“Islands of Genius”: What Savant Syndrome Could Show Us

By Amanda Bertsch

Note: this essay was written for the Math Honors class. If any students have interesting essays or assignments they would like to share, please email them to alexandre.dubroy@student.tricityprep.org.


What are savants?

Savants are people who have mental handicaps, often severe, but possess incredible skills. Most of these skills are contained in five general categories: music, calendar calculations, mathematics, art, and spatial skills. Musical skills are perhaps the most common and usually include perfect pitch and unusual skill at the piano; interestingly enough, blindness tends to be associated with musical savants as well. Calendar calculations involve being able to tell what day of the week any given date fell on, no matter how far in the past or future it lies. Mathematical skill is not being able to understand complex math—on the contrary, mathematically gifted savants rarely comprehend even arithmetic. Rather, they can perform lightning calculations or quickly compute huge prime numbers. Spatial skills are often the ability to measure distances extremely accurately without any tools, construct complicated models perfectly, or give the best directions to a location based on memorized maps.

While other skills have occasionally been recorded, these five areas are where most savant talents lie. All savants are also blessed with rapid memorization and a near-perfect memory in the areas where they are talented. Most savants only have talent in one area, but there are exceptions. Autistic savants are the most likely to be multi-talented.

However, not all savants have the amazing skills that so captivate the rest of society. “Splinter skills” occur when a person has the memory and mental handicaps that mark savant syndrome and a preoccupation with useless trivia. These people may memorize anything from candy brands to the sound of a Keurig machine. “Talented savants” have (usually one) honed skill. Their talent is very obvious when compared to their overall skills, but would not be noteworthy in a person with no mental handicaps. Finally, the rarest are “prodigious savants”, who have skills that would be exceptional even if they were observed in a person with no mental handicaps. There are around 100 known prodigious savants worldwide.

Perhaps the most famous prodigious savant is the fictional character of Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man, based on a real man named Kim Peek. Mr. Peek’s doctors recommended that he be institutionalized and/or lobotomized in the early years of his life, telling his family that he would never be able to read. However, memorized most of the works of Shakespeare, all of the postal codes in the United States, and huge amounts of trivia on all subjects. He could also give directions instantly to any major US city, identify hundreds of classical compositions (giving where they were first performed and biographical details about the composer) and discuss the components of the music, and tell what day of the week any date fell on. He read over 12,000 books and was able to read one page with each eye simultaneously. He died in 2009 at the age of 58.


How were savants discovered?

Records of savant syndrome exist from as early as 1783, when a German scientific journal published a report on Jedediah Buxton, a savant with lightening calculation abilities. Another early lightening calculator was Thomas Fuller, who, when asked how many seconds old a man was who had lived for 70 years, 17 days, and 12 hours, he gave the correct answer (2,210,500,800) in 90 seconds, even factoring in 17 leap years.

A specific description of savant syndrome came in 1887 when Dr. J. Langdon Down (better known for describing Down’s syndrome) gave a lecture and presented 10 cases of savant syndrome. He christened the children he had observed as “idiot savants”—“idiot” being a term used at the time to describe those with an IQ under 25, and “savant” from the French “savoir” meaning “to know”. This terminology has been discarded, for “idiot” is both insensitive and inaccurate (most savants have IQs above 40).

Who are the savants?

Although many still use the term “autistic savant” to describe those with savant syndrome, only half of savants are autistic, and the rest have other brain disorders or mental handicaps. As many as 1 in 10 autistics have some form of savant syndrome, usually in the form of splinter skills.

Interestingly enough, there are 6 savant syndrome males to every savant syndrome female (the ratio for autism is 4:1). This may be due to brain development in the womb. The left hemisphere of the brain develops later than the right hemisphere, and so it is subjected to negative influences for longer periods. High amounts of circulating testosterone in a male fetus can slow growth and impair function of the left hemisphere of the brain; autism in particular is associated with left hemisphere deficiencies.

Savant skills, once acquired, will never go away. However, a number of successful musical and artistic savants have moved past the replication that was considered their savant syndrome “skill” to create artwork of their own. While these individuals still retain their ability to replicate, they can extend their abilities to creative works.

While savants, and indeed all autistic and mentally handicapped individuals, have often been portrayed as lacking all social skills, numerous examples have shown that savant syndrome can aid individuals in reaching out to the world around them. By “training the talent” instead of attempting to eliminate deficiencies, educators can encourage savants to share their skill with the world around them. The aforementioned Kim Peek did just this, and became quite social after the exposure that Rain Man gave him.

How does savant syndrome happen?

Nearly all of the time, savants are born, not made. Some believe certain cases of savant syndrome may be genetic. While not all savants have a history of similar skills in their families, most have at least a family disposition to high achievement. Thus, it may be that autistic children of, say, a neurosurgeon and a mechanical engineer may be more likely to be savants than children of two janitors, regardless of the actual IQs of the parents. Savant syndrome seems to follow where parents are both successful and supportive.

Some have hypothesized that the right hemisphere “compensates” for injuries or impairments in the left brain by growing more, which may result in the improvement of skills often associated with the right brain. This very well may be the case with born savants, but most of this development would occur before birth. What about people who acquire savant skills?

Acquired savants are neurotypical people who suffer severe central nervous system injuries. While they may experience PTSD or mental impairments, they also develop incredible savant skills, sometimes without any negative effects! Very few acquired savants have ever been recorded, and most of these were injured before the critical age of about 26, when the brain is essentially done with development. Scientists believe that the signals released by dying neurons can occasionally trigger another spurt of development in the rest of the brain, restructuring areas and resulting in savant skills.

What can we learn from savant syndrome?

Here lies the burning question: can we induce savant-like skills in people? The cases of acquired savant syndrome suggest that our brains have the capacity to do far more than we have ever imagined. If someone has immense mathematical or musical or spatial skills lying dormant, can we induce these? Can we choose which skills to give someone, or does each person have a specific set of things they could be really good at?

Savant syndrome, at its core, is special skills + incredible memory. The memory is perhaps the easier area to examine, so we start there. The dominant theory in neuroscience for a very long time was that most memories are erased over time, but common opinion is beginning to shift. Many scientists who have studied savant syndrome now believe that the brain retains a continuous memory of everything that has occurred. Memory “triggers” as simple as “hey, remember that one kid in grade school who hated pineapples?” can allow people to recall things they were convinced they forgot, like the name of the kid in question. Some brain surgeons report being able to touch a probe to an area in a person’s brain and have that person recall memories of their third birthday or a long-forgotten Saturday afternoon. In additional, chemical forms of hypnosis have shown some success. It seems clear that these memories are still retained; the issue is activating them.

As for the development of specific savant skills, neurologists still don’t know exactly how these skills are determined or even why certain fields are more likely to be displayed as savant skills. Some obscure physiology may be in play, or it may simply be a matter of chance. Some studies have shown limited success with stimulating areas of the brain to create a temporarily increased math or music skill, and it may be possible to one day create a Flowers for Algernon ­­­–style temporary intelligence enhancement. As for permanent enhancements, the cases of acquired savants have shown that this is also a possibility, if we can only learn more about how these restructurings work in the first place. It seems certain that we all have a bit of a Rain Man inside.