Savant Syndrome: What Savants Can Teach Us

savantAs mental health month approaches veteran physician and scientific advisor, Dr. Bill Miller, discusses what those who suffer from a medical condition called savant syndrome can teach society. Miller questions what people should make of savantism beyond the wonder and natural curiosity such individuals invoke and reveals that research into their remarkable capacities might reveal a series of linked deeper truths about the nature of genetic interplay and evolutionary development that make us who we are.

Savant syndrome is exceedingly rare, but a remarkable condition in which persons with autism, or other serious mental illnesses, have astonishing islands of ability or brilliance that stand out in stark contrast to their overall disability. Savantism teaches us that our brain capacities are vastly richer than we had previously understood. However, there is an even larger message. Savants teach us that the full capacities of our genomes are well beyond what we observe as our natural endowment. He adds:

If this is true for the brain, might it not be true for other bodily systems?

When Seattle man, Jason Padgett, walked into a bar for a drink a few years ago, he was an ordinary man with seemingly average intelligence leading an unremarkable life. He worked contentedly in his father’s furniture shop and had never done well academically or ever cared to do so. On exiting the bar that night, he was viciously mugged, hit on the head and knocked out. After a hospital evaluation for a concussion, he was sent him home with typical instructions.

When he awoke the next morning, he noticed something both disturbing and enthralling. He was seeing things as if they were pixellated, like separate movie camera images but still integrated into a comprehensive but very strange whole. He saw geometric curves in everything, even the plainest things like water going down a drain. It was “pure beauty” to him. And amazingly, he also saw numbers in everything, in recurring complex patterns called fractals. To his disbelieving astonishment, he had been transformed from a person that had no particular interest or ability in math into a savant able to solve complex mathematical equations.

His story, though extremely rare, is not unique. Padgett has experienced a phenomenon called acquired savantism. He is not the first to be so identified. Similar instances of unprecedented gifts being revealed are rare but many others have been recorded. Derek Amato was a 39-year-old sales trainer without any particular musical talent. Then he dove into the shallow end of a pool, and within days revealed previously untapped musical genius as a piano prodigy.

Interestingly, in both these instances of acquired savantism, the new gift is released on the one hand and new burdens are experienced on the other. This appears to occur in all cases of acquired savantism. In the case of Padgett, he developed temporarily crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder and the visual disturbance that granted his gift also required considerable post traumatic adaptation. Amato also has had to deal with various visual stigmata as the result of the injury and partial hearing loss.

Other instances of acquired savantism first appear as a very atypical reaction to a stroke. Tommy McHugh was a former builder in Liverpool, England who suffered a near fatal stroke and discovered thereafter that he could paint with exactness. He did so with extreme obsessiveness and went on to artistic acclaim. Yet he also suffered from post stoke disabilities including an inability to recognize familiar faces and could only speak in a form of rhyme.

Daniel Tammet was an autistic child that had bouts of epilepsy at age 4. Daniel achieved fame when he recited pi to 22,514 decimal places from memory and fluently learned Icelandic, one of the most challenging languages in the world, in seven days.

Is this sort of hidden ability within us all? Dr. Donald A Treffert has studied savants intensively and believes that we all have similar dormant potential. Treffert notes that most cases of acquired savantism surface during childhood are extremely sudden in onset and typically do so within the backdrop of some other kind of developmental disorder. From his perspective, this pattern of explosive release indicates that a pre-existing capacity is in place and therefore raises the possibility that such potentials are always present but remain hidden or locked in typical circumstances.

Traditionally, investigators have searched for answers to this enigma through genetic evaluation or by studying the neural pathways of savants searching for some kind of unique genetic mutation or singular neural connections. Yet, none have been identified. No specific neurological changes have been found that separate savants from the “normal” person.

Our current understanding suggests that savantism likely represents the selective inactivation of a gene or a group of genes that paradoxically inhibit these latent talents under the ordinary circumstance. When the genes that suppress these deep faculties are blocked, their expression is surprisingly released. In other words, a normal inhibitory neural mechanism is somehow broken enabling new faculties to blossom that have been previously suppressed. This is then linked in complex ways to other aspects of our personality. This combination accounts then for the presence of accompanying negative factors, and relates back to the mechanism by which acquired savantism is revealed only after brain trauma, strokes, febrile seizures and even dementia states.

Certainly, savantism teaches us that our brain capacities are vastly richer than we had previously understood. However, there is an even larger message. Savants teach us that the full capacities of our genomes are well beyond what we observe as our natural endowment. And if this is true for the brain, might it not be true for other bodily systems? This understanding also carries is a direct implication with respect to our evolutionary development and how novelty occurs in evolution. How might dramatic faculties accumulate by natural selection if they are hidden from expression? This represents an apparent contradiction with standard Darwinism. In Darwinism, phenotypic expression governs survivorship, which then determines genetic frequency and structure. If salient capacities are hidden, how might selection pressure act and why would abundant faculties be suppressed?

Savants matter too with respect to population genetics. There is no manner in which we might imagine the successful penetration of any specific savant’s capabilities to an entire population as it arises in isolated individuals. Furthermore, it is not even clearly related to any change in genetic complement. In either case, no lasting imprint on our complex genome is left by any savant. Again, albeit a limited example, savantism points to the limitations of Darwinism in explaining how capacities arise, are expressed, or remain persistently hidden within populations. .

What should we make of savantism beyond the wonder and natural curiosity such individuals invoke? We should appreciate that they are a window into ourselves. And importantly, research into their remarkable capacities might reveal a series of linked deeper truths about the nature of genetic interplay and evolutionary development that make us the wondrous creatures that we are.

Written by Dr. Bill Miller (Edited by Cherese Jackson)

Sources:

Dr. William B. Miller Jr.
Time
PSY

Photo Credits:

Top Image Courtesy of Dr. Bill Miller, Jr.
Featured Image Courtesy of Lawrence Wang – Creativecommons Flickr License

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