Inside the incredible mind of a savant
When a baseball smashed into the side of Orlando Serrell's head as he made a frantic dash to first base, the then 10-year-old fell to the ground and stayed there, for several minutes.
Once he slipped out of his daze, he climbed to his feet and, with a splitting headache, continued to play the game. He did not tell his parents about the accident, so did not receive medical treatment, despite a headache that would persist for months.
Serrell had become what the scientific and medical worlds refer to as an acquired savant: someone who is perfectly ordinary until an injury to the brain, after which they possess a remarkable ability.
Serrell, from the US, was an ordinary child before he received that blow to the head on a Virginia baseball field in 1979. But one year later, when the headaches had cleared, it dawned on Serrell that he had been left with an uncanny side effect, one that has stayed with him. He could perform complex calendrical calculations in his head with dizzying speed and complete accuracy. The number of days between two dates, the number of times January 6 has fallen on a Saturday - Serrell could answer questions such as these in his head, and in an instant.
Professor Allan Snyder, Director Centre for the Mind. Photo: Steve Baccon
Since the accident, he remembers things in minute detail - the outfit a friend wore on a certain day years ago, the number plate of each car that has crossed his path, his every meal.
Serrell had become what the scientific and medical worlds refer to as an acquired savant: someone who is perfectly ordinary until an injury to the brain, after which they possess a remarkable ability, such as a photographic memory, a talent for a musical instrument despite no prior training, a sudden propensity for complex mathematical equations, the ability to sculpt or draw scale replicas of objects they've only glimpsed. Brain damage, usually to the left hemisphere, unlocks something in their brains as the right hemisphere compensates for the injury. The result is, very rarely, great skill, unfathomable to the ordinary person.
Not all savants acquire their skill - some are born with these abilities and are known as ''classical savants''. They usually fall somewhere on the autism spectrum and their skills tend to appear in early childhood. Classical savants may have great difficulty carrying out seemingly ordinary tasks such as social interaction or tying shoelaces, but despite this, possess remarkable talent in a specific area.
But what if these skills could be unlocked in ordinary people without having to inflict damage to the brain? Founder of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, Dr Allan Snyder, a neuropsychologist, is working to unlock extraordinary potential in ordinary minds. It is an area he has been investigating since the early 1990s.
''I had a radical idea that these skills must be latent within everyone,'' Snyder says. ''It's just that unlike savants, we don't have access to them.
''I thought maybe I could release it myself by decreasing the influence of the left brain hemisphere and enhancing the right.''
Savants are exceedingly rare, and Snyder says he is unaware of any acquired savants living in Australia. While estimates vary, it is thought about 10 per cent of the autistic population possess savant abilities, compared with less than 1 per cent of the rest of the population. Male savants outnumber females by about 6:1. Savants have a range of abilities. Some can speak dozens of languages, learning them at a rapid pace. Others are exceptional painters, sculptors and drawers. Many have memory skills that allow them to memorise telephone books. Their skills seem so remarkable because they would take years to learn, or seem impossible, for an ordinary person.
''I was inspired by the fact that music, art, mathematics and even memory are taken by many to be an exceptional ability in humans requiring laborious hours of study and training,'' Snyder says.
''And yet here, we have a group of people without a bigger or better brain than we do, just a different one, able to do these things.''
Snyder's first attempts to bring out the latent savant skills in his subjects were ''not so successful''. He and his researchers used magnetic pulses on participants' brains to temporarily make the area underneath the pulses less inhibited; in other words, simulating a lesion or damage.
''That was our first experiment,'' Snyder says. ''The results were good, but not brilliant. They were constant, but not enormous, people didn't suddenly show any enormous savant skills.''
Then, he turned to transcranial direct-current stimulation, where non-invasive and weak electrical currents are applied to the brain. It is considered safe, and is used as a treatment for conditions such as migraines and depression. Using this method, Snyder can make the networks of neurons near the surface of the brain less likely to fire. An electrode is placed on each side of the heads, over the anterior temporal lobes just above the ears.
A weak electric current then passes between the electrodes. The dose given, Snyder says, changes the behaviour of the underlying neurons in participants for about an hour. His experiments have shown during that 60-minute window that people are able to solve arithmetic problems that would ordinarily stump them.
