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Savant Syndrome : When Disabilities, Disorders and Injuries Give the Brain “Superpowers”

Research shows that 50% of those with savant syndrome also diagnosed with autism / Photo by 123rf.com

 

Being mentally impaired, having developmental disabilities or having serious head injuries may not always prove to be unfavorable. Out of these mental disorders, severe head or brain injuries and cognitive disabilities can spring forth prodigious talents which exceed that of an average individual’s. This kind of brain phenomena is known as the Savant Syndrome and those who have it are called savants.

Research shows that 50% of those who are savants are also those who are diagnosed with autism. There are also studies that reveal that the other 50% hail from those who have developmental disabilities and CNS (Central Nervous System) injuries.

Although this brain condition has only been recently brought to light with the fame of the movie Rain Man, which features a savant, it is an occurrence that still presents many questions to many cognitive and neuro experts alike.

 

 

Definition

During the year 1887, Dr. Langdon Down invented the word “idiot savant”. It was derived from the two terms “idiot” which meant someone who had low intelligence and the French word “savoir” which meant “knowing” or “wise”.

It was a term that was used to define an individual who had “extraordinary memory but with a great defect in reasoning power.”

 

Signs That Someone is a Savant

According to Dave Hiles, a psychology researcher,  a person is considered as a savant if:

1. They have a remarkable ability to memorize, record detail, or repeat an operation endlessly and efficiently

2. They have a means of giving expression to their ability

 

 

Types of Savants

Savants are categorized into three groups and these include:

1. Splinter Skills

This is when a person has certain skills that are contrary to their overall functioning.

2. Talented Savants

This kind of savant shows extreme ability that contrasts their disability.

3. Prodigious Savants

They are the ones whose ability is perceived as extraordinary even compared to those without disabilities.


 

The Categories of Savant Abilities

 

Their skills also have different classifications. These categories of their special abilities are:

 

1. Memorization

This involves a savant possessing a superior memory.

 

2. Lightning calculation

This is shown in the savant’s special ability to quickly calculate mathematical equations and being able to tell at a glance how many items are present without having to count them manually.

 

3. Calender Calculating

Savants with this ability are able to determine what specific day of the week a date is.

There is a study that shows that there is a savant who can identify this in the next and last forty thousand years.

 

4. Musical Ability

People with Savant Syndrome who possess this ability have the perfect pitch. They are able to play a musical piece after hearing it once and are able to replicate it perfectly.

Most savants who have musical abilities are blind and have learning disabilities.

 

5. Artistic Ability

These are savants that have special sculpture, painting and drawing skills.

 

6. Language Ability

This is an uncommon ability found in some savants. There was a study that showed there was a savant who could read, write and translate words in 15 to 20 different languages.

There was also a study that reveals there is a savant poet.

 

Causes

Since the cases of people having Savant Syndrome need further study, experts have not been able to identify its exact cause.

Healthguidance.org explains that there may be three possible causes why an individual has become a savant. These theories are:

1. Damage to left anterior lobe

The left anterior lobe is the part of the brain that deals with identifying objects and creating visual memories.It is reported that Savant Syndrome can stem from the damage of this area of the brain.

There are also some studies that claim that savant abilities can be triggered when the activities of the left anterior lobe are suppressed by transcranial magnetic stimulation.

When the activities of the left anterior lobe are hindered, they are reported to give individuals quicker access to raw information. This is what said to occur within a savant’s brain.

Normally, people only have access to data after it has been processed by other parts of the brain.

 

2. Acquired Savant Syndrome

In this case, a person develops savant abilities after having a brain injury or a disease.

 

3. “Empathizing-Systemizing” Theory

According to this theory of human psychology, people are part of the spectrum where they are either on the side of empathizing or the side of systemizing. It is further explained in this theory that there are people who interpret information and stimuli emotionally and empathetically while there are others who manage information logically and systematically.

Some experts theorize that the savants are on the systematizing spectrum. However, this theory has often been challenged.
 

Famous People With Savant Syndrome

Inevitably, because of their unique and extraordinary talents and abilities, there are savants who have become very popular.

