May 12, 2009

"A simple example would be the number 37, which is lumpy like oatmeal, and 111, which is similarly lumpy..."

"... but also round like the number three (being 37 × 3). Where you might see an endless string of random digits when looking at the decimals of pi, my mind is able to 'chunk' groups of these numbers spontaneously into meaningful visual images that constitute their own hierarchy of associations."

Lessons in how to think from an autistic savant. Maybe you find them useful. Maybe you don't.

41 comments:

ElcubanitoKC said...

Interesting, I thought that such mnemonics and associative mechanisms were quite common, and never thought of them as related to autism, or exclusive to autism.

traditionalguy said...

Numbers are the code for all things. The autistic savant is able to see numbers differently, like a dog has hearing abilities and olfactory abilities above ours. I personally see certain, unnamed, commenters as lumpy and others as grumpy. But God has his reasons for everyone.

John Lynch said...

There's a conflict between sensory input and things like this. If you're using it to tell numbers apart, then dealing with the real world around you can be a chore.

Autism scrambles the senses quite a bit. Normal people are better at filtering things out so they can think. Autism often precludes that, so while expanded senses can help with math, or allow astounding feats of observation, they can keep one from functioning on a day to day basis.

I saw a special about the guy in the link (he also learned Icelandic in a week.) He went to Vegas to count cards but did poorly because of all the noise and distractions.

I think autism has something to do with the evolution of human intelligence, but it's like sickle cell anemia. Not quite that simple, probably involving a lot more genes, but maybe having some of the genes make you smart. Too many and you get autistic.

This is why I think we're not as smart as we could be. Intelligence is only a survival trait to a point. After a while it's a liability. Higher order math doesn't help you reproduce if just talking to other people is a chore.

Speculation.

m00se said...

Savants have crossed neural signals, somewhat like being able to smell the color blue.

When you mix the signals in the right proportion, you short circuit normal sensory processing and allow the mind to do weird and funky things - like seeing shapes in numbers.

John Lynch said...

^exactly

I'm stuck with more verbal ability than I would normally have, but weird sensory issues and severe discomfort with too much social contact.

And I can't smell properly. I can sometimes tell if a smell is intense, but not what it is. So it could be a bad smell, or a good one, but I have to ask someone else. Or I smell something that's not even there...lots of little things like this.

Autism is different, and not something anyone would want who wasn't born with it. People tend to be curious about it, but it's not something they want to be. No one will think more of you for having it.

traditionalguy said...

John Lynch... You make excellent comments which I look forward to reading. So if you are autistic, then we need more like you.

John Lynch said...

Thank you.

Revenant said...

Intelligence is only a survival trait to a point. After a while it's a liability. Higher order math doesn't help you reproduce if just talking to other people is a chore.

That is possible, but I do not think it is the case.

For a generalist animal -- one which has to deal with all aspects of survival itself -- there is a limit to the benefits of intelligence. But for an animal species that relies on social organization and individual specialization, like humans, there may be no upper limit on the survival benefits of intelligence. The reason is that the benefits of that intelligence accrue to the entire species. So even though a given genius's genes might not get passed down, there is probably an ongoing upward selective pressure on human intelligence.

TitusHasMoved said...

Althouse, would you consider doing a vlog and pose like Kate Winslet (nude) in Titanic while laying on a victorian divan?

Meade could be like "Cap" but instead of painting you he would be videotaping you.

I believe this would set the Blog world on fire and would be titillating for all concerned.

Please consider my request.

It would be dramatic, artistic and thrilling.

mrs whatsit said...

The association this man experiences between numbers and shapes makes me think of synesthesia, in which stimulation of one sense makes a person experience another sense. Synesthesia, however, occurs in all kinds of people, not just those with autism. I wonder if he thinks of certain numbers as "lumpy" because he's an autistic savant, or because he happens to be an autistic savant with synesthesia.

I have a little bit of it, mostly between sound and shapes or textures. I hear some sounds as sharp and pointy and others as dull or round or bristly or silky or rough. I used to have much stronger synesthetic perceptions as a young child -- sounds came with colors, not just shapes, and so did certain words, days of the week (Tuesday was yellow) and numbers. Most of the color perception went away as I got older, but I still experience sound as distinctly shaped in both a visual and tactile way.

I don't think it's especially unusual to perceive a little cross-over in sensory experiences, though obviously being able to perceive meaningful visual "chunks" in strings of random digits is not exactly ordinary. Wish I could do that!

Jen said...

It is very interesting to consider how this person's perception of the world is no less real or valid than another.

John Lynch said...

