Savant Syndrome

Ellie Marshall

Can you think of any talents you possess? Perhaps you’re a great runner or are skilled at playing an instrument? Now imagine that you didn’t have to work for those talents at all, and that they are beyond all normal human capabilities. This is what it is like to have Savant syndrome.

Savant syndrome is a rare phenomenon where a person possesses unexplained and remarkable talents despite mental or physical disabilities. Almost all congenital savants have some form of brain damage, usually to the left hemisphere and around 50% of savants have autism. The remaining 50% either have some form of damage to or disease of the central nervous system. Due to this, some people can acquire savant like abilities later in life after a head injury, dementia, concussion, epilepsy or other brain disturbances.

Exceptionally deep but narrow memory is common to all savants, which allows them to excel at certain activities. For example, one boy could recite the route and time table of every bus in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Such talents can be placed into 5 categories: music, usually performance and mostly piano, with perfect pitch but sometimes composing instead or playing multiple instruments (up to 22 in some cases); art, usually painting drawing or sculpting; lightning calculation, including the ability to calculate prime numbers; calendar calculation; and visual-spatial ability, including the capacity to precisely measure distances without the use of instruments, the ability to construct complex models with painstaking accuracy and map making. Skills are usually singular, although multiple skills can be possessed in some cases. The most common savants are ‘human calendars’ and have the ability to rapidly calculate the day of any given date or recall personal memories from that particular date.

Image credit: Derek Amato

One of the most famous savants is the late Kim Peek, who inspired the character ‘Raymond Babbitt’ in the 1988 film ‘Rain man’. Kim was born with a developmental disability but memorised over 6000 books and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, sports, geography, music, literature and nine other areas of expertise. He could name all the US area codes and major city zip codes. He also memorised maps found in the front of telephone books and could tell you exactly how to get from one city to another and then how to travel around that city street by street. One of his most remarkable qualities was his ability to read books at lightning speed by simultaneously scanning one page with the left eye and the other with the right eye. MRI scans showed he lacked a corpus callosum (part of the brain that transfers information between hemispheres) with other central nervous system damage. Despite his brilliant mind, Kim had an IQ of 87, markedly lower than average and struggled to follow certain directions.

Contrastingly, Derek Amato was born without any brain dysfunction. However, aged 39 he suffered a head injury in a pool that caused him to suffer from headaches, memory loss and 35% hearing loss in one ear. Several weeks later something dramatic happened. Whilst round at a friend’s house, he spotted a cheap electric keyboard and without thinking he sat at it. He had never played the piano, nor had any previous inclination to, but his fingers found the keys by instinct and to his amazement rippled across them. He started with his right hand, playing arpeggios and climbing in lyrical chains of triads. His left hand followed, laying down bass and picking out harmonies. Amato sped up, slowed down, varied the volume and was soon playing chords as if he had been playing for years. When he finally stopped and looked up, his friend was in tears. Amato found he an overwhelming compulsion to play and would shut himself in for as long as two to three days exploring his new skill.

So, what is the mechanism behind this? There are many theories as to why this occurs, but the most widely accepted theory is as follows: When the left hemisphere and higher-level memory circuits of the brain become damaged, parts of the undamaged brain are recruited to compensate. Lower level memory capacities are also recruited. This is known as cross-modal neuroplasticity. It has been established that some savants operate by accessing low level, less processed information that exists in all human brains but is not usually available to conscious awareness. For example, instead of seeing a whole tree, they would see every individual leaf and branch. However, some argue that this ‘recruitment’ of new areas of the brain to replace damaged areas and develop new skills is a ‘release’ of pre-existing areas, previously masked by more dominant areas of the brain.

Savantism occurs in males more often than females in a ratio of 6:1, the reason being for this that males are more likely to develop disorders involving damage to the left hemisphere such as autism, dyslexia and delayed speech. The left hemisphere develops slower than the right, meaning it has greater susceptibility to pre-natal influences. Testosterone has a neurotoxic effect and can slow the growth of the left hemisphere, allowing the right hemisphere to become bigger and more dominant in compensation. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for art awareness, creativity, imagination, intuition, insight, music awareness and holistic thought.

We cannot fully model brain function until we can account for and incorporate savant syndrome. Understanding this condition has wide implications regarding buried potential in some, if not all of us. If such potential could lie dormant in Amato, who knows what spectacular abilities lie dormant in us?


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