Is There A Little Rain Man In Each Of Us?
By Darold Treffert, MD
Syndrome raises many questions. But two especially intriguing
questions are of particular importance: (1) How do they do it? and (2)
What does savant syndrome say about hidden potential, perhaps, within
each of us.
answer to the first question, addressed in sections elsewhere on this
site, provide some clues to answering the second question. My answer to
that second question: Does some Rain Man ability--savant-like skill and
capacity--exist in each of us? is Probably so. Let explain me why.
because of those same injurious factors, these savants have come to
rely on more primitive cortico-striatal (procedural or habit) memory
rather than higher level cortico-limbic (semantic or declarative)
combination of right brain skills coupled with procedural memory
produces the constellation of abilities and traits that is savant
because of their inherent, utilitarian usefulness we have generally
come to rely more heavily on left ( dominant) hemisphere functions such
as language, logical & sequential thinking, for example, than on
right (non-dominant) hemisphere skills.
in our day to day functioning we have come to generally use and depend
upon semantic or declarative memory much more than usingour more
primitive, and less facile, procedural or habit memory capabilities.
question becomes then, is it possible to tap and use those still
existent, but less frequently used, capacities and circuits, with some
of their savant-like characteristics, in those of us more wedded to
left brain capacity and higher level memory? In that sense is there
some Rain Man within each of us? I am convinced there is.
such case was reported as early as 1923 by Minogue ("A case of
secondary mental deficiency with musical talent", Journal of Applied
this case musical genius appeared at age 3 following meningitis. Brink
described the case of Mr. Z who demonstrated savant skills, behavioral
traits and abilities that emerged at age 9 following a bullet wound to
the left hemisphere, leaving him paralyzed on the right side, mute and
deaf but with some special mechanical abilities and other savant
sculpting talent emerged following a head injury as young child. A now
20 year old shipyard worker developed calendar calculating skills and a
spectacular memory for days, dates, music and a wide variety of other
materials following an injury to the left side of the head at age 10.
cases and others are described in greater detail in Extraordinary
are 'acquired' savant syndrome in that before, during or after birth
some CNS injury occurred leaving the left hemisphere and limbic memory
circuitry damaged as described above, with right brain and habit memory
compensatory takeover of the type seen in many savants.
the mental handicap and savant abilities then emerge as the infant
grows older. To this point the term 'acquired' savant has been
generally reserved for those who suffered some CNS injury or disease in
later childhood or adult life but these prenatal, perinatal and
postnatal damages (including testosterone as a neurotoxic agent
discussed elsewhere on this site) should rightly be included as
etiologic causes in the 'acquired' savant.
does the genius in the prodigious savant represent skills and abilities
that were created specifically and only because of some compensatory
changes elsewhere in the brain, or perhaps from even paradoxical
facilitation, due to the CNS injury itself? For a variety of reasons, I
favor the latter possibility.
that article the researchers describe five cases of older adults who
acquired new artistic skills with the onset and progression of
fronto-temporal dementia (FTD).
the emergence of such savant skills following CNS injury or disease in
early life is not new, the uncovering and unfolding of such new skills
in previously non-disabled, older adults is most intriguing.
with the findings in other savants, in these older persons whose
artistic skills and abilities emerged after the onset of FTD, the
creativity was visual, not verbal; the images were meticulous copies
that lacked abstract or symbolic qualities; episodic memory was
preserved but semantic memory was devastated; and they exhibited
intense obsessive preoccupation with their art skills.
studies showed a predominance of left brain injury. These researchers
hypothesize that selective degeneration of the anterior temporal and
orbitofrontal cortex decreased inhibition of visual systems involved
with perception, thereby enhancing artistic interest and
abilities--artistic interest and abilities relatively dormant until the
FTD disease, with its compensatory processes, released those abilities
and hidden potential within.
paper on Artistic Savants (see New Findings and New Resources on this
site) reaffirms the emergence of new artistic skills in some persons
with fronto-temporal dementia and the left-sided foci of those changes,
but he goes on to compare the functional brain imaging findings in
those six older persons, previously non-disabled, with the imaging
findings in a nine year old savant artist (DB) noting "remarkable
parallels" between these two different age groups--with shared artistic
abilities--that involved loss of function in the left temporal lobe and
enhanced function in the posterior neocortex.
similarities of neuropatholgy as demonstrated with SPECT imaging in
these two very different age and disability groups, who share savant
artistic skills in common, is striking and intriguing.
discuss their hypotheses in a paper entitled "Is integer arithmetic
fundamental to mental processing?: the mind's secret arithmetic" in
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1999) 266:567-592.