Among the well-known individuals who have Savant Syndrome are Kim Peek, Gottfried Mind, Jedediah Buxton and Stephen Wiltshire as listed by Neatorama.

Kim Peek

Kim Peek is popularly known as the “Kimputer” and is the basis for the main character in Rain Man.

At birth, he already had a severe braincase of brain damage. As a child, the doctor had told his father that he was hopeless and that because of his serious developmental disabilities, he would be unable to walk or even learn.

The doctor even suggested to Kim’s father that he should leave him in a mental institution. However, he did not heed the doctor’s advice.

Presently, Kim has trouble with motor skills and walking. Since he has difficulty with motor skills, he cannot even button his own shirt. He also scores below average in IQ tests.

Despite this, he displays the extraordinary ability to remember all the details of the 12,000 books he has read and can read two pages at once. He is able to read those two pages in three seconds with his right eye reading the right page and his left eye reading the other.

He is also able to remember facts and trivia from 15 different subjects. These include remembering information about history, geography, and sports.

Remarkably, if anyone tells him a random date, he is also able to identify what particular day of the week it is.

To add to his already amazing repertoire of skills, he can recall every music he has ever heard in his entire lifetime.

With the advent of the Rain Man, he and his father have been traveling across the globe for guest appearances.

 

Gottfried Mind

Gottfried Mind is known to be one of the earliest savants recorded in history, dating back to 1776.

His skill was discovered when his mentor Sigmund Hendenberger asked him to draw a better version of his cat illustration. This was because when Gottfried saw Sigmund drawing a cat, he exclaimed, “That’s no cat!”

He was then told to sit in a corner so he could prove that he could do better. Afterward, he showed a cat illustration that was so lifelike, he was dubbed as the “Cat’s Raphael”.

He was also described as an individual who was friendly towards animals, especially cats. Conversely, he was unsociable towards other people. He had such an extreme affinity for cats that sometimes he would even exhibit awkward postures so as not to disturb them from sleeping. Cats would accompany him as he made his masterpieces and some of them would make themselves comfortable on his lap.

Gottfried was also noted to keep frogs floating in a bottle beside his easel. In relation to this, he was known to talk to these cats and frogs in a lively, fun-loving manner.

 

Gottfried Mind drawing of rats and a cat / Photo by Wikimedia Commons

 

Jedediah Buxton

Jedediah Buxton was an English savant born in 1707  who was deemed as one of the world’s earliest mental calculators.

In spite of his inability to write, he was gifted with numbers. In fact, he viewed everything in life through the “lens” of numbers.

For instance, whenever he watched a dance, he would be counting their steps instead of focusing on their graceful movements. While being an audience for a play, instead of watching for the story he would mentally count how many words the actors said.

Additionally, he was able to get to the exact measurement of the part of the village he was born just by walking around it.

In 1754, the Royal Society decided to challenge his abilities and the result was that he could compute numbers up to 39 figures.

Stephen Wiltshire

Stephen Wiltshire is the savant who is also known as the Human Camera.

Stephen suffered from being mute during his childhood. He was also found to be autistic and was sent to a special needs school. In that school, he developed a great interest in drawing.

He began illustrating animals, followed by London buses, buildings, and landmarks. During his childhood, he was only able to “talk’ in drawings. Fortunately, with the help of his teachers, he was able to learn to speak at age nine. The first word he uttered was “paper”.

Stephen has the talent of fully capturing in his drawings the details of a landscape of a city.

After a helicopter ride to Tokyo, he was able to draw in precision a ten-meter long panorama of its landscape.

 

The Mystery That is the Savant

Until now, not much is known about the Savant Syndrome condition. Some experts believe that the secret to being able to fully comprehend human memory and cognition lies in being able to find out more about the savant. Their exceptional abilities that contrast their handicaps still puzzle many scientists who specialize in cognition and brain development.

For now, the only thing known about savants is that their brains are able to acquire raw data much quicker than an average brain. The rest is still a mystery that other researchers still need to unlock.

 

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