In a previous blog, I wrote about Kim Peek, who is a developmentally disabled man who was the inspiration for the movie “Rain Man”. He is autistic and needs help getting dressed. However, he has memorized 7600 books by heart as well as every area code, highway, zip code and every television station in the U.S. Oh, in addition, his MRI revealed that he has no left brain, no corpus callosum and his cerebellum is one third of the size of ours. The title of my blog on Kim was – “Is the Brain Really Necessary?”.
When I took my postdoctoral fellowship in the department of psychiatry, University of Wisconsin many moons ago, I was invited to attend a concert given for all the residents and postdocs in the department.
The person presenting the concert was Leslie Lemke, a blind savant who is developmentally disabled and suffers from cerebral palsy. He was born with glaucoma and doctors were forced to remove his eyes.
His birth mother gave him up for adoption and May Lemke, a nurse, adopted him when he was six months old.
He was 12 years old before he learned to stand and 15 before he learned to walk. When he was 16, May found him playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in the middle of the night. He had recently heard the piece performed on television. Although he had never studied piano, he was soon playing all styles of music, from ragtime to classical. He composed music and was able to play thousands of pieces flawlessly, even when he heard them only once. Lemke became a sensation and toured in the United States, Scandinavia and Japan.
I attended a concert given by Lemke during my postdoc while at Madison, Wisconsin. A prearranged person in the audience went on stage and played on the piano and composition that she had never played in front of an audience before. It was a rather long and intricate but original composition.
Lempke was then helped (almost carried) on stage, assisted to sit down, and then flawlessly for the next 10 to 20 minutes replicated note for note the entire classical concerto he had heard for the first time just minutes before.
I was sitting next to Dr. Darold Treffert who was then a third year resident in psychiatry. He was so taken and impressed by what he had heard and witnessed that he chose to specialize in the savant syndrome and wrote a book – Extraordinary People, documenting his research with the mathematical and calendrical savants along with savants capable of extrasensory or psi perceptions.
Some parents described their autistic –savant children as capable of hearing conversations that were out of range of hearing and the ability to pick up thoughts not spoken. In one case, the father of one savant told how his watch crystal fell out in the bathroom and was immediately replaced, an occurrence only known to him. A short time later, his savant daughter related the incident to him in accurate detail.
How do they do it? Dr. Treffert, who has studied more savants than probably anyone proposed “ancestral memory” as a key. He states “Prodigious savants particularly ‘know’ things or ‘remember’ things they never learned. To explain that reality – and it is a reality – it seems to me one has to invoke a third type of memory – ancestral or genetic memory – that exists alongside the cognitive or semantic and the habit of procedural memory…to me, such ancestral memory is simply and only the genetic transfer of knowledge”.
Dr. Treffert acknowledges the concept of the collective unconscious that psychiatrist Carl Jung used to account for “inherited traits – intuitions and collective wisdom of the past” and the notion of “racial memory” evoked by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfiled. But for Traffert, all these proposals come down to genes.
The prodigious savant it seems comes with a great deal of software “factory installed” which already contains a considerable amount of actual date or knowledge. It would appear that access to that “factory installed” software may account for the innate, instinctive exceptional skills, ability and knowledge which is evident in the savants vast and instant mastery of some particular area of functioning.
Factory-installed knowledge and ancestor-derived information have little explanatory value. These proposals seem to be a desperate attempt to keep the brain and genes in charge of the savants skills. It is another form of reductionism because no one has a clue how genes, which code for proteins, could account for these abilities or how unlearned facts could be stored in ancestors genes before the facts even exist.
In our golden age of brain scanning, neuroscientists are exploring patterns of brain wave activity that correlate with the abilities of savants. However, a basic tenet of science states that “correlation is not causation”. Although hypotheses continue to surface like spring weeds, no single model has emerged that can explain all savants.
I think that savants thrive because of the reinforcement provided by the unconditional love, belief and determination for those who care for them and perhaps there is a kind of watering hole for consciousness where the thirst for information and wisdom can be quenched such as Jung’s collective unconscious and Emerson’s Over-Soul. Who knows, since most theories are expalantory fictions.
Lee Pulos, Ph.D., ABPP
Reference: Treffert, Darold A. Extraordinary People. Understanding Savant Syndrome. Lincoln, NE: Universe, Inc; 2006.