I agree that over the long term we get smarter. But, as you point out, we're social animals. If intelligence interferes with being social, social wins out. So, for an individual, it doesn't usually pay to be too far out of the mean. People with average intelligence and good social skills tend to do better than people with high intelligence and poor social ability, at least in evolutionarily useful areas like having families.

The world is made for the higher than average. If you're fairly smart and work hard the world is your oyster. If you're really smart but socially inept, it's a lot harder. The people at the top of our society are not the smartest, but people that are high average with a lot of drive and the ability to work well with others. For example, George W. Bush had an amazing ability to remember people's names. That gift got him a lot farther than the ability to compute primes would have.

Jeremy said...

Rent the film, "Pi."

Very interesting, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky who also did The Wrestler.

John Lynch said...

I think a lot of autistic people actually see reality better than most. It's less filtered.

Temple Grandin wrote a great book called "Animals in Translation," which I cannot recommend highly enough to anyone interested in autism or animal behavior.

Jen said...

I know Temple Grandin. The work that she's done benefiting cattle could only have been done by someone who doesn't care about the cowboy mentality. Someone willing or able to think outside the box.

I wonder if it takes what we classify as a "disorder" to make any kind of real progress in these circumstances.

This is especially true where animal welfare is involved.

Revenant said...

But, as you point out, we're social animals. If intelligence interferes with being social, social wins out.

"Social" means more than being able to hold a conversation with other people. Human interaction can be indirect, allowing you to benefit from another human being's intelligence even if that person was extremely anti-social. Take Beethoven, for example -- anti-social and deaf as a post, but he still had a huge impact on the world of music and on the lives of hundreds of millions of people who never met the guy.

Palladian said...

This is interesting because I don't relate to numbers in this way, and I've never been diagnosed with Autism-spectrum disorders but I am synesthetic. This is why I find it very easy to move between painting and perfumery and why I love music so much, particularly Baroque and early music.

But I learned at an early age not to talk about the cross-sensory experience because my family thought that everyone would think I was mentally ill.

Palladian said...

"Take Beethoven, for example -- anti-social and deaf as a post, but he still had a huge impact on the world of music and on the lives of hundreds of millions of people who never met the guy."

This is similar to the great pianist Glenn Gould, who has been posthumously "diagnosed" as either autistic or Asperger (unfoundedly in my opinion). He believed that by completely retiring from the concert stage and spending his life making recordings and television that he was having a far more profound and lasting relationship with the world and his listeners than he could ever have had as a concert pianist. And he was correct.

Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen said...

Palladian:

So odd. I'm listening to the 55 Goldberg recording now.

Eli Blake said...

3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974...

I remember when I was a freshman in high school there was a book in our library that had several hundred places of π and I made it a pet project to go and learn a new digit every day (plus of course, reviewing the old digits.)

I made a mistake though. I had a friend who was a little junior capitalist and I showed him the book. So he checked it out and offered to sell me π for a nickel a digit.

Refusing to submit to blackmail I swore not to learn any more digits of π and I never did.

John Lynch said...

Postmortem diagnoses of mental disorders is tiresome. I don't like the claims that dead people were autistic or had Asperger's or whatever, because we can't test them. It's just appropriating a name in an attempt to steal their prestige for a cause they may not have agreed with.

Worse, what's a disorder changes over time. Asperger's is now accepted as "autistic spectrum" but didn't even exist as a generally accepted condition until the early 90s. So we got by just fine without it for a long time...

Mental disorders do not cause creativity. Perhaps creativity makes you more likely to have one. But just being crazy or neurotic or autistic does not make you a genius.

commenter said...

The intense smell thing is what they use as evidence against you as a psychotic. I had my ten year anniversary of being admitted just thevother day. And john, do not say that you smell things that are not there. I used to say that but now I just call it smelling the memory of a place. It is usually wonderful to me so I keep quiet and just embrace the high. Like I said otherwise I would be crowding the cuckoo nest every spring. I would love to take a person with me to certain places where I know such to be. I have only one really difficult time with this and that remains my secret except for the other person involved.

Also i have this hackle raising thing like my wolf and another sensory experience when I can feel certain people seeing through my soul. I just remember a three year anniversary of a most intense encounter of such.

I love the occasions.

Palladian said...

"Palladian:

So odd. I'm listening to the 55 Goldberg recording now."

Wonderful! It's great to listen to the 1955 Goldberg followed by the 1981 Goldberg.

Palladian said...

1981.

Christy said...

So perhaps Giordano Bruno, with all his memory systems, was an Asperger's Savant instead of a heretic? Notwithstanding John Lynch's on point "appropriating a name in an attempt to steal their prestige for a cause they may not have agreed with.

