PRODIGIOUSSAVANTSANDTHEIRABILITIES

Savant syndrome, a condition occurring most often in autistic patients, is a rare disorder where mentally retarded individuals have incredible abilities in isolated fields like memory, mathematics, and music. Even more uncommon are the subset of “prodigious” savants, those whose talents would be considered genius even without any impairment.

Prodigious savants are great examples (I hope my presentation here is as tactful as possible) of the incredible abilities of the mind. Even more remarkable is the increasingly favored view that savantism arises from a disturbance in the balance of influence between the brain’s hemispheres. The enhanced abilities in music and calculation are typically dominated by the right hemisphere, while the impaired social and language capacities are tied to the left hemisphere. Improper development is thought to be the cause in autistic patients, but even physical damage to regions of the left hemisphere (specifically frontotemporal) can give rise to talents that did not exist before.

These abilities could actually lie dormant in each of us, suppressed by the left-brain to prevent a potentially overwhelming clamor of unchecked sensory input and internal processing. Below are some cases of prodigious savants:


  • Lemke
    Leslie has a remarkable memory and was able to recite an entire day’s conversation, even including the intonation. At 14, Leslie heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 just once and played it in its entirety from memory.


  • Peek
    The inspiration for the movie Rain Man, “Kimputer” was born without a corpus collosum (the thick band of axons connect the left and right hemispheres). Kim is capable of incredible feats of memory and calculation. He can recall over 7,600 books, has a nearly complete (and up-to-date) knowledge of world history, area codes, zip codes, roads and highways and much more.


  • Wiltshire
    Stephen’s abilities are in art and visual memory. From the age of 12, Stephen could draw from memory an extremely accurate representation of any scene, even after only seeing it a single time.


  • Clemons
    One of the more focused abilities, Alonzo showed a remarkable talent for sculpture from a young age. He can even produce sculptures from two-dimensional subjects (an image on television for example). Also remarkable is the speed with which he creates his works, a life-size sculpture of three moving horses took him only three weeks, and he can create smaller models in minutes.


  • Tammet
    Daniel is even more unique in that he is a high-functioning savant, meaning he has an above average IQ and can process and respond to social cues normally. He has written several books describing in detail what he sees in his mind and how it allows him to do the things he does. Tammet became famous for breaking the European record when he recited Pi to 22,514 decimal places. Tammet’s savantism includes a form of synesthesia where numbers take various shapes and textures that aid in their manipulation. A number’s “bumpiness” for example indicates whether or not it is prime.


  • Flo & Kay, Savant Twins
    Flo & Kay
    The twins demonstrated incredible gifts with mathematics and calendar calculation (along with the strong genetic component of autism and savantism). Given any date, the twins could calculate the day of the week it landed on nearly instantaneously, even thousands of years in the future. A researcher once saw the pair exchanging six-digit numbers. Once he realized they were prime numbers, he joined in with an eight-digit number, which the pair quickly realized was also prime. The twins were soon trading 20-digit prime numbers and the researcher was forced to drop out as they exceeded even those in his reference of primes.


There are many more documented savants with equally unique talents. I remember a savant from middle school who memorized the phone numbers of every student, and another who could provide the fastest route between two cities anywhere in the country, even accounting for construction and regular traffic. More rare savants have exceptional abilities in language, spatial navigation (like marking a clear path through thick brush), time (perfect internal clocks), and heightened senses of smell, vision and touch.

These abilities are more than dismissible edge cases, as we cannot understand how the brain works unless we understand all of its amazing capabilities. It’s really amazing that this is our potential as human beings. If you’re interested read this where I talk a bit about the evolution of consciousness and what savants can tell us.

  1. Courchesne, E., Carper, R., and Akshoomoff, N. (2003). “Evidence of Brain Overgrowth in the First Year of Life in Autism.” Journal of American Medicine, 290(3), 337-344.
  2. O’Conner, N. and Hermelin, B., (1989). “The Memory Structure of the Autistic Prodigious-Savant Mnemonists.” British Journal of Psychology, 80(1), 97-111.
  3. Sacks, Oliver W. (1990). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Harper Perennial Library. New York.
  4. Treffert, D. A., Wallace, G. L., (2003). “Islands of Genius: Artistic Brilliance and a Dazzling Memory can Sometimes Accompany Autism and other Developmental Disorders.” Scientific American Mind, 14(1), 14-23.
  1. Wow! Those are some amazing people. Makes you feel kind of sad…

    It’s very interesting however, I never knew that our ability was“suppressed by the left-brain to prevent a potentially overwhelming clamor of unchecked sensory input and internal processing”. So i guess the next time someone tells use to give 100% we can tell them it is scientifically impossible.

    Very cool post, i’ve learned quite a tidbit.

    Jonathan Solichin

    May 24, 03:29 AM #

  2. My wife has Multiple Sclerosis and is quadriplegic …

    she is 74 years old and in a nursing home for 10 years.

