Friday, February 23, 2007

A brief post on savants and the savant syndrome:
The other day my wife called me excitedly and told me to listen to a show on NPR about a man named Daniel Tammet and his amazing feats of memory (which included the recitation of irrational numbers - non-repeating non-terminating decimal numbers like pi to 22,000 places). I had not heard of him before this, but I knew that she was talking about a savant.

Although the formal meaning of the word is "a learned person or a scholar", it is more commonly engaged to refer to people who possess astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent (like exactly remembering the day of the week and the weather of any given day of their lives). In many cases it is manifested due to various beural developmental disorders, including autistic disorder.

It is one thing to read about stuff like this and be amazed, but I was astounded to run into the following documentary on the web that talks about this man abilities. If you have about an hour, please do not miss out on.

Excerpt from a book by Daniel Tammet:
I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 97, 79 and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and 1. I can recognize every prime up to 9,973 by their “pebble-like” quality. It’s just the way my brain works. I have a rare condition known as savant syndrome, little known before its portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man.

Commonly the savant syndrome has been associated with people who have undergone some kind of a traumatic change in their brains (be it an epileptic seizure or a blow to certain parts of the cranium or in some cases be born with symptoms of synesthesia or autism), but it is also strongly argued by some researchers like Professor Alan Snyder at the Centre for the Mind in Sydney who state that it is not only savants who have these extraordinary abilities, but that everyone does. However, he suggests that in normal people it is suppressed by the other natural forces involved in the brain’s operation.

Snyder uses Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to try to recreate the same brain state in normal individuals that is observed in autistic savants and so stimulate the same type of creativity. (I am personally a little dubious, but whatever type of research it takes for us to understand this phenomenon better is fine with me).

It is still unclear on the exact neurobiology behind manifestations like this in individuals but people like Daniel offer modern day scientists a great opportunity to study the inner workings of our brains and how aberrations in the neural circuitry can positively effect our mental capabilities.

PS: There is a theory that some of this happens when there is damage to the left hemisphere at some stage in the individuals life that is compensated by right hemispheric activities coupled with damage to cognitive memory circuits compensated by larger takeup of circuits involved I the formation and manifestation of habit based memory (taken from “Islands of Genius” by Darold Treflert.

I found some very good research material on the web mainly in the form of papers and it might be worth taking a look at some of this if you wish to understand this phenomenon better

We are all savants – Diane Powell

The cognitive neuroscience of creativity Arne Dietrich American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon

Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses - Snyder et. al. Perception, 2006, volume 35, pages 837 ^ 845

Savant like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe - Snyder et. al. (Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 2, No. 2, 149-158 (2003))

The uncanny abilities of Idiot savants - Donald K. Snyder

Commentary on Michael Winkelman, ‘Shamanism and cognitive evolution’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12, 91-3, 2002

Blue Nines and Red Words – Daniel Tammet

6 comments:

Angela said...

Those cases are truely inspiring to me!
Have you seen the movie "Benny & Joon"? Very interesting...both of the lead characters(played by Johnnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson)...have different artistic abilities. They also have mental illnesses..etc. One more then the other...you should check it out if you have not seen it. I am sure that you would find it rather interesting.

jafabrit said...

I really like how he describes using colours and shapes to visualize numbers like pebbles and the colour blue. Very interesting.

Vinod said...

Hey Sunil! You blog certainly has been very busy...lots to catch up on since I'm visiting after a month. Can't say the same for my blog!

I read your piece in Art and Perception- very interesting. Your latest works are amazing too, in my oipinion. And it seems you are keeping up with the latest in neuroscience as well....how do you do it all?!!!

Ran Halprin said...

Very interesting, linked to you in my blog :)

Sunil said...

Angela,
I plan to see "Benny and Joon" as soon as possible. It might be a good thing to compare to Rainman... I am not too sure who but someone never referred to illnesses of the mind as mental illness, they just said that it was a mental state that lets a person experience the world in a different way... I believe this is true especially when you consider the chemical nature of neuronal communication.. Anyway that is another post - another story...

Thanks Jafabrit. Yes, it is very interesting how small changes in our neuronal machinery profoundly change our perceptions...

Vinod,
Good to see you back here again. It has been a while since I saw any new motorcycle rides on your blog (am assuming that once summer comes again, I can vicariously ride with you again)
As far as time is concerned, I try and read during my commute about an hour and a half each way. Art, I manage to get some work done after my son goes to sleep (post 10 o clock). Glad you liked the contents of my post on Art and Perception...

Ran,
I remember visiting your blog in December and I guess it was because of exams you could not update your blog too much. But I look forward to more posts from you on the brain when your exams are over. I am glad that you are considering savants as a research topic.

Sunflower Optimism said...

Catching up here - did I ever send you the NY TImes article about this man? I meant to. Let me know, I can find and send.