The Mind of a Savant II
Bill Long 8/23/06
I argued in the previous essay that the idiot savant with prodigious memory is enabled to memorize and learn primarily because he (normally it is a male) has an innate filtering device in which he can blot out all the "noise" of the world and focus on the one desired fact or text until it is, as it were, stiched to the soul. I am not sure how to articulate this in terms of brain theory, which is all the rage today. But someone who spends his or her time in neuroscience ought to have a pretty sophisticated understanding by now of the various filtering devices a person uses in receiving and sorting information. Can anyone help me here? Thus, to change the image, a person with prodigious and precise memory, like Jeff in the previous essay, has as it were one extremely well developed bicep, while the other parts of the body may not be very well develped physically. With his right arm he can, as it were, curl 150 pounds while he gets exhausted on the cardio machine within a minute.
But this filtering ability isn't the only thing that such a person can do.
Focus on the Unusual
The autistic/Asperger/"normal" person with prodigious memory skills also understands that he sees the world in an unusual way. He knows that he isn't "in step" with the rest of the world. Often he regrets this considerably, wishing that he could be "like" everyone else, everyone else who seems to relate so easily with each other, engage in free-flowing banter, get girl friends so easily, and have a wonderful life. Instead, the prodigious memory person is almost consigned, as he thinks of it, to focus on the unusual and make the unusual the defining characteristic of his life. Why is the savant drawn to the unusual?
Why does he see the world through a prism of his own? I think it is because of the way that unusual things "strike" him. Let's take the phenomenon of sound, because that is what was at issue in the previous essay. When Jeff heard the word "Costas Hadjikonstantinou," his ear-sense was tickled in a way it previously had not been touched. Though he could probably have easily remembered if the person said his name was "Frank Johnson," the unusual collection of sounds coming together created a sort of invitation for Jeff to keep these sounds together. That is, the savant of prodigious memory knows that the world "links together" in certain ways, ways that he can't join, and that this "linkage" makes certain "sounds," sounds which are normal and predictable. He learns enough of those sounds to survive in the world. But his ear is attuned to the slightly jarring, the thing a little out of the mainstream, where rhythm and sound combine to form a new combination. And, since the savant often has little ability creatively to relate one concept to another, he is delighted to have this new sound to focus on.
Actually, he leaps on this sound as if it holds the key to life's mysteries. It does not simply attract or allure. It carries with it a sense of hope--a hope that by mastering the word or sound one will be able to know one more thing, one more piece of data and perhaps someday be able to master enough data so as to be able to relate well in a "normal" world. Thus, not only is the person of prodigious memory drawn to these new and strange or unusual sounds, but he sees them, however unconsciously, as his ticket to normalcy. Thus, he pounces on them with rare and dogged determination.
Remembering the Name
But after the name is first heard, one has to, as it were, transfer it from the short-term to long-term memory. Though scholars are begininng to question the "hard and fast"-ness of this distinction in memory, it is still a useful division to emphasize the point that we often forget in the long term things that we were able to recall in the short term. The mind of a savant works to develop exercises to transfer the unusual fact automatically to the long-term memory.
Let me illustrate this by suggesting how an autistic/Asperger/"normal" person with prodigious memory "moves" data from short-term to long-term memory. One exercise is what I call the "look in the mirror" exercise. A person with prodigious memory who is only learning one fact (rather than memorizing a text, for example) will often look in the mirror and say something seemingly ridiculous such as, "I wonder how Costas Hadjikonstantinou would think about this face?" Or, while sitting down to eat breakfast, would say to himself, "I wonder if some day I will get a chance to meet and eat breakfast with Costas Hadjikonstantinou?" When you multiply these situations in life you can see how a person will soon have the name of Costas Hadjikonstantinou etched in his memory.
Then, he can do other things. One of the ways to make sure that the name "sticks" (because that is what the person of prodigious memory really wants to happen) is to make up songs in which the person's name can be inserted at various places. Normally, the person will not make up the tune--it will be taken from familiar music to him, such as music from the "60's" or hymn tunes, if he was brought up going to church. He might take the first lines of the hymn: "Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation," and change them, in mind, to "Praise ye the Lord, the Al-Costas Hadjikonstantinou"....or something like that. In any case, the name will keep recurring in various songs until it is so deeply connected to the mind that it is well-nigh ineradicable. Then, he is ready for the next unusual fact...
One of the points of the popular movie Rain Man, from the late 1980s, is that close exposure to people with autism/Asperger's or "normal" people with prodigious memory skills, changes the people with whom they interact. If we really listen to them and try to understand them, we are transformed in our minds and understanding. As the person with prodigious memory knows, it is all in how you listen...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long