Getting to Know Savant Syndrome: Final Part

autismMight there be a little Rain Man in each of us?

The idea that some savant capabilities – a little Rain Man – might reside in each of us rises from several observations. First, there have been instances reported of previously non-disabled, “normal” individuals in whom some previously latent savant skills emerged following a head injury, a phenomenon called “acquired” savant syndrome. Second, Dr. Bruce Miller’s work, documents 12 cases of elderly individuals, previously non-disabled, with no extraordinary savant skills, whose savant abilities newly emerged, sometimes at a prodigious level, after a particular type of dementia-fronto-temporal dementia began and progressed. Thirdly, some procedures such as hypnosis or sodium amytal interviews in non-disabled persons, and brain surface electrode exploration during certain types of neurosurgical procedures, provide evidence that a huge reservoir of memories lies dormant, and non-accessed, in each of us. Fourth, the images and memories that surface, often to our surprise, during some dreams, also tap that huge store of buried memories beyond that available in our everyday waking state. Finally, often as we relax or “tune out” other distractions, sometime after “retirement” for example, some previously hidden, latent interests, talents or abilities quite suddenly, and surprisingly, emerge. Sometimes that emergence is actually a re-kindling of some earlier childhood abilities, such as art, for whatever reason set aside with maturation and “growing up.”

There are several theories as to why that might be the case. My own view is that while each of us still has the same lower level memory circuitry the savant uses (non-cognitive, habit or procedural memory) we have come generally to rely on our higher level, broader and more versatile cognitive or semantic memory circuits because that particular memory function serves us well, and better. Correspondingly, while each of us has as well many right brain capabilities (non-symbolic, artistic, concrete, directly perceived) we live in a world that rewards left brain strengths (sequential, logical and symbolic including language specialization). Thus we have generally come to rely on the well-worn circuits of left brain function + semantic memory, to the exclusion or relative disuse of right brain function + habit memory. But when those well-worn circuits are disturbed by head injury or CNS disease, for example, the more primitive, lower level circuits of right brain/habit memory do come to the fore. Some refer to that in brain injury and disease as a compensatory phenomenon called “paradoxical facilitation.” But is actual brain injury or disease necessary in order to tap some of that buried potential, or might there be other methods short of injury or disease itself to bring us in touch with more buried skills and memory function? Could specific cognitive techniques or other procedures facilitate such a process in all of us? Some investigators are using large magnetic circuits (rTMS) to temporarily disable brain function in certain areas in non-disabled individuals to see if these more primitive, buried circuits can emerge in “normal” individuals.

The search for hidden potential that lies, perhaps, within each of us is an intriguing area of research and savant research may provide some clues to that interesting possibility, as well as providing some useful insights to the interface between savant functioning and genius overall.

About Darold Treffert MD

Dr. Treffert completed both medical school and a psychiatric residency at the University of Wisconsin where he has been a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry. Following his training he developed the Child-Adolescent Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. It was there he met his first autistic savant in 1962 and has been engaged in research on savant syndrome since that time, exploring the unique window into the brain, memory and creativity that this remarkable condition provides. Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome has been published in ten languages. His most recent book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant was published in April, 2010. He has been a contributor to numerous articles in professional journals and has participated in many broadcast and documentary television programs including those in the U.S., Japan, Sweden, Korea, South Africa, Germany, England and many other countries. In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man which made “autistic savant” household terms and he maintains a very internationally respected website at www.savantsyndrome.com hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society which has kept him in touch with many persons around the world with savant syndrome and their families. Dr. Treffert has been a member of the medical staff of St. Agnes Hospital since 1963. He currently is a research consultant to Doll and Associates and the AABCC program working with Dr. Matt Doll and staff on some autism research projects.

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