Mike Gillam, MD, FACEP, 11 August 2015
A growing body of clinical case studies of autistic savants along with acquired savantism is showing the dramatic possibilities unlockable from our own minds.
Savants have been shown to possess virtually superhuman mental capabilities such as Stephen Wiltshire who can draw entire cities virtually perfectly from memory. It took him three days to draw and entirely recreate this drawing of Rome from a single 45 minute helicopter ride.
Twenty five years ago, one of the most comprehensive books surveying the breadth of talents of autistic savants was
published covering over 40 case studies. The savants included the typically known skills of savants but also some rather unusual skills. One savant could immediately replay any music he heard on the piano whether heard on the radio, sung, or even hummed. Another had a photographic memory of every book he had ever read which included telephone directories. There were two twin autistic savants who swapped five and ten digit prime numbers. Their deficits were so severe that they lived in a nursing home. Every few days or so one brother would shout out a multi-digit prime number to the other brother. That brother would laugh uproariously and then a few days later shout out his own discovered prime number. The brother would laugh and the cycle would start again. Another autistic savant sat down one day and for over a month counted a bushel of wheat. He counted over 1 million grains. When he was done, he could multiply numbers together in his head with 30 digit answers. NASA tested him. It took him two months to multiple two numbers together and his 30 digit answer had just a few digits wrong. Another savant was able to create model boats of precise accuracy. In one nursing home basement, he constructed a 12 foot schooner with correct rigging, masts and more. Year after he died, the nursing home had little idea what to do with it, so it was broken into pieces and thrown out.
At least one scientist has tried to learn savant skills. One PhD student decided as his PhD thesis to learn a savant skill and chose calendar calculating – the ability to name the day given any date in history. An autistic savant with this skill when asked “September 14, 1452” might yield the answer “…was a Monday.” The PhD student began by writing down all the equations that needed to be learned. One has to account for leap years, Gregorian calendar adjustments and more. The equations took three pages double-sided. It took him six month to learn the skill. Yet, there was a problem. His answers took two to three minutes. Autistic savants with calendar calculating answer instantly. Despite his best efforts the student never could achieve the speed of the savants. He finished his thesis and graduated concluding that savant skills seemed out of reach for most of us. Two years later, walking down the street, he ran into an old friend who, remembering his skill, said, “what day is October 16, 1516” and out his mouth the answer came out immediately. He was surprised. They tried several more and he was able to answer instantly. Somehow his mind had “rewired” itself.
He described his success by comparing it to learning to ride a bike. Whenever he asked autistic savants how they learned their skills, they would reply, “I do it.” He would would reply, “yes, but how?” The savants would reply, “I do it.” They seemed unable to explain exactly how. This is much like riding a bike. No amount of verbal instruction can be given to enable another person to instantly ride a bike.
No amount of verbal instruction can be given to enable another person to instantly ride a bike. You just have to do it.
Yet, sit on a bike, and something almost magical happens. Insights occur, neurons reconnect, and suddenly you are able to balance properly and ride. The, now PhD, scientist concluded that many of us have never challenged ourselves to accomplish virtually any of the skills autistic savants demonstrate. Yet, the single factor he found consistent across savants separating them from people with ordinary skills is the savants ability to stay intensely concentrated for long periods of time. The suggestion was that if we too had the patient to count all the grains in an entire bushel of wheat that we might also learn multi-digit multiplication.
There is promise that savant skills might lie dormant in more of us than we might initially think. There have been almost 50 cases reported now of acquired savantism – people who had ordinary skill before an injury and acquired savant skills after brain damage. Derek Amato suffered head trauma and then was able to play the piano. Orlando Serrell gained calendar calculating ability after being hit in the head with a baseball at age 10 – another gained the ability after a gun shot wound to the head. One patient had a subarachnoid hemorrhage and afterwards gained the ability to paint and sculpt.
Recent clinical studies are bringing us closer to unlocking mental talent in people with ordinary skills. Two years ago, scientists used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to immobilize the same areas of the brain which was destroyed in some acquired savant cases. Of 28 volunteers, 40% of those receiving TMS were able to solve a line drawing challenge (connect nine dots, arrayed in rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen). None in the control group succeeded.
Progress in medical scanning and neural interfaces holds the promising of unlocking savant-like skills across broad populations. Image resolution of MRI has improved from 4mm in early generations to now less than 0.5mm. MRI scanning times have been reduced from milliseconds down to microseconds. Integrated examination protocols are extending the reach of MRI to fuse physiologic and metabolic data on top of the structural information from scans.
Integrated scanning protocols of savants holds the promise of revealing insights into learning pattern that can unlock savant-like abilities from ordinary talent anywhere. Education and learning could be transformed as we learn exactly what is the most effective way to learn. The combination of study and transcranial stimulation may mean that eventually, we may choose exactly of which books we wish to have perfect memory.
Savant skills that are unlockable may vary between people. Soon people might ask and find the answer to the question – what savant like skill may lay unlocked inside you?
—Mike Gillam, MD, FACEP 2015