The Genius Within

This article is part of a series entitled The Unlimited Mind. See also:
1. On Memory; 2. The Genius Within; 3. The World-Builders

Savants are those who, along with serious mental disability, demonstrate remarkable talent in a very specific area.  Only about 50 currently exist worldwide.  Most of the time, their disability is autism, although savant syndrome sometimes seen alongside other mental disabilities, including acquired disabilities such as those resulting from traumatic brain injury.  The source of savants’ talent remains a mystery, but their talent itself is very real.  Let’s learn about some of the most fascinating savants.

Notable savants

Stephen Wiltshire can draw entire cities, from memory, after just a single helicopter ride.  He gets it all right, too—down to the last window! (1) He’s drawn London, Tokyo, Rome, Madrid, Hong Kong, Dubai and Jerusalem, as well as New York, shown below.

Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan from memory

Wiltshire recently opened a gallery in London to house his art.

Derek Paravicini is blind, severely autistic, and a musical genius.  Once he hears a song, he can immediately play it back without error, and he never forgets it.  Not only can he play any song, but he can play any song in any style!

Among savants, musical ability is fairly common.  Interestingly, though, nearly all musical savants are blind.  This blindness is due usually to Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH), in which one or both optic nerves fail to develop properly.  For unknown reasons, ONH correlates highly with autism: roughly 20% of ONH patients show autistic-like symptoms. And this autism disposes one to musical ability. (2)

Daniel Tammet holds the European record for memorizing pi to 22,514 digits.  Essential to Tammet’s memory is his unique brand of synesthesia.  Every number up to 10,000 has a distinct color, texture, shape and feel.  289 is particularly ugly, 333 is attractive, and pi is beautiful. 6 is small and unassuming, while 9 is towering.  (3)  Tammet also speaks ten languages, including Icelandic, which he learned in a week. (4)

Daniel Tammet’s visual interpretation of pi

Tammet’s case certainly evokes that of Solomon Shereshevsky (S), who also had distinctive synesthesia and an incredible memory.  S certainly had savant-like abilities, although I would hesitate to call him a savant, simply because he lacked any sort of mental disability.  In this sense, S is almost more interesting than any of the above cases.  In savants, narrow talent comes with a broad deficit.  S’s talent, however, comes on top of a normally-functioning mind, like a bonus gift.

On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that as far as savants go, Tammet is considered to be rather highly-functioning.  I bring this up just to show that the extent to which savants are disabled varies.  With this in mind, the abilities of S and Tammet certainly could be attributable to the same root cause.  Maybe S was also disabled, just not enough so to permit diagnosis.

Orlando Serrell was an ordinary boy until, at age 10, he was hit in the left side of the head with a baseball.  After his injuries, he acquired savant abilities.  Give him any possible date after his accident.  He can tell you the day of the week, as well as the weather and what he did that day.

Dr. Joy Hirsch of Columbia University conducted fMRI scans of Serrell’s brain as he recalled either the day of the week or the weather of given days.  Here’s where it gets interesting: the two tasks utilized completely different parts of the brain.  Only the weather task utilized regions associated with memory, such as the hippocampus.  The calendar calculation task, on the other hand, utilized the medial frontal gyrus, an area associated with computation. (5)  Thus, Serrell does not use memory for his calendar calculations—he actually calculates—even though he’s not aware of it.  Indeed, the medial frontal gyrus is the same region that we use for conscious mathematical calculations.  Serrell is somehow able to access it subconsciously.

Given that Serrell does not use memory for calendar calculations, it now seems even stranger that he’s unable to calculate the day of the week for dates before his accident.  Shouldn’t his gift apply to all dates?

Explanations

Savant syndrome still largely eludes scientific explanation.  However, several possible theories might help provide answers.

Left-right brain compensation theory holds that savants have an overly-active right brain, which attempts to compensate for an inactive or damaged left brain.  Many of the skills seen in savants are associated with the right hemisphere, and skills they lack are associated with the left.  Remember Orlando Serrell?  The baseball hit him in the left side of the head.  Many other savants show left hemisphere abnormalities in CT and MRI scans.  For example, some acquired savants suffer from fronto-temporal dementia (FTD), which causes damage in only the left anterior temporal lobe.  Alzheimers, on the other hand, acts bilaterally, and rarely produces savant-like symptoms. (6)

High-low brain compensation theory suggests that savant syndrome is the result of a more active lower brain, which compensates for a dysfunctional higher brain.  The high brain is phylogenetically newer, and is responsible for more difficult tasks and critical thinking.  The low brain is older and is responsible for more basic, essential functions.  It’s often described as “reptilian.”  In savants, a damaged or underdeveloped high brain results in a deficient semantic memory, important for intelligence and abstract thought.  The low brain attempts to pick up the slack, resulting in a heightened procedural memory.  Further supporting this theory is the fact that savants rarely shine at composition; their talents stem more from rote memorization than creative insight. (6) Derek Paravicini and Stephen Wiltshire, discussed earlier, excel at replication but struggle with creation.

