Savant syndrome is an incredibly rare and extraordinary condition where individuals with neurological disorders acquire remarkable ‘islands of genius’. What’s more, these ‘superhuman’ savants may be crucial in understanding our own brains. ‘Savant’, derived from the French verb savoir meaning ‘to know’, is a term to describe those who suffer from a condition that often has an profound impact on their ability to perform simple tasks, like walking or talking, but show astonishing skills that far exceed the cognitive capacities of most of the people in the world. Autistic savants account for 50% of people with savant syndrome, while the other 50% have other forms of developmental disability or brain injury. Quite remarkably, as many as 1 in 10 autistic people show some degree of savant skill.
The best known autistic savant was a character played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’’. What few people know is that this character was based around the unbelievable skills of a real-life savant called Kim Peek. Kim Peek suffered from developmental abnormalities that meant he was born with a malformed cerebellum – which lies at the back of the brain and is important for coordinating movement and thoughts – and without the corpus callosum, the sizable stalk of nerve tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Known by friends as ‘Kim-puter’, his astonishing powers of memory fascinated scientists for years. Quite literally, he had a phenomenal capacity to store extraordinary quantities of information in his mental ‘hard drive’. He also had a profound ability to recall information, close to the speed at which a search engine can scope the internet. In 2009, at the age of 54 he had read 9,000 books, all of which he could recite off by heart. He could simultaneously read the left page with his left eye, and the right page with his right eye. What seems quite unbelievable is that at the age of 58 he was still unable to perform everyday simple tasks such as buttoning his clothes. He could not comprehend simple proverbs and struggled greatly in social situations, yet is considered one of the most powerfully gifted savants of all time.
Considering the vast repertoire of human ability, it is fascinating that other savant skills mostly occur in a narrow range of just 5 specific categories:
- 1. Music
Leslie Lemke was born with cerebral palsy and brain damage, and was diagnosed with a rare condition that forced doctors to remove his eyes. Leslie was severely disabled: throughout his childhood he could not talk or move. He had to be force-fed in order to teach him how to swallow and he did not learn to stand until he was 12. Then one night, when he was 16 years old, his mother woke up to the sound of Leslie playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Leslie, who had no classical music training, was playing the piece flawlessly after hearing it just once earlier on the television. Despite being blind and severely disabled, Leslie showcased his remarkable piano skills in concerts to sell-out crowds around the world for many years.
- 2. Art
Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed as mute and severely autistic at an early age. Despite having no language or communication skills, at the age of 7, he began the first of many masterful detailed architectural drawings of cityscapes that were remarkably accurate. Known as the ‘Human Camera’ Stephen can draw these landscapes after only observing them briefly. In 2005, Stephen completed a 10m-long accurate drawing of a Tokyo skyscraper panorama from memory after just one short helicopter ride.
- 3. Calendar calculating
George and Charles Finn, known as the ‘Bronx Calendar Twins’ were both autistic savants. Their particular skill was being able to calculate the day of any date in the past and the future. This talent extended so far that they could accurately calculate any day 40,000 years backwards and forward.
- 4. Mathematics
The first documented savant in 1789 was Thomas Fuller, who was severely mentally handicapped but had unbelievably rapid mathematical calculating abilities. When asked how many seconds a man had lived who was 70 years, 17 days, and 12 hours old, he gave the correct answer of 2,210,500,800 in 90 seconds, even correcting for the 17 leap years included.
- 5. Mechanical or Spatial Skills
Ellen Boudreaux, despite being blind and autistic, could navigate her way around without ever bumping into things. As she walks, Ellen moves around using echolocation: – she makes chirping noises that bounce off objects in her path such that she can detect the reflected sound, a bit like human sonar.
Interestingly, savant syndrome is four times more likely to occur in men than women. This intriguing difference has sparked much interest in the scientific community, and subsequently the ‘right compensation theory’ of savant ability was established. It appears that during foetal development, the left hemisphere of the brain develops slightly slower than the right hemisphere, and is thus subject to detrimental influences at different stages. High levels of circulating testosterone makes the male foetus more susceptible to damage because this sex hormone can impair neuronal function and delay growth of the vulnerable hemisphere. It was proposed that the right hemisphere may then compensate for this impaired growth, by overdeveloping. So while savants may not be able to walk or talk, the skill development on the other side of the brain is highly advanced, and so may lead to these amazing ‘superhuman’ skills. Left hemisphere damage is often seen in autistic patients, so this theory of ‘left damage/right compensation’ may explain how the savant brain develops differently from others’. Although this theory seems credible, the highly diverse nature of savant syndrome means that no single hypothesis can explain every case.
What is important to consider is that not all savants have developmental neurological disorders. The syndrome does sometimes emerge as a consequence of severe brain injury. Orlando Serrell is an ‘acquired savant’ who at 10 years old, was violently struck on the left hand side of his head by a baseball. Following the incident, Orlando suddenly exhibited astonishing complex calendar calculating abilities and could accurately recall the weather of every day since the accident. Orlando’s case and others alike imply the intriguing possibility that a hidden potential for astonishing skills or prodigious memory exists within all of us, expressed as a consequence of complex and unknown triggers in our environment. The prospect of dormant ‘superhuman’ gifts is a much debated topic, and may have a whole range of implications for the future.
These examples are just few of the thousands of savants suffering from autism and other neurological disorders that exist in the world today. While all the anatomical and psychological evidence contests the development of such skills, the reality of such a syndrome questions our modern understanding of ‘normal’ brain functioning. Until we can establish how savant syndrome skills emerge, it is difficult to certify that any proposed models of human cognition and memory are reliable representations of neurological behaviour.
By Isabelle Abbey-Vital