    Suddenly she began speaking in different languages… I look up the words and she is right or just about about every time

    giving me the words to crossword puzzles before I even finish asking her the question

    reciting words from books, telling me the page number, paragraph, where the commas are, …. author, publication date ….

    saying what, while we watch Television, the actor is going to say … before they say it …….

    music ……. just about everything ……….

    Other times she is completely quiet and doesn’t respond to my questions or it takes … an hour to get the answer … or at other times … she seems as though she is “retarded”

    does this mean she is mentally retarded or savant???????

    Clint Baron

    Dec 24, 08:05 AM #

  3. Hey

    I think I am a quantum savant, I understand relativity interplaner displacement atom blah blah blah I could go on forever only the only thing I have ever encountered on the topic is What the Bleep do we know…

    im 21 and currently apprenticing a Quantum Physician… and the only reason is because we had a 5 minute talk in which very few words were discussed

    any ideas?

    Danny Buffett

    Jan 14, 01:20 AM #

  4. Where do the “Coolyist” Prodigious Savant gather?

    Thank you: Sysis.

    Sysis

    Feb 20, 06:25 PM #

  5. Hello

    My boyfriend of 5 years thinks I’m the worlds biggest idiot, always correcting my words, rolling his eyes because I don’t immediately remember what he’s thinking at the exact moment he’s thinking it and the fact that I’m not worldly and don’t know where places are.

    The few things I have noticed that he criticizes me for is my ability to smell, see and taste things that he does not. He says I’m weird and that there is something wrong with me.

    I have found these senses to be frustrating because everyone in the house complains or makes fun of me due to these senses. I’m frustrated because no one else in the house has them.

    Also in movies, I tend to voice what the actor is going to say before he says it and can usually tell you who did what in the movie before its half way through (murder mysteries, etc). It drives my boyfriend crazy… probably because I ruin the ending for him, but more likely because I’m talking during the movie.

    Anyway, do I have mental issues and should take some type of medication for this (as my boyfriend suggests) or see a shrink? I have OCD and get bored really fast, within seconds but at other things, painting, art, yard work in the garden, I could focus all day. I play video games for a little while, master them and then am so bored I’ll never play the game again. I typically excel in everything I do except short term memory.

    I’m starting to feel like an outcast in my own home and its a very depressing feeling. My brother was diagnosed with Tret syndrome many years ago and at times I notice I tend to twitch my nose and make odd noises with the back area of my throat (done in when I’m alone, except for the nose twitching). I’ve never been diagnosed as having TS, but I wonder if there is a small part of me that might have it.

    BTW, I’ve never blurted out some random word… thank God!

    Thank you

    Donna Hayes

    Nov 26, 01:13 PM #

  6. I just learned the term “prodigious savant” last week, and I am 74 years old.

    I was reading newspapers and Bible lessons long before I began kindergarten in September 1941, eight months after my mother died. Three months later, Pearl Harbor took the U.S. into World War II, and both my father and uncle went into the Army, which made my grandmother cry for an entire day.

    So naturally, I read every paper I could get my hands on every day. In the comic strips, I read every single episode of “Superman” because I identified with Clark Kent, and wondered if I could ever become Perry White. I did not realize it for several years, but I learned everything necessary to gather and report news from the battlefront, international events, scientific advances (polio and Jonas Salk), politics, local stuff and feature articles either in print, on the radio or television, including dramatic and documentary scripts.

    It took 41 years, from high school in 1954 until June, 1995, to finish college.

    During those years, I held high-profile jobs as Executive Editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper (when it was published daily), an assistant press secretary to Chicago’s two most famous mayors in the enire world during their terms in office (Jane Byrne and Harold Washington), a public relations representative for the Ford Motor Company in their Chicago region (covering nine midwestern states), a PR rep for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois (setting my own schedule and agenda) and a part-time instructor in journalism, English and keyboarding at three colleges in Chicago and Indiana.

    Privately, I briefly owned a website distributing heavy-duty, superior quality tarpaulins for private yatchs and outdoor assets for commerce and industrial comanies, and drafter a national program to introduce four or eight-hour keyboarding instruction which would produce confidence in millions of young and older students, enabling them to better themselves.
    (However, no governors or anyone in Washington D.C. had ever heard of me, so the proposal was deliberately ignored, and immediately replaced with billions of dollars for public school computers donated by philanthropists.

    In 2009, I finally received a Ph.D. in Education, after getting my Master’s in Journalism. I had actually gone farther than Perry White.

    Am I wrong in assuming that I am a prodigious savant? Three of my former bosses and friends have been impressed enough to use the term “genius” speaking about me, but I am totally dumb with higher math, world affairs, some environmental issues and foreign languages.

    Leroy Thomas

    Leroy Thomas, Ph.D.

    Feb 8, 04:41 AM #

  7. Deep in the heart of rural mendocino county, lives a boy with extrodinary musical talent. He is a person with an autism diagnosis who has been mainstreamed and protected by a very small community of people. We belive it is time for him to be “seen”. Looking for an advocate to assist in this complicated process. Will you be our champion? If so, prepare to be inspired.

    Delina Quintero

    Dec 4, 05:03 PM #

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