The tendency of savants to memorize is in fact quite involuntary, as one might expect from the reptilian brain.  Serrell doesn’t choose to memorize the weather every day; rather, he memorizes compulsively, almost as if he had OCD.  There’s nothing spectacular about his memory in particular.  He just applies it differently than we do.  And the same is probably true of any gifted savant.  It’s not that they’re inherently talented; they just possess a set of traits that leads to the obsessive rehearsal of a very narrow set of skills.

Indeed, there’s likely a savant in all of us.

References:

  1. Autistic savant draws Manhattan panorama from memory after one helicopter ride
  2. Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH), Blindness, and Savant Syndrome
  3. Born on a Blue Day
  4. British Savant Learns German in a Week
  5. Orlando Serrell on the Discovery Channel
  6. Scientific basis for Savant Syndrome
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8 comments on “The Genius Within

  1. susan says:

    prove that steven wilshire had not studied pictures of ny, before his helicopter ride.
    as you have said: autistics tend to do such obsessive things.

    it’s actually quite easy to memorise pi to thousands of digits using simple memonic codes and linking—see any book by harry lorayne.

    and the claims of luria about mr. S. are in serious dispute.

    • Josh says:

      You make some good points. I agree that many of these feats are more obsessive than impressive. That includes memorizing pi to thousands of digits and incredible musicianship.

      Other feats are extraordinary, but are difficult to prove. These include Wiltshire’s drawings and S’s memory.

      Some of these feats, however, seem pretty superhuman. Mere obsessiveness isn’t enough to learn Finnish in a WEEK. You need some sort of special talent. The same is true with Paravicini’s ability to instantly REPEAT a song he’s heard for the first time. Of course, you can’t really prove these either; it’s possible that Tammet had studied Finnish prior, and Paravicini had heard the song before. Then again, at this point you’re just being a nihilist. Why believe anything?

      I think one of the most damning feats of all is the calendar calculation. Serrell isn’t alone; there are several other savants who can do calendar calculations, and this has been well-documented. This is especially interesting when you find that they truly are calculating, not merely memorizing.

      But I mostly agree with you. In general, the biggest difference between the normal brain and the savant brain probably isn’t the ability to perform the task at hand, but rather the ability to focus on and obsess over that task.

  2. susan says:

    josh, there are very simple methods of doing the calendar trick.
    any normal six year old can do it.

    http://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-the-Day-of-the-Week

    musical memory is a gift, but very common actually.

    and, there are simple tricks to do that too.

  3. susan says:

    mental arithmetic is easy too—even at “savant level”.
    merely combine memory techniques with something like the tractenberg system

    http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/4871877094

    after some weeks of obsessive practice, you will amaze people.

    to be even better, also memorize a one page log table to do roots of non perfect powers.

    there are simple tricks for doing the usual cube, fifth, eleventh roots of large perfect power
    integers.

    i learned all this stuff in prepuberty–no biggy..

  4. susan says:

    also, back before calculators, one used slide rules a lot.
    some people—after lots of use—or after using memory tricks like those in “the art of memory
    by francis yeats– could just use a mental slide rule.

    the yeats’ book is the classic on medieval memory training—when books were scarce, and amazing memory was common.

    another of her books is on medieval musical memory training.

  5. susan says:

    // Then again, at this point you’re just being a nihilist. Why believe anything?//

    to err is human, to check is science.

    media tends to lie, fabricate, and distort.

    one must avoid filling one’s mind with garbage.

  6. Josh says:

    There’s a key distinction here: one who studies these memory tricks can produce the result, but by actively trying. Savants don’t study; they just KNOW.

    Read the following description of German mathematician Rüdiger Gamm:

    “Although not technically a savant because he understands the mechanics of the math behind his calculations, this German born math prodigy is about as close as you can get to savanthood without actually stepping through the door.” (http://list25.com/25-amazing-savant-minds/)

    Gamm is NOT a savant because he knows exactly how his calculations are performed. Orlando Serrell (and other savants), in contrast, report simply “seeing” the right answer in front of them. Their calculation is entirely subconscious. This is what differentiates a savant from a trained memory and calculation expert.

    Of course, you could argue that Serrell and others actually DO actively calculate, and that the claim that they simply “see” the answer is false. This point becomes largely undisprovable; there’s no way to test whether they’re lying. I guess we’ll never know whether savant syndrome is a real phenomenon.

  7. Richard says:

    I’ve heard of most of these Savants. But I’m certainly not with the choice expression of Josh’s conclusion, however. I think Wiltshire and Paravicini, definitely deserve the title of ‘talented’ inasmuch as anyone does.

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