Reading Group Guide
Embracing the Wide Sky is a new book by the New York Times bestselling author of Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. Here, Daniel takes us not only into his life as an autistic savant, but also into the workings of his mind. Having one of the world's most examined brains, and having been the subject of leading neuroscientists in the U.S. and the UK, he is particularly equipped to explain what science has learned about him and about all of our brains. He explains how he masters languages, math and memorization, demonstrating in the process the immense potential that is within us all.
Drawing on his personal experience in fascinating and profound ways, Daniel shows that the deepest secrets of the brain may be hidden in plain sight. His tour across the horizons of the mind will fascinate and instruct and open our eyes to the beauty found in every kind of mind.
1. Tammet states that one of his intentions in writing Embracing the Wide Sky is to show that the thinking processes of geniuses and autistic savants is not so different from everyone else and that "anyone can learn from them" (Pg. 9). Do you think he has successfully shown this? Why or why not? What are some of the things that you learned, which if applied might enhance your own mental performance?
2. Tammet hopes to alter our perceptions about the nature of autistic savants. He states that "even to this day autistic savants are too often viewed as robots, or computers, freaks, or even supernaturally endowed..." (pg. 335). What were your perceptions of autism and savants before reading his book, and after? What were you most surprised to learn?
3. Tammet is eager to debunk the common analogy of the "brain as computer" (pg. 39). He writes that, "computers may crunch numbers but I dance with them" (pg. 38). In what other ways is the human brain more powerful in solving problems than the "brute calculating force" of the computer? What abilities do humans have which computers cannot replicate?
4. In Embracing the Wide Sky, Tammet examines "intelligence." He writes that his own behavior as a child was often "limited, repetitive, and anti-social -- far from what most people would consider intelligent" (pg. 50). Despite this, his IQ was high enough to join Mensa, an organization which accepts only those with an IQ score in the top 2% of the population. What does this say about what constitutes our notions of intelligence?
5. Although Tammet scored high on IQ tests, he is nevertheless dubious of testing for intelligence. Learning what you did about the history of measuring intelligence, why might he feel this way?
6. Since its inception, the IQ test has been a source of controversy. Discuss how the test has been and can be used as a basis for discrimination. What do people in favor of the test argue? Why do others, Binet included, argue against using the test as a way to measure intelligence? Finally, in light of so much debate and what we have since learned about "intelligence," why do you think the IQ test is still so widely used? What are the benefits of knowing one's IQ, and what may be the detriment?
7. Genius is another concept of intelligence that Tammet examines, particularly with regards to whether it is a product of "nature or nurture." Discuss and find examples that support the idea that genius is "nature" and those which support that it is "nurture." What does each interpretation imply? How, in fact, does one define genius? As far as Tammet's own development goes, would he attribute genius to nature or nurture or something else entirely? What else might account for great achievement?
8. Associative thinking characterizes not only how Tammet and other savants think, but also how the minds of great creative thinkers and artists work. How would you describe associative thinking? What are some examples of how Tammet uses this in his work with both numbers and languages, two areas where he is considered exceptional. How might this be contrasted with linear thinking, which seems to be the way most brains have been trained to work?
9. Tammet uses the term "hyperconnectivity" to explain how his mind works and further contends, "extraordinary creativity is the result of this hyperconnectivity" (pg. 195). Describe "hyperconnectivity" and how it is different from the way most brains work. What about "hyperconnectivity" gives rise to great creativity? Can hyperconnectivity be "nurtured" or is it pure nature? If it can be nurtured, how might Tammet suggest one go about doing this?
10. "Seeing" is a major theme of Embracing the Wide Sky. Tammet writes about how when a photographer took his picture, he knew it had happened because he could "see it," referring to a small red light that went off (pg. 9). This ability to see details is due in part to his "hyperconnectivity" and is a common characteristic of autistic savants. Although hyperconnectivity may be helpful and lead to creativity in certain circumstances, when would it be deemed a detriment, and why?
