The workings of the brain can make us in awe as well as mystified. This is the case when we explore the world of savants — brain-damaged geniuses.
When we think about someone with brain damage we generally look in the direction of what they can’t do. What we see as a disability others can turn into ability. Life is a matter of perspective.
Savants have abilities that most people would call super-human. They are deficient in many aspects of their lives; yet outshine the most advanced brain in other aspects. What lies behind this phenomenon?
Many people were awakened to the world of the savant, also known as savant syndrome or savantism, when they watched Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 classic film; Rain Man. Hoffman’s character was able to remember long numbers, do complex math, and recall what days of the week a certain date landed on. He was loosely based on a real-life savant, Laurence Peek (11/11/1951-12/19/2009), who was described as a “megasavant” because he was born with congenital brain damage, yet had an eidetic memory (photographic memory).
Unlike most savants, Peek was not autistic. Doctors believe he had a rare genetic syndrome (FG syndrome) linked to the X chromosome causing developmental delays and physical abnormalities. He had an extremely large head, was mentally retarded, hyperactive, and had low muscle tone.
Not all savants are autistic or even mentally challenged. There is a condition call “prodigious,” where a person is normal in every way except for an amazing memory. There have been documented cases of people with these gifts, like one prodigy was able to play a musical piece perfectly, but only heard it played once. Daniel Tammet (see video) is another example. He was born with normal or above normal intelligence, but suffers from epilepsy. The seizures seem to set off a reaction in the brain that allows him to be a highly functioning savant.
Prodigious savants are the exception to the rule, and go against the mainline thinking that all savants are disabled or have low IQ. It does not rule out, however, some form of dysfunction in the brain that triggers these abilities. The brain seems to make new connections, and some of those connections cause the brain to excel. There is still a lot to learn about savant syndrome. No definitive answers have been found as to why there is such an unusual combination of extraordinary talent with mental dysfunction. Some scientists have suggested that autistics process information focusing on details, which produce extraordinary talents, even in those who are not savants.
Once again we see indication that our brains compensate for dysfunction by re-inventing itself. What amazing abilities these savants have. They are able to do naturally what it has taken me years to do a fraction of. I am in awe!
From the desk of Ron White
Huffington Post, Healthy Living — Cellist Memory Wiped Out From Virus, Doctors Stunned by Musical Memory: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/cellist-memory-wiped-out_n_1095448.html
Wikipedia — Savantism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savant_syndrome; Darold Treffert: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darold_Treffert; FG Syndrome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FG_syndrome; Kim Peek: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Peek; g/wiki/Kim_Peek;