Savants

Written By: Allie Eliza

 

Extraordinary Brains

 Savants

A savant is an individual who—with little or no apparent effort—completes intellectual tasks that would be impossible for ordinary people to master. Let’s have a look at some extraordinary examples of savants.

brain gears

 

The myth that humans only use 10% of their brains has been around for a long time, but it is not true. We use 100% of our brains. Our brains are divided into many different regions that serve different functions. For example, your eyes are directly connected to several specific parts of your brain.

Our brains are divided into many different regions that serve different functions. For example, your eyes are directly connected to several specific parts of your brain. These areas connect to several other brain regions called “visual cortices,” all of which connect to other regions in turn. Each of these brain regions receives visual information from your eyes, but does different things with that information. For example, some areas in the visual cortices are devoted to detecting the direction in which objects are pointing, or are specifically tuned to detect movement. Other parts of your brain then weave all this information back together to create “what you see.”

Similarly, there are brain regions devoted to each of your other senses, regions to control body movements, regions to manipulate memory, regions for language. These regions can be further subdivided; one region of your brain that detects touch, for example, is organized sort of like a map of your body (called a homunculus), except that proportionately more brain area is devoted to touch in especially sensitive regions like fingers and lips. (In fact, this is partly why your fingers and lips are more sensitive to touch than, say, your leg. Try reading Braille with your leg!).

brain infographic

Recently, medical imaging technologies that measure activity in people’s brains without surgery have enabled scientists to answer questions like “what parts of the brain are especially active when performing a complex memory task?”, “what parts are most active during different types of sleep?”, or even “what parts are active during recognition of a particular brand of car?” These techniques can help scientists better understand how the different regions of the brain work together to create the complex web of sensation, experience, and knowledge that we all enjoy. They also demonstrate clearly that every region of the brain lights up for something.

Where did the “10% myth” first come from? It isn’t clear. It might be because less than 10% of the cells in our brains are actually neurons (nerve cells) – the rest are called glial cells. Glial cells perform all kinds of different tasks, from insulating the brain’s “wires” to maintaining the brain’s chemistry to helping regulate the many connections among neurons (called synapses) in which memory can be stored. Glial cells aren’t neurons, but they are certainly being used! The myth could also have arisen because much of the brain is fairly adaptable, allowing people (especially young people) to recover most of their capabilities even after losing parts of their brains to injury, cancer, or surgery. This isn’t always true, however; it is harder for older adults to recover function after brain injury, and we know that even small amounts of brain damage (such as strokes) in just the wrong places can be devastating.

So take care of your brain! You’ll need all of it.

Psychiatrist Darold Treffert is one of the world’s authorities on savant syndrome. 
He calls savants “islands of genius” – and says we won’t understand consciousness until we figure out what’s happening in the minds of savants.  

 Darrold Treffert photo

 

1. Kim Peek – The real “Rain Man” (see video below)

Kim Peek is arguably the world’s most famous savant and the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning film, Rain Man. Described as “a living Google”, Kim is a confounding mix of disability and brilliance that has baffled neurosurgeons. Most savants have only one dominating interest, but Kim seems to soak up everything: from sport to politics and even the minutiae of the British monarchy.

Peek was born in Salt Lake City, Utah with macrocephaly, damage to the cerebellum, and agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition in which the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain is missing; in Peek’s case, secondary connectors such as the anterior commissure were also missing.

There is speculation that his neurons made unusual connections due to the absence of a corpus callosum, which resulted in an increased memory capacity. According to Peek’s father, Fran Peek, Kim was able to memorize things from the age of 16–20 months. He read books, memorized them, and then placed them upside down on the shelf to show that he had finished reading them, a practice he maintained. He could speed through a book in about an hour and remember almost everything he had read, memorizing vast amounts of information in subjects ranging from history and literature, geography and numbers to sports, music and dates. He could read two pages at once, one with each eye. According to an article in The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books. Peek lived in Murray, Utah and spent a considerable amount of his time reading at the Salt Lake City Library and demonstrating his capabilities at schools, with great help from his father.

