Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ways of Knowing

Yesterday, instead of doing anything "productive," I pretended that I was at a TED Conference. I had recently figured out that I could stream TED talks on my Roku and that was essentially to be the end of things as they were. I am now hooked. During this particular orgy of ideas, I must have watched twenty talks, and each one of them blew my mind. I want to share this one in particular with you. This speaker, David Tammet, is an autistic savant and writer, describing his linguistic, numerical and visual synesthesia—a way of knowing that is starkly different from how the rest of us navigate the world. Numbers for Tammet have colors that exist not in the mind's-eye but in the external world.

This is bizarrely different, and yet I find that I can relate to large parts of what he says. I don't have synesthesia, but I am deeply familiar with the experiences he is describing with the written word. And these things seem not only natural to me, but obvious. So I begin to wonder: to what extent is some version of this the brain of a writer? Do you also have to write in a quiet room so that you can hear the rhythm of the syllables count out upon your brain? Do you, without analysis, understand that "hare" might be a superior choice to "rabbit" in a poem that you write? Or, for some of you, is the meaning itself all that is important, rather than the taste, rhythm, and texture of the word? And, if you are a musician, a scientist, a mathematician, is there something for you in what he says?

How do you know about the world?


  1. I'm adding this video to my list of TED Talks to watch. Sometimes I feel more educated in a 10-20 minute TED talk then a 40 minute school lecture. Absolutely love TED, and this sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. A different topic, but another Ted talk: Check out A brain scientist's experience of having a stroke in the language processing portion of her brain.

  3. I haven't watched this yet, but I find it interesting that he is autistic. As a parent of 2 autistic boys, one severe and one mild, I often wonder about a "cure" for autism. When my older son was diagnosed, the odds of a child with autism was one in 3,000. Now it is one in 88. We still don't know what causes autism, except that it is genetic. (I do NOT believe that it is in any way related to vaccines, knowing 2 severely autistic children who never had vaccines.) What makes a person? Would Mr. Tammet want a "cure"? Does he need to be cured? What makes a musician, a scientist, or a mathematician see the world differently? What I know about the world is as a parent, that my severely autistic child cannot survive in this world on his own because of his limited vision of the world. It is hopeful to find autistic people who not only survive but thrive with their abilities in this world.

  4. Brilliant. I enjoyed watching this talk. It was so very interesting to see what he "sees" and enlightened me to see more as me mentioned. I was surprised to see how often he is asked to "perform" which to me seems rude. I am so glad he is taking the time to explain and challenge people. It is enlightening.

  5. Yet another insightful TED talk, Tara. I could watch those all day! I mix up my stuff too - as in, the months of the year have always been associated in my mind with colors and with shades of light - not what you would necessarily expect either (for example. January has always been a "light" month in my mind). Words do have colors -- Fascinating stuff! Thanks for posting this one.


When you comment, it keeps fairies alive.

Don't forget to choose "subscribe by email" to receive follow-up comments. I almost always reply to comments, and you wouldn't want to miss that. It's all part of saving the fairies.

My Zimbio
Creative Commons License
Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License