The Mind of a Savant
Bill Long 8/23/06
The Method of Precise Learning
One of the things often remarked about savants, of whom there are very few in our culture, is that several of them have prodigious and striking capacity to remember obscure things and recall them with great precision on other occasions. There has really been no study to document how widespread these prodigious memory skills is, but a figure of between 1 in 10 and 1 in 100 for people with autism (and that is fewer than 1 in 200 of the population) who have some kind of savant skills would probably be on the "high" end.
Let's pause on this number and phenomenon for a second. Scholars tells us that savant skills are demonstrated in a fairly narrow range of human activities. They are normally demonstrated in musical ability (most often piano performance), art (most often drawing, painting or sculpture), calendar calculation (ability to state the day of the week for any day over a period of several centuries), mathematics (including lighting-quick calculating skill) and spatial awareness (to measure distances accurately without instruments; to recall time precisely with no timepiece). Even rarer skiills are what as known as "prodigious language facility" or "unusual sensory discrimination in smell, touch, or vision, including synesthesia." So, a prodigious memory for specific facts would be an even smaller subset of the "savant" population. It is rare that any individual who is not studying the pheonomenon would know more than one or two of them throughout his or her life.
This having been said, no one has really come up with a theory about how the mind of a savant works. As this web site from the University of Wisconsin, the premier place for studying the phenomenon, says:
"A discussant of that paper remarked that the importance of the savant lies in our inability to explain him or her, and that the phenomenon of the savant remains a challenge to our capabilities. While there is as yet no over-arching theory that can explain all cases of savant syndrome, more progress has been made in the past 15 years than in the prior 100. Yet, as the discussant remarked, savant syndrome does remain a challenge to our capabilities."
Granted, that remark was made 40 years ago, and massive progress in studying the "syndrome" has been made since then, but the mind of the savant is still a mystery to most researchers. I would propose in this essay to disclose my theory of how the mind of a savant works. How do I know? Well, let me tell you a story...
Talking to a Friend
I was at a staff picnic the other night as we prepared for the upcoming academic year. While I was talking to one of the senior members of the faculty, he related this story to me. Several years ago he was at a brew pub listening to a jazz musician friend play for the evening. The musician taught English at a local college by day and sang by night. My colleague happened to have a friend of his in tow from Greece, Professor Costas Hadjikonstantinou. Over the din of the night, my colleague introduced Professor Hadjikonstnantinou to several people at the table, one of whom was the son of the musician. The son of the musician, let's call him Jeff, who was in his 30s at the time, had been diagnosed with Asperger's sydrome and had a prodigious ability in memory. As my colleague relates the story, he introduced Professor Hadjikonstantinou one time to Jeff, and he wasn't even sure if he could be heard over the sound of the music.
Several years later, my colleague ran into Jeff in another situation in our town. Without batting an eye, Jeff looked at him and said, "How is your friend Costas Hadjikonstantinou?" Jeff pronounced the name precisely correctly and matter of factly, as if he was asking about my colleague's wife or children. My colleague, who himself sports an impressive intellect and is very-well known in the international legal community, was absolutely floored. How can someone remember the complex name of a person said only once a decade previously over a jazz din in a brew pub?
Understanding the Savant's Mind
I have only met Jeff once, but I know his mother and his mother has told me stories of Jeff's prodigious memory abilities. He knows the birth dates of all of their friends, has precise memories of events from more than 40 years ago, and recalls things about people that have often just been mentioned once in a conversation. How does he do it? Here are three suggestions to get researchers "going further."
1. The Savant Mind is a Truly Uncluttered Mind. What I mean by this is that the savant, unlike most people, has the innate ability to close off information from the outside world except that information which s/he wants to focus on. It is as if one had a secret kind of microphone where one could enter into a room of 500 people conversing with one another and pick up the conversation of two people on the other side of the room without hearing anything that was being said in any other conversation. That is, the savant mind has an enormously effective filtering technique which allows it to mute all other sounds "out there" in order to focus exclusively on the desired fact.
This is a rare and entrancing ability. Most "normal" people experience the world as a series of sound-bytes. You overhear snippets of a conversation from someone else. You have a brief encounter with a clerk or service person. You answer the phone. You attend a talk. You read a news article. Maybe you have a chance to read a chapter of a book. You listen to your kids. You are bombarded with advertisements all over the place. You turn on the radio "for relief" and are assaulted with more ads. You enter into your own "IPOD" world and are assaulted with more words as the music hits your ears.
That is, the experience of living in America today is to be bombarded or assaulted with portions of tons of messages every day. Most of us have to discipline ourselves to listen only to a few messages or else we will be overwhelmed. But still we feel overwhelmed by all the "stuff" out there. We don't really have any time to sit down, be quiet, and just think or just let the quiet of the day touch us.
But this isn't true for the person, with autism or Asperger's or maybe even the "normal" person with prodigious memory skills. He or she has a capacity to tune everything out except the very thing he/she wants to learn. And, once you realize this about the person, you see that he/she is really only learning one thing, while the "normal person" is learning 1% of 100 things. Thus, the total content of the learning may be about the same, but the person with prodigious memory skills seems to be learning more because of the unique abiility.
The next essay explores two other ways the mind of a savant works.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long