Monday, November 7, 2011

The Savant's Door

The fact that savant skills can surface by some ‘release’ process raises intriguing questions about dormant capacity existing within us all.

To know as we are known.

Ever wonder about that portion of your brain that's untapped? We've heard that only 10% or so is fully engaged. Nonsense. It's a silly myth, debunked many times over. All of your brain is mapped and all is engaged.

However!  And this is disturbingly significant news, there's more that we don't know about the mind's function than we suspected until recently.

The savant, the individual with unusual intellectual ability, was long thought to be malfunctioning in some fashion.  It was as though they had been given some impressive single skill to compensate for the lack or loss in other areas.  The autistic savant, particularly, was portrayed sympathetically as interesting but not as a revelation of anything meaningful.

Studies regarding both the congenital and acquired savant have in recent years upended that narrow-minded view.

For example, Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant. He can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds. But unlike other savants, who can perform similar feats, Tammet can describe how he does it. He speaks seven languages and works as a math and language tutor. Now scientists are asking whether his exceptional abilities are the key to unlock the secrets of autism.

As another example, Derek Amato acquired extraordinary musical insight following a concussion.  He came to a keyboard and within a few days was playing like a professional.  Subsequently, as a professional musician, he declined medical treatment to moderate the abilities he has acquired.  His family is thrilled with his startling change.

It was an addition for Derek.  Not compensation for some loss, but as though a door in his mind had opened, allowing him to see, sense, imagine, and produce music.  What door might that be?  It was there all along, it seems, as though he had been designed that way but inhibited from knowing or using it until the concussion.  Suddenly, he could comprehend the instrument and the sounds.  He learned at an astounding pace and began to produce original work which is well received. 

There are a dozen or so modern cases of the acquired savant, all of which suggest that extraordinary intellectual abilities are part of the design from which we're made.  For now, the abilities are only available as an anomaly, triggered by injury or perhaps disease.  But then the door does open sometimes, an apparent malfunction of the current inhibitory physiology.   It's almost as though God made us like himself, and somehow we lost access to a lot of it, closed it off.  Funny, now that I think of it, I've heard that before.

The fact that savant skills, entirely dormant before CNS injury or disease, can surface by some ‘release’ (disinhibition) process raises intriguing questions about dormant capacity existing within us all.  ~Wisconsin Medical Society

The question the scientists have yet to ask is, "why?"  Why might the ability to quickly grasp and understand be inherent in us but unavailable?  Why might there be in many or all of us the ability to be an extraordinary musician or scientist or artist?

Now through a glass darkly, but then ....  Perhaps we are all made to know, to see, to revel in beauty and knowledge and the magnificence of it all.  Science and math, music and art, nature and the universe.  The whole of creation groans as though in childbirth, waiting ... for us to see?

Endnote: The academic community is cautiously considering what all this might mean.  Significant studies point to inherent intellectual abilities within the existing structure and processing design of our minds that are not the result of injury or impairment, but that rather are released by them.
... suggests that autistic cognitive atypicalities are more accurately described as an entirely different processing system, rather than as a collection of negative cascade effects resulting from one or many major impairments (excesses or deficits) impeding typical processing and development  ~ US NIH
The video here is a look a bit farther afield on extraordinary abilities.  My Brilliant Brain is a compelling three part documentary series exploring the incredible inner workings of the human brain. The programs look at a group of remarkable people and poses questions about the origins of genius: are these extraordinary abilities genetic, developed or acquired by accident?  Absolutely provocative and, perhaps, a bit unsettling.