Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Would You Want to be a Savant?

By John Banja

John Banja, PhD is a medical ethicist at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, and the editor of AJOB Neuroscience.

Darold Treffert (2010), a psychiatrist who has devoted the better part of his career to studying savants, notes that there are at least 3 kinds.

First, those who manifest the “savant syndrome” and display the most astonishing of savant abilities, such as Kim Peek who was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, in the movie Rain Man. Peek, who died from a heart attack in 2009, was remarkable even by savant standards: He memorized more than 12,000 books and was able to read two pages simultaneously, one page with the right eye, the other page with the left. He also had a remarkably hospitable form of dyslexia where he could read words on a page turned sideways or upside down or backwards—such as reflected in a mirror. He could add a column of numbers from a telephone book page and instantly tell you the mean of those numbers, and he could do lightning calendar calculations like telling you which day of the week you were born upon knowing your birth date (Treffert, 2010, pp. 120-129). These were only a few of his talents. 

I might also mention Daniel Tammet who, on March 14th, 2004 on “International Pi Day”—get it?: 3.14—recited from memory Pi to 22,514 decimal places (p. 161). Or George Widener who can tell you what day of the week June 25th will be in the year 47,253 (p. 179). Treffert reports that 50 percent of individuals with the savant syndrome are autistic, while the remainder, like Kim Peek, typically experienced some kind of central nervous system insult prenatally or very shortly after birth. Usually, these individuals have IQs around 60 or 70, such as one savant who could recite Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire forward and backward but couldn’t explain what any of the sentences meant (p. 2). Kim Peek didn’t walk until the age of 4 and had eye-hand coordination problems all his life. Even as an adult he needed help with simple daily activities like bathing, brushing his teeth and combing his hair. His IQ was measured at 87, but the score was thought too insensitive to his intellectual ability (p. 123).

Kim Peek, image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
A second group Treffert terms the “acquired” savant. These are persons who began life as neurotypicals but then suffered some kind of central nervous system damage like a stroke or dementia (usually affecting the fronto-temporal areas of the brain). Very often, their savant skills take the form of amazing artistic or musical ability where there was none previously. An interesting example is orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning in his face, had a near death experience, and survived without any apparent deficits (p. 209). A few weeks after the lightning strike, he began experiencing an insatiable desire to listen to piano music. Although he had some piano lessons as a child, he never pursued any serious training and hadn’t played much for decades. After the lightning strike, he became obsessed with music, re-learned piano playing and now not only plays some of the classical piano repertoire at a near concert level, but he composes and, when not doing surgery, performs professionally. This group of persons acquired their savant-like skills from some kind of CNS disruption, usually occurring during or after adolescence.

The third group is the neurotypical individual with savant-like skills. Many people know about Marilu Henner’s “highly superior autobiographical memory” such that Marilu can recall what she was experiencing at any time of any day over most of her life (CBS, 2010). When she displayed this capacity to the world, it was thought that less than 10 persons existed with similar memory capacity but since then more individuals have been identified (CBS This Morning, 2014). There are also neurotypicals who can begin writing “Calif” with one hand and simultaneously “ornia” with the other; or an individual who can write out similar words simultaneously—one with the left hand, one with the right—but each in a different language (Treffert, 2010, p. 214). Or they can read backwards; or they can instantly alphabetize words in conversation, so that “I like neuroethics” becomes “I eikl ceehinorstu.” (Treffert, 2010, p. 212) My wife’s father could multiply 3-digit numbers in his head, and many neurotypicals with musical savantism can listen to a tune or song only once and then reproduce it with note for note accuracy on piano or guitar. Usually, these persons possessed such talent all their lives with no one suspecting it although Treffert describes certain cases where savant-like skills have suddenly appeared with no evident cause (pp. 204-211).

Given that we are living in the age of the brain, these astonishing cognitive skills—and I have only described a few—make one wonder about the possibility and extent of anyone’s acquiring them. Can anyone not only improve his or her memory or cognitive talents but take them to these kinds of levels? And, very interestingly, would one want to?

Stephen Wiltshire's rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge,
image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I would assume most neurotypicals would think autism, a stroke, a lightning strike, or being born with an encephalocele (like Kim Peek) is too high a price to pay for savant acquisition. But a larger question centers on the value of savant abilities. One of the most salient characteristics of savants is their prodigious memories. Most savants are extraordinary sensory reproducers or duplicators who can represent memories of their sensory experiences with uncanny detail, like Stephen Wiltshire who, after a twenty minute helicopter ride over Manhattan, proceeded to reproduce his memories of the skyline with uncanny accuracy in an 18 foot-long drawing in Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (CBS, 2009). But the rather uncomfortable, indeed, perhaps unkind point is that the majority of savant skills don’t seem particularly useful. Treffert notes that “savant skills typically occur in an intriguingly narrow range of special abilities” (p. 19) that include calendar calculating like George Widener’s, musical playback ability, artistic re-production like Stephen Wiltshire’s, and mathematical and mechanical skills. What most of these demonstrations lack, however, is a sense of creativity or depth that carries a discipline like mathematics or any of the empirical sciences to the next level of professional conversation and knowledge. Granted, we do have Dr. Temple Grandin’s contributions to the design of animal handling facilities, which are now used in half of the cattle processing facilities in the U.S. (Treffert, 2010, p. 144). But savants like her seem to be distinct exceptions.

Nevertheless, Treffert is at pains in his book Islands of Genius to refute this, at least insofar as he is convinced that savants do make creative contributions, especially in the arts. But professionals like empirical and theoretical scientists, novelists, playwrights, philosophers and sociologists who are regarded as genius-level performers by their peers are virtually never identified as savants (although they may have savant-like skills). Perhaps one reason is that the cognitive accomplishments of savants take the form of immediate demonstration, such as lightning calendar calculating, while scientists and philosophers spend years developing their discoveries and theories. Also, because savant skills are thought to derive from a “liberation” or hyper-development of the brain’s right hemisphere at the cost of left-sided deficits or impairment, persons with the savant syndrome often have poor narrative capacities linked to their compromised verbal abilities.

The fact is, what a philosopher, neuroscientist, or novelist savant would look like is obscure. Lightning calculations done in one’s head don’t play a significant role in these professionals’ creative output, nor does uncanny memory reproduction for highly specific details from one’s sensory experience. Still, the abilities of savants are simply astounding and suggest that our brains are capable of much more than we might assume. Neuroscientist Allan Snyder has been stimulating the brains of neurotypicals with low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and reporting that many of his neurologically unremarkable participants improve in proofreading, drawing, and numerosity, such as in guessing the number of pixel-like objects on a computer screen (Snyder, 2009). For over a decade, Snyder has been pursuing the idea that all of us have latent savant-like skills that can be elicited by technology or by exercises such as the ones that Betty Edwards (1989) proposed in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I suspect the ultimate value of this research will consist in whether it results in any real improvement of our human culture. Almost certainly, though, neuroscientific investigations of savants will increase our understanding of brain function and, very possibly, enable us to tap into certain cognitive abilities we could not have imagined existed.


CBS. 2010. Marilu Henner’s Super Autobiographical Memory. Found here

CBS. 2009.  Wiltshire’s NYC Matches Up. Found here 

CBS This Morning. 2014. More people have “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory.” Found here

Edwards B. 1989. Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam Press. 

Snyder A. 2009. Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 364:1399-1405. 

Treffert D. 2010. Islands of Genius. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Want to cite this post?

Banja, J. (2017). Would You Want to be a Savant? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/04/would-you-want-to-be-savant.html

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