Savants - Unleashing our true potential?
Tom was born blind and unable to do the physical labor the other slaves did on James Neil Bethune’s plantation. Instead, he was left to roam around freely. From a young age, he imitated animal sounds and repeated complete 10-minute conversations, even though his autism made it almost impossible for him to communicate his own wishes. When he was 4 years old, he sat at the piano on which Bethune’s daughters played and started producing beautiful tunes. He quickly developed into a famous pianist, playing more than 12 hours a day, composing his own music and repeating complete pieces after only hearing them once.
In the first article of this series, I spoke about Henry Molaison, who lost his short-term memory after his hippocampus was taken out. Most of the people that will be discussed in this series have lost some specific function, simply because brain damage usually leads to the disruption of well-working processes. However, in some very special cases, brain disease or damage leads to the gain of a new skill or talent, in addition to the deficits in normal functions. This week, I will talk about savants: people who acquired a very special talent because something went wrong in their brain.
Blind Tom, who lived from 1849 until 1908, is one of the oldest and most famous savants. The oldest reported case of a savant was the autistic Jedediah Buxton, who lived from 1707-1772 and was known as ‘the human calculator’. Buxton could calculate with numbers going up to 39 figures without even being able to write down his own name.
Although around half of savants are autistic, most people with autism are not savants. Scientists estimate that about 1 in 10 people with autism spectrum disorder show some type of savant skills1. However, these are usually splinter skills: an obsessive occupation with, and memorization of, objects, historical facts, numbers or music. There are currently less than 100 truly talented savants who possess skills that are extremely outstanding, even for a healthy person to have. These people are called Prodigious Savants1.
Just for fun, let’s look at some more examples of prodigious savants:
- Laurence Kim Peek is probably the most famous prodigious savant. He inspired the savant character in the movie ‘Rain Man’. Kim Peek was born with brain abnormalities that impaired his physical coordination and his ability to reason. It also gave him an incredible talent to memorize. During his lifetime, Peek read more than 12,000 books, reading two pages at the same time (one with his left eye and the other with his right). He was able to recall everything he read, even years later.
- Stephen Wiltshire was born autistic and developed a talent for drawing buildings from memory. He started by drawing cars and animals at the age of five but soon became obsessed with drawing famous buildings in his hometown London, at the age of seven. In 2006 he was flown over Rome with a helicopter. That one ride was enough for him to draw out all of Rome, as you can see here.
- Leslie Lemke was born with birth defects that left him so severely handicapped that he was unable to take simple actions such as eating or dressing himself. However, by the age of sixteen he suddenly played a piece by Tchaikovsky perfectly, without any piano training, after hearing it once on the television. He became a famous musician, playing all kinds of music styles, only needing to hear a piece once before being able to play it.
As you can notice from these examples, savant skills seem to fall in a couple of categories: art, music and mathematics, accompanied by a great memory and eye for detail. Another thing you might have noticed is that all examples I gave are male. Savants are predominantly male, the ratio currently estimated at 6:11. One last characteristic of savants is that they are obsessed with their skill, often doing little else but this one specific thing.
Although savants have long intrigued neuroscientists, relatively little research has been done on what is causing their outstanding talents. One difficulty is that savants have a wide variety of brain diseases and brain injuries, affecting different brain areas and starting at different times in development. Although most savants are born with the brain impairments and develop their talent at a very young age, there are also cases of acute savants, who develop their talent after acquiring instant brain damage or dementia, causing some scientists to believe that we all have these talents hidden in us.
A common theme among savants is damage to the cortex of the left hemisphere. This region contains areas responsible for multiple functions, including language2. Indeed many savants have difficulties with language, often starting to speak at a very late age and referring to themselves in the third person. Scientists who believe that savant skills are related to left cortical damage argue that their theory is strengthened by the fact that most savants are male: testosterone causes the left hemisphere to develop more slowly, making males more vulnerable to prenatal left cortical damage than females (also see Nick's article about lateralization!).
However, left cortical damage cannot account for all savants. There are many savants that do not have left cortical damage, for example autistic savants. Furthermore, there are also lots of people with left cortical damage who do not have savant skills. The exact neural cause of savant skills is thus still unknown.
So, what have savants taught us then?
I would say the main thing we have learned from savants is that the brain is capable of doing incredible things. As I mentioned earlier, the existence of acute savants has led people to believe that perhaps we all have these skills in us. If that were the case, then perhaps one day we will be able to unleash them!
However, we have also learned from savants that these talents always come at a cost. Most prodigious savants are so severely handicapped that they cannot live by themselves. It thus seems like there might be a balance in our brain between having these special talents and having the ability to do many ordinary things.
Learning more about this balance and about how we can potentially disrupt it temporily instead of permanently might one day turn all of us into superhumans. However, at this point we are human, studying the brain, reading about savants, and dreaming of our true potential.
A great article about more brain celebrities:
A nice movie about Kim Peek: