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.

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