Cultural fascination with savants appears to date as far back as the condition itself. In the 19th century, "Blind Tom" Bethune became an international celebrity. A former slave who could reproduce any song on the piano, he played the White House at age 11, toured the world at 16, and over the course of his life earned well over $750,000—a fortune at the time. Dustin Hoffman introduced the savant to millions of theatergoers with his character in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Since then, prodigious savants have become staples of shows like 60 Minutes and Oprah. But acquired savants, especially, are perfect fodder for a society obsessed with self-improvement, reality television, and pop psychology.
Jon Sarkin, the chiropractor turned artist, became the subject of profiles in GQ and Vanity Fair, a biography, and TV documentaries. Tom Cruise purchased the rights to his life story. "To be honest, I don't even mention it to my wife anymore when the media calls," Sarkin says. "It's part of life." Jason Padgett, the savant who can draw fractals, inked a book deal after he was featured on Nightline and in magazine and newspaper articles. Reached by phone, he complained that his agent no longer allowed him to give interviews. "It's very frustrating," he said. "I want to speak to you, but they won't let me."
To Amato, acquired savantism looked like the opportunity he'd been waiting for his entire life. Amato's mother had always told him he was extraordinary, that he was put on the planet to do great things. Yet a series of uninspiring jobs had followed high school—selling cars, delivering mail, doing public relations. He'd reached for the brass ring, to be sure, but it had always eluded him. He'd auditioned for the television show American Gladiators and failed the pull-up test. He'd opened a sports-management company, handling marketing and endorsements for mixed-martial-arts fighters; it went bust in 2001. Now he had a new path.
Amato began planning a marketing campaign. He wanted to be more than an artist, musician, and performer. He wanted to tell his story and inspire people. Amato also had another ambition, a goal lingering from his life before virtuosity, back when he had only his competitive drive. He wanted, more than anything, to be on Survivor. So when that first interviewer called from a local radio station, Amato was ready to talk.
Few people have followed the emergence of acquired savants with more interest than Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney in Australia. Since 1999, Snyder has focused his research on studying how their brains function. He's also pressed further into speculative territory than most neuroscientists feel comfortable: He is attempting to produce the same outstanding abilities in people with undamaged brains.
Last spring, Snyder published what many consider to be his most substantive work. He and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily immobilize the same area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller's acquired savants. The noninvasive technique, which is commonly used to evaluate brain damage in stroke patients, delivers a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes, depolarizing or hyperpolarizing neural circuits until they have slowed to a crawl. After tDCS, more than 40 percent of the participants in Snyder's experiment solved the problem. (None of those in a control group given placebo tDCS identified the solution.)
The experiment, Snyder argues, supports the hypothesis that the abilities observed in acquired savants emerge once brain areas normally held in check have become unfettered. The crucial role of the left temporal lobe, he believes, is to filter what would otherwise be a dizzying flood of sensory stimuli, sorting them into previously learned concepts. These concepts, or what Snyder calls mind-sets, allow humans to see a tree instead of all its individual leaves and to recognize words instead of just the letters. "How could we possibly deal with the world if we had to analyze, to completely fathom, every new snapshot?" he says.
Savants can access raw sensory information, normally off-limits to the conscious mind, because the brain's perceptual region isn't functioning. To solve the nine-dot puzzle, one must extend the lines beyond the square formed by the dots, which requires casting aside preconceived notions of the parameters. "Our whole brain is geared to making predictions so we can function rapidly in this world," Snyder says. "If something naturally helps you get around the filters of these mind-sets, that is pretty powerful."
a piece which balances case studies, scientific observations and opinions. Too many articles on PS are a bit heavy on two of the three. Given my psychonaut experiences in college, I would have to agree that there are many dormant areas of the brain for which the bridges have just decayed. I used to be into increasing neuron-plasticity with healthy amounts of nootropics and phenylethylamines. For all of the hard work and reconstruction, it only allows me to develop new talents faster(using the Ebbinghaus 55-55 method), rather than to refine hidden and dormant abilities.
Removing the "child locks" on one's brain through brain injury, or hallucinogen use may seem like the shortcut, and believe me it does unlock "artistic" abilities, but the cost of bypassing the right hemisphere wrecks havoc on one's sense of mental balance. Someday we may find ways to unlock the savant potential in everyone; however I suspect that the abilities gained will come at the cost of the annihilation of other types of logical processing being done by the brain.
Its funny how they prove that the learned patterns are the biggest impediment to being a genius.
