Would You Want to be a Savant?
|Kim Peek, image courtesy of|
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.
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.
Want to cite this post?
Banja, J. (2017). Would You Want to be a Savant? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on April 26, 2017, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2017/04/would-you-want-to-be-savant.html