During one experiment, 33 participants were asked to solve the notoriously difficult nine-dots problem, the goal being to connect all nine dots in a square formation using four straight lines, without lifting pen from paper. In the laboratory, Dr Snyder says, about 5 per cent of participants manage to solve it, even with hints and added time. In his experiment group, no participant could solve it. After receiving the stimulation, however, 14 of them cracked it. Snyder and his researchers calculated that the probability they had gone on to solve it by chance was less than one in a billion. The results were published in the journal Neuroscience Letters last year.
''We go through a rigorous scientific protocol to separate placebo affects from real affects,'' Snyder says. ''I'm really very confident there's no way this ability could be due to any other affects other than the stimulation.''
What had stopped participants from solving the problem initially was that people have rigid mindsets, researchers suspect, which make them less receptive and even resistant to novel interpretations and ideas. In a piece he wrote for Scientific American last November, Snyder describes prior learning and experience as shaping the way we see the world and allowing for mental short cuts. While these mental filters mean our minds are more conceptual, the savant mind, Snyder says, is more literal, their mental filters less powerful. As an example, he describes a savant who, when asked about the ending of a book, recited the last page word for word.
''We look at the world through filters, through our mindsets, which are carefully evolved to be able to manoeuvre rapidly in our world,'' Snyder says.
''We see the forest, not the trees. Savants see the trees, not the forest. It's why savants do very badly in tests where you ask them things like, 'What does it mean by the grass is always greener on the other side?' They want to interpret it literally.''
Genius is a word that gets used a lot when describing savants. To acquire an injury one day and be able to play the piano, or draw scale replicas of buildings seen only once the next is, in fact, extraordinary. But Snyder wonders if the word genius is quite right to describe these skills.
''Our brains are deliberately designed not to have access to peculiar skills, which in some instances are advantageous but mostly are bizarre,'' he says.
''The classical image of a savant, to me, is a person who has an ability to mimic things extraordinarily quickly and with detail. But a memory for licence plates, or knowing what dates a Saturday falls on - what kind of memory is that? It is a memory without meaning.
''We have the same memory power as savants do, their brains aren't bigger or better than ours. It's just more of our memory is devoted to conceptual detail, and more of theirs is devoted to literal details.''
So what would be the point of bringing these latent skills out in ordinary people, and finding a way of doing so that doesn't injure, but merely suppresses, neurons in the left hemisphere of the brain? Snyder refers to the nine-dots problem again. It was only when participants had their pre-existing prejudices dampened that they were able to solve the difficult task by coming at it in a different way. Imagine the seemingly impossible problems that could be solved and the different ways of seeing the world there could be, Snyder says, if we could break down these prejudices in everyone. Even just temporarily.
''Opening the doors of perception to be able to look at the world without prejudice, just for a moment, would be of enormous value,'' Snyder says. ''This technology we have, and the interaction between technology and the mind - if this could be perfected, then perhaps problems like nine dots are just the tip of the iceberg.''
The uniqueness of savants is what makes them so fascinating, and Snyder hopes that someday anyone will have access to the kind of technology he is experimenting with.
But if savant-like skills become something that could be induced in anyone, would it be unfair? Would it take the intrigue away from skills once seen as unique and unfathomable?
On this point, Snyder is focused firmly on the greater good. ''If I gave you a pill to increase intellectual ability, would you think it was cheating if you got a Nobel prize for curing cancer as a result of taking that pill?''
A brain injury when he was a child left Clemons with an IQ of between 40 and 50. But he was also left with the ability to sculp animals out of clay to incredible detail and at great speed, only needing to see an animal briefly to create a replica. He has shown his work at galleries and some have sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Tammet (below) is unique in that he is a high-functioning savant. While many autistic savants lack the ability to describe how they think, Tammet has documented the workings of his mind through a series of books, including the autobiographical Born on a Blue Day. He can learn a language in one week and performs calculations to 100 decimal places in his head.
Lemke was born with brain damage and glaucoma, which left him blind. He was 15 before he learnt to walk. But at the age of 16, his adoptive mother found him playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 after he had heard the piece once on television. Lemke can play all musical styles and is considered a musical prodigy, able to play a song after hearing it once, as well as composing his own pieces.
Trehin is an autistic savant who has created hundreds of maps and drawings of an imaginary French city, which he calls Urville. He has devoted his life to documenting Urville through maps and drawings of the city, which he says has a population of 12 million and is the capital of a large island province. He has published books devoted to it.