Alonzo is employed at my work. He comes in for a hour or two every couple days and does simple tasks that he enjoys and feels proud of. We sell restaurant equipment, supplies and parts... he usually screws on tops to salt and pepper shakers, rolls strip curtains (which he calls popsicles)and a few other things. He has been with us since April of 1998 and ALWAYS has a smile on his face. I have had the honor of shipping his sculptures to customers and am blown away at the amount of detail that each one has. He's an amazing guy.
1.7 Million brain trauma deaths per year (US only)... estimated 7-10 savants alive worldwide. Not the best odds.
So PopSci finally got around to watching Ingenious Minds on the Science Channel, eh?
Ok. This says that there have been around 30 or so of these people recognized as acquired savants. Yet we know that there are quite likely some more that are not discussed here, and in any real analysis of this acquired trait, they must be recognized due to the real danger they represent. Genius serial killers and criminals.
We know that they often take these exact types of head shots when young, and had often never exhibited any of the associated behaviors of a serial killer, nor of genius before.
So to me, this is the downside of acquired savantism. You could end up real bright in a couple things, and be theoretically capable of great things, and never end up with any decent thing in life ever again.
Please don't go knockin yerselves in the head with a rolling pin. It probably won't work.
In a strange way it kind of backs up the stories of the ancients who told of the "gods" who came from the heavens and created man. The gods then realized that we were too smart for THEIR own good and then manipulated us to dumb us down. All that suppressed intelligence is in there in our brains just waiting for something to unsuppress it.
As a victim of anoxic brain damage, I can tell you my cognitive process change. The damage was not as severe, it too years to diagnose, but the change was still something I have to adapt to and deal with on a daily basis.
My IQ is the same but I process information differently and my reaction to stress is disproportionate.
What we (and medical professionals also) need to take away from this is that although not all of us become "savants", brain damage usually requires personal reorganization. We also have to realize that "disabled" also usually implies "other-abled".
I almost died from anaphylactic shock. What bothers me the most is that I had to wait over five years for a diagnosis of brain damage. Shouldn't patients be advised when they experience concussion or anyphylaxsis to watch for changes in cognition and responses to environmental stimuli?
I'm also asthmatic. When I'm having trouble breathing and my brain gets less oxygen my concentration is affected and my thoughts get less organized.
People under the influence of drugs also experience temporary, or in some cases permanent reorganization of cognitive process.
The importance of understanding this phenomenon is not limited to "savants", but to anyone dealing with physical changes to the way their brain works.
OK, solved that 9 dots puzzle in about 5 minutes without every knowing about it or goggling the answer, wonder if someone bonked me on the head, and i didn't remember it? :)
The carrot. You are going to use this article to reduce suicide rates. My IQ is down but my understanding, as if in feeling has been freaky. I believe you will find a corollary in individuals recovering from long term opoid dependence and increased neural plasticity also with a High correlation for innovative rehabilitative techniques. So many things became so obvious and simple to me, while other things became more challenging. Started at 144 on Stanford Binet in youth and Tried to develop my brain. Was in Blood Research at WRAIR, injured neck (never deployed), chronic pain, and Multiple pain meds. I discontinued all the opiates over a year ago now but still live with chronic pain. My mind is Not the same, using photography as an adjunctive form of self directed diversive focus relative to pain management and as a form of creative play for physical rehabilitation, I ended up with over 40,000 photos in around a year. Hyper senssory awareness is a developable trait. Social Interaction Therapy has merit to reduce feelings of separation anxiety in our existing military populations through social media (which can easily be configured to notify changes in mental state). I can see as if feel, others allude to empathy. In a little over a year, over 40,000 photos on facebook, the poetry, the writing,... Because I still deal with chronic pain, my sleep may avg. as little as a few hours a day for the last year, have felt like the guy from Powder, even my rate of speech has frequently increased, noticed relative to others perceptions. Have no particular delusion of Grandeur and do not believe that I am any more than I am. Always had Empathy, tried to understand the mind, the big and the small, and more than most can imagine. Neck injury 2005, artificial disk 2007, discontinued opiods for Pain Mgmnt. Noveber 2011. Got on facebook, got camera, realized people weren't seeing what I was seeing (from studying everything from micro to macro, relative to science), tried to develop creative visualization to see (sense) energy, if you will, but now instead of being somewhat of a forced conceptualization, I Many times, look at something, tree, animal, writing,... and see some unique form of structure. I Know that I am a by-product of my development but something did change. I have the Feeling that I'm supposed to change the world and I know that it is true. I have no personal delusion that I am smarter than anyone else, Have met many smarter people in my life. Without going into detail,in