The magical world of savants

This post is also available in Dutch.

Imagine someone who can solve math problems with 20,000 decimal places, can memorize the entire phone book, or can learn a language fluently within a week. There are people who can really do these things! The question is: who are these people and how is it that they have these unusual gifts?


Foto credits: Wikimedia

Before you read on, look at the above image for a few seconds and try to determine how many tooth picks are in the pile. Impossible, you say? Some people with savant syndrome, so-called savants, can determine the exact number with a single glance.

Kim Peek, the walking library
Kim Peek, who died in 2009, was a perfect example of an incredibly talented savant. He inspired the character of Raymond Babbit from the 1988 movie ‘Rain Man’, followed by a documentary in 1994 that made Peek famous. Kim Peek had multiple gifts but his most impressive one was the ability to rapidly process and memorize information. For example, reading a page of text took him 6 seconds, and he was able to read a different page of a book with each of his eyes simultaneously. This blog post probably wouldn’t take him more than 7 seconds to read. In this way, Kim Peek read and memorized between 6,000 to 12,000 books while he was alive. He could also list all zip codes, street names and phone books in the United States from memory.

According to Darold Treffert, an expert in the field of savant syndrome, there exist fewer than 100 savants like Kim Peek globally. Savants typically have an unusually good memory and sometimes several other gifts, such as mathematics, music, art or performing calendar calculations. Symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities often, but not always, co-occur with the savant syndrome. Consequently, many savants suffer from social or intellectual disabilities. For a long time scientists thought that all savants suffered from these types of issues, but it turns out there are also some savants who do not.

A look inside the brain
How do savants get their gifts and deficits? Some people are born with savant syndrome; others acquire it later in life after a central nervous system injury. Scientists don’t yet know which exact brain areas play a role in savant syndrome. However, most experts agree that many of the talents displayed by savants seem to be skills that are primarily supported by the right hemisphere of the brain. Whereas, the typical deficits that savants exhibit, such as a lack of social skills, may be ascribed to impaired function in the left brain hemisphere.

Darold Treffert argues that this imbalance in the two hemispheres of the brain may be the result of impaired function in the left hemisphere due to injury or illness, and the right hemisphere becoming overly active to compensate for this. Another prominent theory suggests that congenital savant syndrome may occur because prenatal development of the left brain hemisphere lags behind that of the right hemisphere; therefore, the fetus may suffer from prolonged exposure to things that are potentially harmful or can impede development, such as high levels of the hormone testosterone.

Although we still don’t fully understand the brain mechanisms underlying savant syndrome, science seems to have solved at least part of the puzzle. Hopefully we will know the full answer one day.

Kim Peek and other amazing savants would be able to memorize and recite this entire article by heart. How well can you do this?

This blog was written by Michel-Pierre Jansen. He was involved in several studies at GGZ-centraal, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and at the universities where he was a student. In his free time he enjoys exercising, dancing and reading.

Edited by Angelique.


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