Do we truly have a good definition of intelligence? Other than we know it when we see it? The IQ tests were designed to find those who were less than normal and might need special help, not to ID gradations of genius.

I've always considered certain colors sour, but I don't think it's synesthesia.

traditionalguy said...

What about poor Lawrence Summers mentioning a study in women not having the math skills of men? I guess that is taboo. It might be that good social skills are one of womens greatest arts. Then again, our Professor in residence has both high end of the curves intelligences...I meant the Bell Curve.

m00se said...

The interesting thing regarding perception is that people have only words and images (art) to describe what they perceive - and those 2 mediums are grossly inadequate to describe what people actually experience. Particularly those with synesthesia.

I did see Pi, and was transfixed by what the main character expereinced and the his sheer inability to control that which gave him his abilities.

My father was a savant - discovered in the Navy by an officer, sent to MIT where he earned a masters in nuclear physics in 3 years. I was born in Los Alamos where he was working on h bomb triggers.

He could never really communicate what math meant to him, nor teach it to me. Basic high school algebra so alien to him that the tried to explain it to me via Fourier transformations, which was a complete disaster.

Intelligence of this caliber is NOT a survival trait - it's a hinderance for people trying to fit into "normal" society. When I was in art school, I was fascinated by talent as a disability - the fact that really talented people tend to be very dysfunctional and rarely satisfied with anything outside their talent.

ElcubanitoKC said...

I have always associated numbers and colors. Days of the week and colors,numbers and shapes. I know many people that do, hence my first comment. Perhaps these associations are much stronger in people with autistic spectrum chracteristics. I just never made THAT association.

ricpic said...

A round bowl of numerical oatmeal, lumpy, blue and bland,
Will never set the world on fire like a lady reclining on a divan.

ElcubanitoKC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ElcubanitoKC said...

Palladian, have you heard David Daniels' last CD?

Palladian said...

"Palladian, have you heard David Daniels' last CD?"

Which?

Revenant said...

Intelligence of this caliber is NOT a survival trait - it's a hinderance for people trying to fit into "normal" society.

The term "survival trait", in its simplest form, just means "trait that keeps you alive long enough to have kids". Your father reproduced, so his genes passed that test.

But survival traits are best looked at in terms of genes. It is possible for a given trait to cripple its possessor's chances of successful reproduction, but at the same time increase the chances of a gene being passed on to others. The reason is that other people share your genes. Honeybees are a good example of this sort of thing.

EDH said...

Please, for the love of God, everyone refrain from asking Titus for a "textural" (word used by Diane Keaton in the Manhattan clip, right?) description of the Number Two!

Not that that has ever stopped him before!

ElcubanitoKC said...

Palladian said...

"Palladian, have you heard David Daniels' last CD?"

Which?
.

Bach's Sacred Arias

Chip Ahoy said...

I checked out a book on π and decided to make the apple with a crumbly topping. Had to return the book before getting around to cherry. <--- possible lie.

Methadras said...

"m00se said...

Savants have crossed neural signals, somewhat like being able to smell the color blue.

When you mix the signals in the right proportion, you short circuit normal sensory processing and allow the mind to do weird and funky things - like seeing shapes in numbers."

You are thinking of Synaesthasia not Savantism. I have Synaesthasia where the neural inputs for my 5 senses are cross-wired to each other. Savants tap into certain parts of their brains to process information that most people cannot. There are people who can do this and are not Savants either, but they are rarer still. People with Synaesthasia experience the world in a different way, they appear normally but their senses as processed by their brains gives them experiences that are much different than Savants. I can't calculate like Savants can, I have a very good memory, but it's not quite photographic. My Synaesthasia is geometry based, some are music based, others are tactile. I visualize geometry, I can taste it, I can smell it, I can hear it. I can experience other cross sensory input as well like music or foods, but I've become very sensitive to geometry and at times that mathematics behind it.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

When my daughter was pretty young, she told me one day that numbers had personalities for her. Four was a little girl with pigtails, seven was a mommy, and so forth. They had colors, too, I remember. Years later when she discovered the word "synesthesia" she was delighted to learn the name for what she already knew she had.

Aspergers? I don't know. She's had some terrific problems with shyness but I think they're mostly overcome or compensated for.

I associate sounds with colors sometimes. At night when it's dark, if I hear a noise I see a concurrent flash of light. So perhaps some of the crossover is genetic.

Lem said...

If you are interested in numbers and literally visualizing what they can do check out Wolfram Mathematica.

You will need to download the player... it will be worth it.

Lem said...

Links to Mathematica on YouTube