a thought, rock climbers accelerate neuronal growth in areas of brain associated with balance, agility, and some fine motor control (read once on Twitter I think, maybe a year ago), sleep deprivation can have suppressive effect on the parts of the mind responsible for rational thought ( this Could explain some of my noticeable effects, Yes ), so You may rightly question, I would. I can't recall everything I learned, but I feel much of it. Would you like to reduce global mortality? Change healthcare? Make our communities stronger? Our Country? I honestly Feel that I can help a lot of people. The science backs Most of what I seem to feel now. If I can help you, let me know. Maybe not the stringent definition of acquired savant syndrome, but My understanding (or lack thereof, lol)has the thought that I'm supposed to Help change the world. Sincerely, Winston Melvin. I didn't really correct this on purpose, everything here revolves around the same feeling and I think with the right pople that I might be able to help them weave the science together much of what I mention. It's hard to get people to Understand the IMPLICATIONS. Whether from opiod recovery, novel rehabilatative techniques involving creative play created increased neuronal growth (development of neural plsticity), a related suppressive effect on the mind from chronic pain and effects of sleep deprivation, the picture is much broader than I can explain here, but I'm willing to try, As able. Whoever is most knowledgeable in this research should probably contact me, 850-867-3216, sincerely, Winston Melvin ? I believe you may also find some possible confirmation of this in the writings of Robert Anson Heinlein and too many others to imagine. Have a wonderful weekend.
I'd have to agree with Snyder's idea. I have mediocre musical abilities, and didn't really notice until a few years ago that when I think of a song in my head, it's much like as if I hummed it. One voice, no chords really (some overtones). I can make it sound like a violin or a trumpet, but it's still one note at a time.
But one night when falling asleep I had a song in my head, and suddenly I realized I could hear chords, I could hear the melody and the harmony simultaneously, like I was listening to a whole choir! It surprised me so much I woke up, and the song went back to the usual boring style. This has happened a couple other times, always when I'm drifting in or out of sleep. It seems to me that a part of the brain that usually suppresses something is inactive, and the music part gets free rein.
Yes, your mind is more open to creativity at times when you are at the edges of sleep. If you'd like to unlock a bit more, try listening to a meditative podcast in the morning while drinking coffee (both to counter the logical "what-are-you-doing-don't-color-outside-the-lines" part of your mind), while seated in front of your creative medium of choice (be it piano, sketchpad, block of wood, lump of clay, etc.)
Don't let the rational part of your brain win. Don't let it tell you "this is pointless" or "you suck at drawing", but instead watch the pencil brush the paper. Focus on one piano key's voice. Keep going. The ideal outcome of this situation (which is contingent upon you having a proficiency with your medium) is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi termed as "flow" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) )
You can also use this rather ghetto technique of calming podcast + coffee to learn a new skill, like Illustrator or Photoshop, and explore new possibilities.
I would very curious to study the creative possibilities of minds of recovered eating disorder patients, for two reasons: firstly, while an individual is afflicted with an eating disorder, the connection between "food" and "I need it" is blocked or destroyed. That indicates, to me, a possibility that "I need it" might now be connected to something like "art" or "music" or "running". Secondly, as an individual is holding themselves back from eating, they are rebelling against the social "rules" of how one should behave, leading me to wonder: would they, creatively, be more able to go completely against the grain? Similar to PaulaGem's comment about anoxic brain damage, subjecting the brain to an intense period of malnutrition might bring about a similar surge in creative output.
OMG. This article just caused a 8.6 Richter quake in my mind. I have had MS for 18 years. I´m physically perfectly fit but my cognition and short term memory have been altered. I have experienced all symtoms and abilities (on a smaller scale though..) decribed through this article. I am a physiologist and I really need to speak with a neurophysician ASAP...
Underneath the surface of the mind, there must be numerical supercomputing capabilities. Think of how much power is needed say for a Google Car, to be able to scan the environment, and make decisions for self-driving. What about robots and how hard it is for them to walk, see a puddle, and jump over it.
Given that each of us has that processing power, the "higher traits" like language, dance, art, music, math, seem almost trivial (if you reduce them done to topological systems).
In the same way that an Intel Processor can be used for both calculating the climate, or for playing Angry Birds, yet it is the same processor, all our brains may each have these abilities. And of course, in nature, that power would best be used for hunting...not composing sonnets.
The problem is validation.
Sure, there are stories. There are always stories. There are stories that were written down, which means that they were "documented", but not necessarily true.
But were there ever pre and post accident evaluations by professionals using MRI, X-Rays, and complex skill tests? No.
If not, then the stories remain mere urban legend.