The Phenomenon of Savants

Savant syndrome, formerly known as “idiot savant,” is a phenomenon that illustrates how difficult it is to understand the human brain. In 1887, Dr. J. Langdon Down called the condition “idiot savant,” because the word idiot was used to describe severe mental retardation, an IQ below 25. The word savant means “knowledgeable person,” from the French verb savoir. The term currently used in reference savant individuals is savant syndrome.

In his groundbreaking study, Extraordinary People, Dr.Darold A. Treffert, psychiatrist at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, notes, “The significance of the savant syndrome lies in our inability to explain it. The savants stand as a clear reminder of our ignorance about ourselves, especially how our brains function.” A savant is a person who has a neuropsychiatric condition, but possesses an outstanding ability in a specific domain. Between 2 and 3 percent of the population suffer from some degree of mental handicap, and only 0.06 percent of them possess a high level of specific ability above that of the average normal person. There are fewer than one hundred documented cases of savants in the world. Savant talents are primarily in six domains: calendar calculating, lightning calculating and mathematical ability, art, music, mechanical abilities, and spatial skills.

Savants appear to possess brain functions that are beyond scientific understanding. Many theories have been offered as to what role genetics and reinforcement play in the savant’s abilities. Many savants have abnormalities in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is one explanation of why males are much more likely than females to have the syndrome.

The savant talent is closely associated with autistic disorders. The savants’ skills are supported by memory and information processing mechanisms that contribute to general intelligence. However savant skills are domain specific and independent from general intellectual functioning.

As illustrated by the savant syndrome, exceptional memory can occur in the absence of high or even average intelligence. Savants are individuals who are moderately to mildly retarded, and usually have some degree of autism, but who demonstrate exceptional abilities. .Approximately 10 percent of people with autism-spectrum disorder have some savant abilities. However, the remarkable memories of savants are typically restricted and cannot be adapted or extended to new tasks and different situations.

The savant’s difficulties with linguistic and paralinguistic interpretation often lead to problems in establishing friendships and later in dating relationships. Sometimes their perceptions of the rules of “appropriate behavior” are so deficient that they find themselves in conflict with authority figures and lack the skills to defend or explain themselves. Research has been shown that training savants can enhance their skills and help them compensate for weaknesses by developing socialization, language, and independence abilities.

One of the most amazing savant abilities is memory. Some of the things savants have been documented to remember are thousands of specific details about wars and historical events, the daily weather of a person’s lifetime, the complete music and lyrics of thousands of songs, thousands of addresses, hundreds of foreign language phrases, detailed biographical details bout hundreds of historical people, the contents of entire newspapers, the number of hotel rooms in every hotel in dozens of cities, the seating capacities of dozens of arenas and stadiums, voluminous stock market statistical data, and the transcripts of entire radio and TV broadcasts.

Studies have been conducted on some of the savants who have extraordinary memories, such as a savant known as Christopher, who meets the criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome. Christopher can speak, read, write, and translate Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Welsh. He is able to pick up foreign languages from other people, the radio, TV and newspapers. Although he is proficient in foreign languages, he has difficulty producing meaningful complex sentences.

Many savants manifest incredible musical talents. From 1849 to 1908, “Blind Tom” Bethune (Thomas Wiggins), a musical prodigy, was referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.” When he was eleven years old, Tom played at the White House. When he was sixteen he began a piano concert tour around the world. He could play over seven thousand pieces, one hundred of which were composed by him. However, his vocabulary was barely over one hundred words.

The ability of calendar savants is closely related to their skill in math and, such as in the problem solving of complex information. The math skills of some savants include extraordinarily rapid counting abilities. Some of the things savants have been documented to count include the number of cars on a highway in a period of time, the words spoken in a TV or radio broadcast, and the hairs in a cow’s tail. Some of the calculations they have been documented to make include the number of seconds in a period of time, square root calculations involving large numbers, the multiplication of 20-digit numbers, and the number of seconds in a person’s life.

Savants who possess artistic abilities can reproduce drawings and sculptures they have seen only once. Savant visual artists, such as Stephen Wiltshire and Richard Wawro, construct an image from their own perspective, while combining the information available to them. They can reconstruct an image in detail in their drawings

Some of the savants that have gained popularity through exposure on TV or science-oriented programs are Lesley Lemke (music), Alonzo Clements (sculpture), Richard Wawro (painting), Stephen Wiltshire (drawing), and Tony DeBlois (music). Also, there have been many prominent fictional portrayals of autistic savants. In the movie “Tommy” (1975), the character Tommy Walker, becomes a pop culture icon with his pinball talents. The character Chauncey Gardiner in the movie “Being There” (1979) is childlike. He is thrust in the world of conniving women and politicians and exhibits a special ability to offer sound advice to those in authority. In “The Boy who Could Fly” (1986), the character Eric Gibb, who is autistic, can fly. In “Forrest Gump,” despite a low IQ, Forrest becomes a prosperous businessman, and excels in all his ventures. The movie “Rain Man” (1988) generated wide-spread interest in savants and autism. Dr. Darold Treffert MD, who has studied the syndrome for years, was a consultant to the movie.

The savant Kim Peek was the inspiration for the “Rain Man,” whose main character, Raymond Babbitt, is a savant played by Dustin Hoffman. The movie is fictional and not based on Kim’s life story. Kim, whose IQ is 87, possesses one of the most extraordinary memories ever recorded. He was born with brain abnormalities, including a malformed cerebellum. Kim was diagnosed as having “developmental disorder not otherwise specified,” with no diagnosis of autistic disorder. However, he has extraordinary mental skills. At the age of 18 months, Kim began to memorize books as they were being read to him. He has memorized 9,000 books, and reads a page in eight to 10 seconds. In addition to memorizing the contents of books, he has memorized all the area codes and zip codes in the U.S., and the television stations serving those locales. He has also memorized the maps in the front of phone books and can provide travel directions within and between any major U.S. city. Despite these above average talents, Kim cannot button his clothes, nor manage normal activities of daily life. Similar to Kim’s situation, in the movie, “Rain Man,” Raymond did mathematical problems faster than a calculator, but could not make change or understand the value of money. This is an illustration of how an exceptional talent can be nonfunctional to the individual on a practical day-to-day basis.

The savant syndrome is as much a mystery now as it was back in the early 18th century.
Measures of intelligence from IQ tests, fail to provide insight into the savant syndrome.
Many questions about this phenomenon still remained unanswered and research efforts are continuing to unravel the minds of the unique individuals who possess unparallel talents.


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