Rajan Mahadevan Is a Memorable Master of Presto Digit-Tation
Rajan Mahadevan has a few numbers he’d like to do for you. Famous dates, railway timetables, World Cup scores for the last 10 years, even the phone listings for every airline in the country. Rajan can recite them all—from memory.
No autistic savant like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, the 32-year-old graduate student is an otherwise average guy. He forgets names with the best of us, leaves his keys behind when going out and sometimes misses appointments. But give him a number, and he’ll take it to the memory bank.
Raised in Mangalore, India, Rajan is one of the half dozen or so people in the world with similar powers, and since January he has been the object of a three-year, $157,000 research study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. He first displayed his gifts as a 5-year-old, when he stunned guests at a family party by reciting the license numbers from 40 of their cars. (His father, a prominent surgeon in India, wasn’t surprised; Dad has got a mind for words and knows all 2,156 lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets.)
Still, the researchers at Kansas State University, where Rajan is a graduate student in psychology, are pretty impressed. Back in 1983 he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for reeling off 31,811 digits of pi, the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle whose digits follow no known pattern of duplication. “If you give people eight or nine numbers and ask for them back in reverse order, most will do about seven,” says psychology professor Jerome Frieman, one of the researchers involved in the Kansas State study. “We give Rajan 40, and he gives them all back.”
Rajan himself is as mystified by his skill (“I haven’t a glimmer of how it works”) as he is by its effect on people. “Women have called me wanting to have my baby,” he says. But not everyone is impressed. Take Jayasena Vijaya, the Sri Lankan graduate student who is Rajan’s roommate. “He is good at remembering phone numbers,” concedes Jayasena, “but I have to tell him over and over again how to work the VCR.”