11. With regards to his being an autistic savant, Tammet writes, "Social isolation and loneliness are common problems for individuals on the autistic spectrum, as are feelings of frustration and confusion at a world that often seems too big, strange and chaotic" (pg. 185). How, in particular, do autistic savants see the world, which might contribute to their having this experience? How might one equate the rise of autism and its "symptoms" to the rise of technology and the Internet (the super information highway) in the new millennium?
12. Tammet writes that warm, positive emotions play a role in his ability to remember numbers and that interest and joy play a role in the work of many geniuses and savants. Give some examples of how emotion plays a role in his facility with numbers.
13. Tammet tells us that in the past, many cultures had memory-centered traditions, where stories were passed down verbally from one generation to the next. What are some of the benefits of passing on information verbally rather than in writing? Conversely, what are some of the benefits of passing on information in writing? What are some of the risks and possible detriments?
14. Tammet writes, "Indeed the role and significance accorded to memory in many Western countries has fallen sharply, as computers and other gadgets are seen as replacing the need to commit experiences or information to heart" (pg. 112). What may be the cost of our doing this?
15. In this digital age, although one has more access to information, as well as more sources of information, what are some of the inherent dangers this presents to our understanding of the world? How can language be used to limit and/or shape our experience and understanding? Orwell wrote that, "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought" (pg. 242). Can you point to some examples in history where language created a new possibility for human beings and/or where it had a devastating effect on the world?
16. In Embracing the Wide Sky, Tammet writes, "...the human capacity to acquire and use language is a profoundly intellectual achievement in which we all share" (pg. 116). It "emerges spontaneously from the human mind" (pg. 124), and that "universality throughout the world's languages can be observed not only in grammar and words, but also in the subjects" about which they speak (pg. 130). Given these profound commonalities, to what do you attribute the great differences we perceive in people from other cultures and the conflicts that arise between people, cultures and nations? Might these differences be like the optical illusions or misperceptions in seeing to which Tammet refers? Do you think our supposed differences are nature or nurture, and why? Why might our divisions be emphasized rather than our commonalities? What effect, if any, does this understanding of our common way of "thinking" have on your view of foreigners or even of other people?
17. A half a century ago, H. G. Wells wrote, "Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write" (pg. 280). Now that we seem to be at this point, why might humans have moved in this direction? Further, although statistics may purport to accurately reflect a situation, it's clear that they can be manipulated and/or present a false picture. Why then do we as a culture seem to cling to them as a barometer of truth? Why might we be so interested in hedging our bets regarding the future? Conversely, even when statistics are against the success of an activity, i.e., the lottery, why do we tend to ignore them? According to Tammet, what are the benefits of statistical thinking and making use of math to better understand the world, and what are its drawbacks?
18. Discuss Tammet's particular relationship to numbers; what do they mean to him and why? Describe how his mind experiences numbers. How is this different than the way you or I experience numbers? To what does he attribute this special relationship? How might you compare his relationship to numbers with your own relationship to language?
19. In the last chapter of Embracing the Wide Sky, Tammet writes about the types of research being done today to enhance the workings of the mind. Why do you think that so much research is being done on finding ways to bring more information to the mind and enhance our memory, to somehow make us more like computers? What is the benefit of having more access to information without enhancing our cognitive abilities, abilities that computers can never hope to duplicate?
20. Finally, knowing that the mind is much more plastic than previously thought, why do you think more research isn't being done on enhancing the areas of the brain that were activated during the monk's meditations, particularly those regions involved with enhancing positive emotions and quieting the parts keeping track of what is self and what is other? Why would man's mind be driven to want to enhance his ability to download masses of information to remember, as opposed to enhancing his experience to feel compassion and unity with his fellow man? What might this say about not only the future of the mind, but about the future of mankind?
Tips for enhancing your book club:
Try learning a new language following Daniel Tammet's example. First decide on a language and a book; perhaps read The Little Prince in French. Then see what you can learn about the language from simply reading the book.
Do some research into Mensa and see how, or if, high IQ correlates to high achievement, and if so, in what areas. http://www.us.mensa.org/
Take a Rorschach test. http://theinkblot.com/
Read Daniel Tammet's first book, his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day
For further information on Daniel Tammet go to his website at: www.optimnem.co.uk