Essentially they propose that savant skills represent brain processes
that occur in each of us regularly (or could) but they are swamped and
buried by more sophisticated conceptual cognition and the savant-like
capacities remain largely at an unconscious level.
savants, they conclude, "have privileged access to lower levels of
information not normally available through introspection......we all
have the same raw information but just cannot directly access it, at
least on call." They believe "all savant skills have a common origin
and the skill for interger arithmetic (like that for drawing, perfect
pitch and recall for meaningless detail) arises from an ability to
access some mental process which is common to us all, but which is not
readily accessible to normal individuals."
article in New Scientist (Volume 164, October, 1999) entitled "Turn
Off, Tune In" by Rita Carter describes the conclusions of a number of
researchers, including the theories above, regarding the savant skills
that may reside within each of us.
persons have described to me recently such a triggering and renewal
process that occurred in them, in some manner, either by renewal or
rerouting, following a head injury or stroke which had left at first
significant incapacity, but was followed by impressive later
each of us can, with some effort, tap more right brain capacity and
habit memory than we typically use.
tend to be a left-brain, declarative memory society. Sometimes though
with retirement, for example, a number of older persons 'discover'
hidden or latent talent as they have the time and inclination to do
something different--without a dementia freeing up that hidden capacity
in their instances.
magazine described that as "Catching Their Second Wind" in a 1/31/2000
issue. Grandma Moses of course is a stellar example of that.
without doubt, in my view, some such 'discovery' comes from
psychologically having the time and freedom to pursue sidetracked
interests and talents after the pressures the workplace and
child-rearing are lessened, some of that discovery comes also, I am
convinced, from being able neurologically shift, by deliberate design
& effort, from the well worn left brain/sematic memory circuits to
still intact, but relatively less frequently used, right
brain/procedural memory circuits.
then, by 'changing set' in terms of focus and eye dominance apparently,
in the case of stereograms, all of a sudden---aha!--there it is, the
three dimensional dinosaur or grizzly bear the caption said was
present, but remained unrevealed until 'something happened' internally
to allow the hidden image to emerge.
dots on the paper did not change, but one's perception and
interpretation of that series of dots was altered dramatically with an
affirmative and deliberate effort to experience that transition.
like manner, but by an entirely different mechanism, it appears in some
instances in each of us it is possible to tap different areas of CNS
functioning than typically or customarily used with a freeing up of,
and possibility of tapping into, dormant abilities and habit memory
opposite manner, a woman who wrote to me after Extraordinary People was
published described how at mid-life she decided to give up her
professional career as a doctor and become a concert pianist.
had always been able to play quite impressively 'by ear' but went to a
conservatory, in those later years, to become more polished, and more
learned. When she did that, and when she deliberately substituted
reading music for playing by ear, the ability to play by ear suddenly
case her musical capacity migrated from the right brain (playing by
ear) to the left brain (playing by reading music) and in that process
she apparently lost substantial right brain access.
woman's experience mirrors what PET scans on musicians have shown, that
is, that rather than there being a single musical center of the brain,
it depends on which strategy is being used (analytical &
visual--play by sight=left brain and non-analytical &
subjective---play by ear=right brain) as to which hemisphere is more
describe this work by Dr. John Mazziotta and his colleagues in greater
detail in the book. There I also describe the enlightening experience
of a graduate student who set out to deliberately 'learn' how to
so rather slowly until at some point he discovered his speed increased
dramatically as his brain, to his surprise, had somehow automated the
complex equations and he no longer had to consciously carry them out.
Dr. Bernard Rimland who reported this case in Psychology Today in
August 1978 speculated that in this instance there was some migration
of function from left hemisphere to right hemisphere.
migration from one brain area to another, and from semantic memory to
"memory without reckoning" occurs regularly throughout life. The
question is whether one can by other deliberate effort tap hidden
skills and abilities, if present, by accessing and harnessing circuits
and brain areas ordinarily used less regularly.
think so. I add 'if present' to that possibility because of another
piece of this complex equation, something one might call innate talent.
case of prodigious savants particularly, however, the only way their
spectacular ability can be explained--since so many of those have such
prodigious skills early in life and in some instances are so mentally
impaired as seemingly incapable of learning--is by what I refer to as
"ancestral memory", or the genetic transmission of knowledge.
individuals come heavily endowed from birth with what might be termed
'software', if you like, to carry the computer analogy further. Such a
differential endowment of 'software'--innate ability or talent--is
distributed to all of us, non-disabled or disabled persons alike, in
the usual bell-shaped curve.
within each of us, it seems to me, is not necessarily the talent of a
Picasso or Mozart, for such prodigious ability is rare on that
bell-shaped curve for all persons, disabled or not. But we do each have
differential endowments of various inborn talents and abilities.
of us are more musically inclined than others. Some of us are more
mechanically inclined, mathematically inclined, athletically inclined
than others and so forth. What direction and strength our buried talent
might take, should that be tapped by disease or injury, as in the case
of the FTD patients described above for example, or by design and
determination as might be possible as suggested here, would be
determined, as in the case of savants, by some of these genetic factors
beyond exposure and learning opportunities.
some of that same possibility, a little Rain Man as it were, perhaps
reside within each of us? I think that it does, for all the reasons
above. We now have the technology to view the brain at work, not just
it's structure, and from these incredible new windows into brain will
come, over time, the "final answer".
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here with kind permission of the author.
the Savant Syndrome site for more information and articles
Book by Darold A. Treffert, M.D. Extraordinary
People: Understanding Savant Syndrome
Related pages :
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