The Awe-some World of a Savant

Life is a matter of perspective. What we see as a disability others see as ability. When we look at a person who has brain damage, the first thing most of us think of is what they can’t do. Fortunately, there are people in this world who take their disability and are able to outshine the highest expectations.

Our brains are amazing muscles. Unfortunately, we seem to be amazed and mystified all at the same time when problems within the brain are revealed. That is what we find when we look at the amazing world of savants – people with mental abilities beyond superpowers, but lacking in areas most of us would classify as mentally and socially deficient. What could lay beyond the complex puzzles of the human mind that would awaken abilities in those who otherwise would be lost in the world of the mentally challenged?

The world of a savant (sometimes called savant syndrome or savantism) opened up to the world with the release of the 1988 classical film, Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Hoffman’s character was loosely based on a real-life savant, Laurence Peek (11/11/1951-12/19/2009). Peek was categorized as a “megasavant” because he had eidetic (photographic) memory, but was born with congenital brain abnormalities.

Peek, unlike most savants, was not autistic. Doctors believe he had a rare genetic syndrome (FG syndrome) linked to the X chromosome, which caused developmental delays and physical abnormalities – like an extremely large head, retardation, hyperactivity, and low muscle tone. 

Not all savants are autistic or even have mentally challenged. Daniel Tammet (see video), for example, was born with normal or above normal intelligence, but suffers from epilepsy. For some reason, the seizures set off a reaction in the brain that allows him to be a highly functioning savant. His type of savantism is called Prodigious, and most with this condition are normal in every way, except for their amazing memory abilities – like playing music perfectly after only hearing it once, or completing complex mathematical equations in their head. This goes against the mainline theory that all savants are disabled or have low IQs, but doesn’t rule out the possibility that some form of dysfunction in the brain triggered these abilities.

There is still a lot to learn about savant syndrome. There is not definitive answer as to why there is such an unusual combination of extraordinary talent with mental dysfunction. Some scientists have suggested that autistics process information focusing on details, which produce extraordinary talents, even in those who are not savants.

Once again we see indication that our brains compensate for dysfunction by re-inventing itself. What amazing abilities these savants have. They are able to do naturally what it has taken me years to do a fraction of. I am in awe!

From the Desk of Ron White

 

Sources:

Huffington Post, Healthy Living – Cellist Memory Wiped Out From Virus, Doctors Stunned by Musical Memory: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/cellist-memory-wiped-out_n_1095448.html

Wikipedia – Savantism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savant_syndrome; Darold Treffert: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darold_Treffert; FG Syndrome: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FG_syndrome; Kim Peek: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Peek;

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