Thinking in Numbers

To this day, readers both of [my] first book [Born on a Blue Day] and of my second, Embracing the Wide Sky, continue to send me their messages. They wonder how it must be to perceive words and numbers in different colors, shapes, and textures. They try to picture solving a sum in their minds using these multi-dimensional colored shapes. They seek the same beauty and emotion that I find in both a poem and a prime number. What can I tell them?


Close your eyes and imagine a space without limits, or the infinitesimal events that can stir up a country’s revolution. Imagine how the perfect game of chess might start and end: a win for white, or black, or a draw? Imagine numbers so vast that they exceed every atom in the universe, counting with eleven or twelve fingers instead of ten, reading a single book in an infinite number of ways.

Such imagination belongs to everyone. It even possesses its own science: mathematics. Ricardo Nemirovsky and Francesca Ferrara, who specialize in the study of mathematical cognition, write that “like literary fiction, mathematical imagination entertains pure possibilities.” This is the distillation of what I take to be interesting and important about the way in which mathematics informs our imaginative life. Often we are barely aware of it, but the play between numerical concepts saturates the way we experience the world.


– Extract from the book Thinking in Numbers, by Daniel Tammet.

Daniel was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome. He also happens to have synesthesia. Unlike most people, he has complex multi-modal experiences when thinking about numbers. But unlike most synesthetes, Daniel’s synesthesia is computationally useful in arithmetic tasks. This makes his mind a proof of concept that one can develop innovative computational uses for otherwise bizarre qualia varieties connected in bizarre ways. I.e. his synesthesia shows the potential that lies dormant in the realm of qualia computing.

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