive scientist with his peers as an audience, but written by an “ordinary” man for other ordinary people, like me.

Being interested in cognition in general, I first had to read this book, of course, but then I found that I already knew much of the material presented. For instance, I know how to use mnemonic devices  to memorize lists, in sequence or in order, up to hundreds of random items. I understand the broad concepts of vision. I am familiar with memory and how association works to drive memory.

I know a lot about languages. Tammet has studied dozens of languages and is famously known to have learned Icelandic in one week from scratch to a level where he was able to do an interview on Icelandic TV for an hour all in the native language.

Tammet is particularly strong as a mathematical savant. He can effortlessly factor 4 or 5 digit numbers to their prime components in seconds. He says he can immediately “see” how the numbers factor. He also holds the record of having memorized and recited Pi to 20,000 digits after the decimal point. He describes how he did that.

One of the things I learned in this book is that savant brains don’t work differently than our normal brains. There is no such thing as a photographic memory, no matter what we’re told. Memory works by association. Savants simply are “wired” to take in much more detail than we do, and they have learned to process that detail effectively. Languages and mathematics just happen to be full of detail, so they lend themselves to exhibit savant thinking concepts effectively.

If you read Tammet’s first book, this is a must read. It is a glimpse into an extraordinary person’s mind.

If you live with an autistic person or care for one, both of Tammet’s books are invaluable resources that will help you understand autistic people, how they feel, how they think, how they are and why they are just a bit different from the rest of us.

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