February 1, 2007

In My Language


A video posted by autistic woman titled "In My Language" has sparked lively online debates on personhood, the essence of language, and the nature of her condition (some claim that someone who expresses herself so clearly can't be autistic). While these debates interest me, they weren't the questions that came to my mind on seeing the video. Instead I was fascinated by purity of experience it portrayed, a kind of purity most often seen in children, and which artists are always talking about trying to reclaim: a state of elemental awareness, an almost painful sensitivity to the world...

Last weekend 60 minutes profiled Daniel Tammet, a savant who was able to recite pi to 22,514 digits (it took him 5 hours), and was able to learn conversational Icelandic within a week. Unlike most other known savants, he can interact fairly normally with other people in everyday social situations. And unlike most other savants he can narrate his mental process. Numbers for him aren't abstract things, but objects with mental geographies, "Every number up to 10,000, I can visualize.... [each] has it's own color, has it's own shape, has it's own texture," he explained in the interview. He spoke of the beauty (and ugliness) of numbers and illustrates their forms as landscape-like paintings.

I believe savants are not much different that the woman in the first video, it's just that the focus of their intense gaze happen to to have practical application in our world—descriptions of numbers versus descriptions of water or some other more ineffable obsession. The cerebral wiring that allows this focus, limits human interaction. Daniel Tammet for all his startling abilities can't remember faces a few hours after meeting a person, instead he memorizes the number of buttons on a coat, or the count of stripes on a shirt, but even so Tammet is unusual amongst autistics. He can have human relationships. Most severely autistic people have trouble relating to anyone. What "In my Language" was saying, I thought, was that this was ok. The author wanted no pity. Her life is not empty, her gestures are not randomness, or madness as is often supposed by outside viewers, just the opposite, it is a life emotionally overfull- her brain is saturated with dense thought much of it beyond our comprehension.

Most anyone who has dabbled in the arts, I think, can relate to these inward impulses. We become immersed in the clarity of a particular interaction, in the love of the word, in an idea, in a particular emotion, or in a fleeting vision and the artistic instinct is to fix time telegraphing the moment so it can be remembered. We live for those moments of heady transparency when the mundane veneer of our lives is peeled back to reveal something extraordinary. But of course usually we fail even at holding on to the thing for ourselves. It is the rare individual who can marry impulse, idea, and technique to produce something that allows us to peek into that hidden world of extravagant beauty surrounding us... Despite our clumsy fumblings the important thing I think is to try. Because in trying we build bridges between the worlds and we become more adept at living in them both.

Related: Tammet on Wikipedia (contains many other links)

posted at 04:12 AM by raul

Filed under: art

TAGS: art (15) autism (1) consciousness (1) mental landscape (2) savants (1)


02/01/07 07:28 AM

Gosh Raul...
What a beautifully written entry. Very eloquent, and most inspiring. Thank you. And thanks for the links.

02/01/07 08:27 AM

A quote that's sort of relevant:

"There was a boy, a chess player, once, who revealed that his gift consisted partly in a clear inner vision of potential moves of each piece as objects with flashing or moving tails of coloured light: He saw a live possible pattern of potential moves and selected them according to which ones made the pattern strongest, the tensions greatest. His mistakes were made when he selected not the toughest, but the most beautiful lines of light."

- The Virgin in the Garden, A. S. Byatt

02/01/07 12:03 PM

The capability of our brains both for seeing inner poetry and for feats of intense observation is largely untapped. The artistic impulse as you call it is one way of exploring the hidden regions of the psyche but so is a deep study of a particular subject, or even meditation. What I took away from your linked video and interview is the feeling that most of us "normals" who might consider these people disabled are somewhat disabled ourselves in our ability to access these parts of our being.

02/01/07 02:49 PM

There are two things that always bother me about seeing stuff like this. The first one is that, inevitably, someone might say "Oh, just imagine, what my brain could do if I was able to access it." I'm no brain scientist, but somehow I think there's a reason why most normal people are good at normal things, and a lot of them, and that's because their brain is actually quite busy dealing with all the stuff that we usually do. Which means that most normal people would *not* have extra capacities or some sort of unused genius bit in their heads.

And the second bit that bothers me is actually related to the first one. When we see what these "savants" can do we're usually quite amazed, but we hardly ever realize at what price their skill comes. These people are often completely incapable of leading a normal life. And I think the boundaries to those kinds of conditions are more fluent than most people would want to believe. My neighbour, a professor of psychology, told me that natural sciences is filled with people who have actually very severe issues like that, but they are able to have a great career in science. And being exposed to lots of scientists, it's not hard to see that being true. At a conference just a little while ago, a group of friends (and fellow scientists) and I talked about Asperger's, and it might not surprise all that many people that some of my friends told me they had mild versions of Asperger's.

So I guess my bottom line is always: Be very careful what you ask for. It's an amazing (and amazingly useless) skill to be able to know pi very well, but it comes at a very heavy price, that, if pressed, I'm sure many people would not be all that happy to pay.

02/01/07 03:21 PM

Thanks for the comment Jörg. I agree. It seems to me that it's almost a zero sum game. The ability to do extraordinary calculation or even to have the sort of intense focused experience described in the first video almost always comes at the expense of other abilities... often relating to other human beings, which of course is an infinitely complex skill. But I also agree with Delphine in so far as I believe we are lazy and most of us don't exercise our brains either in realms intellectual or artistic nearly enough. My point was not to hold up these people as models to be emulated but as examples of the extremes to which the the mind can run, a mirror to our shallow understanding of our own consciousness, illuminative of that mysterious process of artistic inspiration.

02/02/07 01:22 AM

I paint. Not well, but I paint. When I paint I can get into a state that is best described as euphoria. Actually it can happen before I even start, while I mix colors. I can sit there for for much too long just finding the right green, the perfect green. The entire painting can come out of the color itself. I love that state, I live for it. But as you say there is more to creating art than inspiration. Technique. Hard Work. Insight. Mainly I fail, not even get close to creating something that as you put it "telegraphs" the experience for others or even for myself. But without tapping into that inward state I'm not sure I would even have the desire to try. When I see these people living their inwardly focused lives, I'm most amazed by how the stand the intensity of the constant loudness in their heads. As some of have commented I suppose the price is losing some of their humanity.

Much food for thought here. Thanks for the post.

02/02/07 03:35 AM

Once again, thank you for drawing our attention to this subject.
I have some personal experience with autism, so I was taken by Jörg's comments even though I know your intention, Raul, was not to idealize autism or the mental world(s) of a savant.

Carrying on from Jörg's points, I would just like to remind or point out the intensely difficult lives often lived by those who care for and nurture people with these conditions. There is a whole constellation of reltionships to consider.

02/02/07 12:32 PM

this is a very interesting post. i have an autistic son. he is not a savant but has some special skills. we discover these randomly as he assumes everyone else has them so doesn't bother mentioning them (like seeing a huge range of colours in the light from a flourescent light).

life presents its challenges to my son as he is hypersensitive to noise, light, colours, touch and smell. but autism also means he lives life in a very full-on way. the downside as far as he is concerned is he finds it hard to work out what makes people tick and how to negotiate his way round social situations. this means i have to deconstruct interactions and explain them to him in very small chunks, with suggestions as to how he might deal with them.

not only does this analysis of life help him but it illuminates it for me too. parenting my son for 12 years has taught me more about the human condition than the previous 36 years of my life did!

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