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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant

A man with autism explores the treacherous landscape of his native language.
June 11, 2007

I find some aspects of language much more difficult than others. Abstract words are much harder for me to understand, and I have a picture in my head for each that helps me make sense of the meaning. For example, the word complexity makes me think of a braid or plait of hair -- the many different strands woven together into a complete whole. When I read or hear that something is complex, I imagine it as having lots of different parts that need tying together to arrive at an answer.

Similarly, the word triumph creates a picture in my mind of a large golden trophy, such as the ones won in big sporting events. If I hear about a politician's "election triumph," I imagine the politician holding a trophy over his head, like the winning team manager at an FA cup final. For the word fragile, I think of glass; I picture a "fragile peace" as a glass dove. The image I see helps me understand that the peace might be shattered at any moment.

Certain sentence structures can be particularly hard for me to analyze, such as, "He is not inexperienced in such things," where the two negatives (not and in-) cancel each other out. It is much better if people just say, "He is experienced in such things."

Another example is when a sentence begins, "Don't you . . .?" as in, "Don't you think we should go now?" or "Don't you want ice cream?" Then I become very confused, and my head starts to hurt, because the questioner is not being clear about whether he means "Do you want an ice cream?" or "Is it correct that you don't want an ice cream?" and it's possible to answer both questions with a "Yes," and I don't like it when the same word can mean two completely different things.

As a child, I found idiomatic language particularly confusing. Describing someone as being "under the weather" was very strange to me because, I thought, "Isn't everyone under the weather?" Another common saying that puzzled me was when my parents might excuse the grumpy behavior of one of my brothers by saying, "He must have got out of the wrong side of bed this morning." "Why didn't he get out of the right side of the bed?" I asked.

In recent years, scientists have become more and more interested in studying the kind of synesthetic experiences in language that I have, in order to find out more about the phenomenon and its origins. Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran, of California's Center for Brain Studies, in San Diego, has researched synesthesia for more than a decade and believes there may be a link between the neurological basis for synesthetic experiences and the linguistic creativity of poets and writers. According to one study, the condition is seven times as common in creative people as in the general population.

In particular, Ramachandran points to the facility with which creative writers think up and use metaphors -- a form of language where a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated things -- and compares this to the linking of seemingly unrelated entities such as colors and words, or shapes and numbers, in synesthesia.

Some scientists believe that high-level concepts (including numbers and language) are anchored in specific regions of the brain and that synesthesia might be caused by excess communication between these different regions. Such crossed wiring could lead to both synesthesia and to a propensity toward the making of links between seemingly unrelated ideas.

William Shakespeare, for example, was a frequent user of metaphors, many of which are synesthetic, involving a link to the senses. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare has the character Francisco say that it is "bitter cold" -- combining the sensation of coldness with the taste of bitterness. In another play, The Tempest, Shakespeare goes beyond metaphors involving only the senses and links concrete experiences with more abstract ideas. His expression "This music crept by me upon the waters" connects the abstract term music with a creeping action. The reader is able to imagine music -- something normally very difficult to create a mental picture of -- as a moving animal.

But it isn't just very creative people who make these connections. Everyone does; we all rely on synesthesia to a greater or lesser degree. In their book Metaphors We Live By, language scientist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not arbitrary constructions but follow particular patterns, which in turn structure thought. They give as examples expressions that indicate the links: happy = up and sad = down: "I'm feeling up"; "My spirits rose." "I'm feeling down"; "He's really low." Or more = up, and less = down: "My income rose last year." "The number of errors is very low."

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that many of these patterns emerge from our everyday physical experiences; for example, the link sad = down may be related to the way that posture droops when a person is feeling sad. Similarly, the link more = up may come from the fact that when you add an object or substance to a container or pile, the level goes up.

Other language scientists have noted that some of the structural features of many words not normally associated with any function, such as initial phoneme groups, have a noticeable effect on the reader/listener. For example, for sl- there is slack, slouch, sludge, slime, slosh, sloppy, slug, slut, slang, sly, slow, sloth, sleepy, slipshod, slovenly, slum, slobber, slur, slog -- where all these words have negative connotations, and some are particularly pejorative.

The idea that certain types of sounds "fit" particular objects better than others goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks. An obvious illustration of this is onomatopoeia. (The term refers to a type of word that sounds like the thing it is describing: fizz, whack, bang, and so on.) In a test carried out by researchers in the 1960s, artificial words were constructed using particular letters and combinations of letters thought to link to positive or negative feelings.

After hearing the invented words, the subjects were asked to match English words for pleasant or unpleasant emotions with one or the other of two invented words. The appropriate matches were made significantly more often than would be expected by chance.

Excerpted from Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet. Copyright 2006 by Daniel Tammet. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

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