Using Savantism to Explain Why Some of Us Are Explosively Creative

Josh Clark

There's a pretty neat model of savantism, that condition where a person has amazing creative or mathematic skills, oftentimes while also suffering from some debilitating mental disorder, such as autism. The two go hand-in-hand frequently enough that an collective term, autistic savantism, describes the presence of both in a single person. It's like Rain Man: Dustin Hoffman's character (based on a real-life autistic savant named Kim Peek) was mentally challenged but could also count the 246 toothpicks that spilled from a box in a diner.

That was a scene from a movie, sure, but the actuality isn't far off. Kim Peek was reading at 16 months of age and didn't stop until his death in 2009. He is thought to have read as many as 10,000 books and could rattle off most of the content of any of them from memory; all this despite having the below average IQ of 87. "Blind Tom" Wiggins, was an autistic savant who lived as a slave in 19th-century Georgia. He could play any song on the piano or recite any poem after hearing it only once and grew to be a prolific composer, despite being mentally challenged.

It's pretty tough not to sound like a carnival barker when describing Kim Peek, Blind Tom and any other autistic savant. But wait, there's more!

While Tom and Kim and, apparently, all autistic savants are born with their amazing powers and mental challenges, in recent years neurology has come to be aware of perhaps an even more amazing example, the acquired savant. Seemingly ripped from the pages of a bad pulp novel, acquired savants are everyday people who suffer some sort of brain damage, typically from a blow to the head, and find afterward that it has given them some amazing talent.

A guy named Jason Padgett was beaten by muggers and is now thought to be the only person alive who can draw mathematically-accurate fractals by hand. (He couldn't do that before.) Orlando Serrell was hit in the head with a baseball as a child and afterward found he can tell you the weather, the day of the week and what he was doing for any date since that day. A guy named Tommy McHugh had a brain aneurysm and found he had a new talent for art after he recovered.

Out of the presence of savantism in both people who have autism and those who have suffered brain damage, an idea to explain unusual artistic, mathematic or detail-oriented abilities has emerged that unites the two. As I said in the beginning, it's pretty neat. Basically, it says that all of us have any of these abilities hiding latent in our brains. The reason that we can't do any of those things without taking a blow to the head is due to what one researcher asserts is called the "tyranny of the prefrontal cortex."

In short, our brains are machines capable of tremendous processing power. They are also compartmentalized in their talents. So one region is adept at, say, drawing and another at counting and still another at remembering dates. But none of these regions really gets a chance to shine because the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain in charge of executive function like predicting consequences, focusing attention and examining emotions, doesn't have time to count toothpicks or draw perfect horses. It's paying attention to more important things, like keeping your whole life from falling apart. And it recruits the processing power and taps the talents of the various regions of your brains to work in conjunction to carry out these tasks. But absent the prefrontal cortex, say as the result of a blow to this region, its tyrannical reign is over and while the organism may be less focused on the social consequences of its behavior, it can sure draw a pretty mean map of a city entirely from memory.

The prefrontal tyranny isn't the only model to explain savantism, although it seems that many follow the same intuitive thread, that there is a part of our brain that is explosively creative in math, memory or art (the right hemisphere) but is fettered by another part of the brain (the left hemisphere). This overarching idea finds support in that many acquired savants suffered damage to their left hemisphere and that Kim Peek was born without a sizable portion of his corpus colossum, which allows the hemispheres to communicate. With the left brain either damaged or unable to communicate with the right brain, the latter is free to create unfettered by the rational demands of the former. One Australian researcher named Allan Snyder uses transcranial magnetic stimulation to encourage or disrupt the functions of brain regions he trains his electromagnets over. While initially confronted with skepticism by his colleagues in the field of neurology due to perceived subjectivity in his study designs, Snyder has lately shown beyond random chance that applying magnets to the left hemisphere can produce profound changes in thinking that are characteristic of savantism.

What Snyder and others are showing, whether they mean to or not, is that a long-discredited adage may have a hint of truth to it. That old chestnut that we use 10 percent of our brain is untrue to be certain, but its underlying point, that we all have latent genius untapped within us, certainly appears to remain a distinct possibility.