Peek did not walk until the age of four and then in a sidelong manner. He could not button up his shirt and had difficulty with other ordinary motor skills, presumably due to his damaged cerebellum, which normally coordinates motor activities. In psychological testing, Peek scored below average (87) on general IQ tests.

In 1984, screenwriter Barry Morrow met Peek in Arlington, Texas; the result of the meeting was the 1988 movie Rain Man. The character of Raymond Babbitt, although inspired by Peek, was portrayed as having autism. Dustin Hoffman, who played Babbitt, met Peek and other savants to get an understanding of their nature and to play the role accurately and methodically. The movie caused a number of requests for appearances, which increased Peek’s self-confidence.

Barry Morrow gave Kim his Oscar statuette to carry with him and show at these appearances; it has since been referred to as the “Most Loved Oscar Statue” as it has been held by more people than any other. Kim also enjoyed approaching strangers and showing them his talent for calendar calculations by telling them on which day of the week they were born and what news items were on the front page of major newspapers. Peek also appeared on television. He travelled with his father, who took care of him and performed many motor tasks that Peek found difficult.

In 2004, scientists at the Center for Bioinformatics Space Life Sciences at the NASA Ames Research Center examined Peek with a series of tests including computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. The intent was to create a three-dimensional view of his brain structure and to compare the images to MRI scans done in 1988. These were the first tentative approaches in using non-invasive technology to further investigate Kim’s savant abilities.

A 2008 study concluded that Peek probably had FG syndrome, a rare genetic syndrome linked to the X chromosome which causes physical anomalies such as hypotonia (low muscle tone) and macrocephaly (abnormally large head).

Kim Peek died of a heart attack on December 19, 2009 at age 58.

2. Daniel Tammet

This is the breathtaking story of Daniel Tammet. A twenty-something with extraordinary mental abilities, Daniel is one of the world’s few savants. He can do calculations to 100 decimal places in his head, and learn a language in a week.

He also meets the world’s most famous savant, the man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Oscar winning film ‘Rain Man’.

This documentary follows Daniel as he travels to America to meet the scientists who are convinced he may hold the key to unlocking similar abilities in everyone.

 

3.       Stephen Wiltshire “The Human Camera”

Artist

Stephen Wiltshire is a 33-year-old autistic man with an extraordinary talent. He is one of less than 100 people in the world who is recognised as an autistic savant. Whereas some savants excel in mathematics or music, Stephen is an accomplished artist, and is capable of producing highly accurate drawings of buildings and cities after seeing them just once.

Although Stephen is today a quiet and confident young man, he endured a difficult childhood as family and teachers struggled to cope with his autism – a condition that was, at the time, very poorly understood and rarely diagnosed.

Cityscapes and buildings quickly became Stephen’s artistic focus, possibly because they represent the kind of stability, solidity and repetition that autistic people often crave. In a short space of time, Stephen became internationally renowned for his strikingly detailed and technically accurate drawings, and since his teenage years he has travelled the world sketching famous buildings and cities.

Now Stephen is about to face one of his greatest challenges yet. He has five days to draw a four-metre-long panorama of London based on a 15-minute helicopter ride above the capital. Can he accurately reproduce the skyline of his home city solely from memory?

 

4. Akrit Jaswal

Surgery


Akrit Pran Jaswal (born April 23, 1993, Nurpur) is an Indian adolescent who is a child prodigy as a surgeon. He performed his first surgery at the age of seven. According to his mother Raksha Kumari Jaswal, Akrit was an early starter, skipped the toddler stage and started walking. He started speaking in his 10th month and was reading Shakespeare at the age of 5.

Akrit developed a passion for science and anatomy at an early age. Doctors at local hospitals took notice and started allowing him to observe surgeries when he was 7 years old. Inspired by what he saw, Akrit read everything he could on the topic.

When he was seven years old, an impoverished family unable to pay for regular healthcare heard about his amazing abilities, and asked if he would operate on their daughter. The surgery was successful and was widely celebrated. Akrit hopes to someday continue his studies at the Harvard.

At 12 years old, he is the youngest person to get admitted in a medical university in India (Punjab University).

Akrit Jaswal has an estimated IQ of 146.


5. Orlando Serrell (Acquired Savant)

Calendrical Calculation & Memory

6. Leslie Lemke

Music, photographic memory