I met my first savant when I developed a Children’s Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute in 1962. In the 50+ years since that time I have had the privilege of meeting so many persons with this extraordinary talent superimposed on some underlying limitations demonstrating the remarkable juxtaposition of incredible ability and disability within the same person.
From meeting my first savant until now I have learned many lessons from watching and listening to these extraordinary people and their equally extraordinary families on my fascinating half-century journey with them. While I started that journey curious about the mind of the savant, along the way I have learned equally as much about the world of the savant. In so doing I have learned to care as much about the savant who has the condition, as I have about the condition the savant has. And therein lies a bedside manner clue for all doctors who always ought to devote as much attention to the needs of the person who has the disease as they do to the disease the patient has. Good bedside manner is not just caring for the patient, it is caring about him or her as well.
Lessons learned: What are some of those lessons?
An “island of intactness”
First, savants have convinced me that no matter how impaired or disabled an individual might appear to be, within that person, somewhere in whatever form or quantity, there exists an ‘island of intactness’ and it is our task and opportunity to discover that kernel of ability, to tend it, to nourish it, to reinforce it and then to watch it grow and bring along with it better language, social and daily living skills. For some, such as savants, that island of intactness is an island of genius. But in others that island of intactness is even more buried, subtle and not as spectacular. But our mission still is to discover and tend that island of intactness, in whatever quality or quantity it exists.
Love is a good therapist too
Second, the families of savants are role-models for all of us in discovering and tending whatever special gifts might be hidden, and to focus on strengths rather than deficits. The families and caretakers of these special people celebrate what is there, without disappointment or regret with respect to what is missing, and they demonstrate mightily the power of untiring patience, indefatigable optimism, unfailing faith and unconditional love. They show convincingly that love is a good therapist too.
“Training the talent”: imitation to improvisation to creativity
Third, the savant skills of music, art or math are not merely frivolous or freakish abilities and they deserve more than a fleeting “Gee, whiz, look at that” glance before we return to our more ordinary inside-the-box observations. Instead it is through those extraordinary abilities that the savants speak to us. It is their language, and for some at first, their only language. But the good news is that, once recognized, by ‘training the talent’ the savant not only adds more depth to those exceptional skills, but more importantly ‘training the talent’ leads to improved language, social and daily living skills on a path toward greater independence. Interestingly, those skills also, over time, follow a predictable pathway beginning with impressive replication, then adding improvisation to finally creation of entirely new material. Thus savants are more than imitators or replicators. They can be, and are, creative in their own right.
Self-esteem in abundance
Fourth, I have been impressed with the general contentment and happiness that persons with savant syndrome demonstrate. Good self esteem abounds, as it should given their special abilities. Alonzo is one of the most mellow persons I have ever met. He has a perpetual smile, warmth and gentleness that is contagious. If there were a medal for being the most mellow man, I would give it to Alonzo. Savants are not a modest group; they are profoundly proud of their abilities, as well they should be. As George, the calendar calculator said on the 60 Minutes program: “It’s fantastic I can do that!”. And it truly is. No doubt some of that contentment and happiness stems from the unqualified acceptance and love they receive from their families and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Beyond that, if the savant, with whatever limitations he or she has can be content and uncomplaining, what lesson might also lie therein for the rest of us.
The incredible complexity of the brain
Fifth, savants have provided me with a greater appreciation, and awe for human brain and its capacity. The human brain and mind (even if they are not entirely the same) have always been of special interest and curiosity to me. That’s why I chose Psychiatry as a specialty. And the more I learn about the brain through the special window into the brain that savant syndrome provides, the more impressed I am by its capacity and capability.
Witness to that is a picture I have of “Winston”, the computer that was the pinnacle of artificial intelligence, challenging humans to a game of Jeopardy. In the picture there are six or seven huge servers that comprise Winston’s memory. Standing next to those behemoth memory banks is a man whose head, with approximately 3 ½ lbs of grey and white matter can easily out distance Winston in many ways, including originality and creativity. After all, who programmed Winston?
Can the brain transcend itself to explain itself?
Sixth, with new technology now, such as functional MRI, we can for the first time see the brain at work, rather than are all the parts there (CT or static MRI). Brain research is the newest and most formidable frontier of human organ explanation and savant syndrome exploration contributes liberally to that important research. But a lingering question remains for me. While the brain can ultimately explain the heart, and the liver and the kidney, for example, can the brain transcend itself to fully explain itself? I don’t know for sure but I think there may be a basic barrier to the brain going outside it self to fully understand itself. Yet this I do know.. No model of brain function will be complete until it can fully incorporate and account for savant syndrome and the co-existence of sometimes massive disability with extraordinary ability in the same person. That exploration is a work in progress.
The dormant potential—the little Rain Man—within us all
Finally, there is so much that is fascinating to me about savant syndrome. But I have always felt, from the moment I met my first savants that they hint at dormant potential—-a little Rain Man perhaps–within us all. My recent encounters with ‘acquired savants’—neurotypical persons who suddenly show extraordinary savant skills, sometimes at a prodigious level, after a bead injury, stroke or other CNS incident, cements that conclusion further. I invite readers to learn more about both congenital and acquired savants, and the dormant potential within us all, in my two books on these remarkable persons: Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome or Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant. And, there is additional information, including many videos, on the savant syndrome website, hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society, at www.savantsyndrome.com
A smoother pebble
My journey with savants reminds me of what Sir Isaac Newton said reflecting on his journey with some laws of nature: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
To me savants are that smoother pebble and indeed a great ocean of truth remains undiscovered about them. Yet the more we learn and understand them, the further we will be in better understanding both the brain and human potential.