The Inner Savant
Are you capable of multiplying 147,631,789 by 23,674 in your head,
Physicist Allan Snyder says you probably can, based on his new theory
about the origin of the extraordinary skills of autistic savants
[By Douglas S. Fox in Discover Vol. 23 No. 2 (February 2002). Thanks
to Bonnie Sayers on the FEATBack list.]
Nadia appeared healthy at birth, but by the time she was 2, her
parents knew something was amiss. She avoided eye contact and didn’t
respond when her mother smiled or cooed. She didn’t even seem to recognize her
mother. At 6 months she still had not spoken a word. She was unusually
clumsy and spent hours in repetitive play, such as tearing paper into
But at 31/2, she picked up a pen and began to draw-not scribble,
Without any training, she created from memory sketches of galloping horses
that only a trained adult could equal. Unlike the way most people might
draw a horse, beginning with its outline, Nadia began with random details.
First a hoof, then the horse’s mane, then its harness. Only later did she lay
down firm lines connecting these floating features. And when she did connect
them, they were always in the correct position relative to one another. Â¦
Nadia is an autistic savant, a rare condition marked by severe mental and
social deficits but also by a mysterious talent that appears spontaneously-usually before age 6.
Sometimes the ability of a savant is so striking, it eventually makes news. The most famous savant was a man called Joseph, the individual Dustin Hoffman drew upon for his character in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Joseph could immediately answer this question: “What number times what number gives 1,234,567,890?” His answer was “Nine times 137,174,210.”
Another savant could double 8,388,628 up to 24 times within several seconds, yielding the sum 140,737,488,355,328. A 6-year-old savant named Trevor listened to his older brother play the piano one day, then climbed onto the piano stool
himself and played it better. A savant named Eric could find what he
called the “sweet spot” in a room full of speakers playing music, the spot where
sound waves from the different sources hit his ears at exactly the same
Most researchers have offered a simple explanation for these
extraordinary gifts: compulsive learning. But Allan Snyder, a vision
researcher and award-winning physicist who is director of the Center for
the Mind at the University of Sydney and the Australian National University,
has advanced a new explanation of such talents. “Each of us has the innate
capacity for savantlike skills,” says Snyder, “but that mental machinery
is unconscious in most people.”
Savants, he believes, can tap into the human mind’s remarkable
processing abilities. Even something as simple as seeing, he explains,
requires phenomenally complex information processing. When a person looks
at an object, for example, the brain immediately estimates an object’s
distance by calculating the subtle differences between the two images on each
retina (computers programmed to do this require extreme memory and speed).
During the process of face recognition, the brain analyzes countless details,
such as the texture of skin and the shape of the eyes, jawbone, and lips. Most
people are not aware of these calculations. In savants, says Snyder, the
top layer of mental processing-conceptual thinking, making conclusions-is
somehow stripped away. Without it, savants can access a startling capacity
for recalling endless detail or for performing lightning-quick calculations.
Snyder’s theory has a radical conclusion of its own: He believes it may be
possible someday to create technologies that will allow any nonautistic
person to exploit these abilities.
The origins of autism are thought to lie in early brain development. During the first three years of life, the brain grows at a tremendous rate.
In autistic children, neurons seem to connect haphazardly, causing
widespread abnormalities, especially in the cerebellum, which integrates
thinking and movement, and the limbic region, which integrates experience
with specific emotions. Abnormalities in these regions seem to stunt
interest in the environment and in social interaction. Autistic children
have narrowed fields of attention and a poor ability to recognize faces.
They are more likely to view a face, for example, as individual components
rather than as a whole. Imaging studies have shown that when autistic
children see a familiar face, their pattern of brain activation is different from that of normal children.
That narrowed focus may explain the autistic child’s ability to concentrate endlessly on a single repetitive activity, such as rocking in a chair or watching clothes tumble in a dryer. Only one out of 10 autistic children show special skills.
In a 1999 paper, Snyder and his colleague John Mitchell challenged
the compulsive-practice explanation for savant abilities, arguing that the
same skills are biologically latent in all of us. “Everyone in the world was
skeptical,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain
and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. “Snyder
deserves credit for making it clear that savant abilities might be extremely
important for understanding aspects of human nature and creativity.”
Snyder’s office at the University of Sydney is in a Gothic building,
complete with pointed towers and notched battlements. Inside, Nadia’s
drawings of horses adorn the walls; artwork by other savants hangs in
Snyder’s interest in autism evolved from his studies of light and
vision. Trained as a physicist, he spent several years studying fiber
optics and how light beams can guide their own path. At one time he was
in studying the natural fiber optics in insects’ eyes. The question that
carried him from vision research to autism had to do with what happens
after light hits the human retina: How are the incoming signals transformed into
data that is ultimately processed as images in the brain?
Snyder was fascinated by the processing power required to accomplish such a feat. During a sabbatical to Cambridge in 1987, Snyder devoured
Ramachandran’s careful studies of perception and optical illusions. One
showed how the brain derives an object’s three-dimensional shape: Falling
light creates a shadow pattern on the object, and by interpreting the
shading, the brain grasps the object’s shape. “You’re not aware how your
mind comes to those conclusions,” says Snyder. “When you look at a ball,
you don’t know why you see it as a ball and not a circle. The reason is your
brain is extracting the shape from the subtle shading around the ball’s
surface.” Every brain possesses that innate ability, yet only artists can
do it backward, using shading to portray volume.
“Then,” says Snyder, speaking slowly for emphasis, “I asked the
question that put me on a 10-year quest”-how can we bypass the mind’s
conceptual thinking and gain conscious access to the raw, uninterpreted
information of our basic perceptions? Can we shed the assumptions built
into our visual processing system?
A few years later, he read about Nadia and other savant artists in
Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical
Tales. As he sat in his Sydney apartment one afternoon with the book in
hand, an idea surfaced. Perhaps someone like Nadia who lacked the ability
to organize sensory input into concepts might provide a window into the
fundamental features of perception.
Snyder’s theory began with art, but he came to believe that all savant skills, whether in music, calculation, math, or spatial relationships, derive from a lightning-fast processor in the brain that divides things-time, space, or an object-into equal parts. Dividing time might allow a savant child to know the exact time when he’s awakened, and it might help Eric find the sweet spot by allowing him to sense millisecond differences in the sounds hitting his right and left ears. Dividing space might allow Nadia to place a disembodied hoof and mane on a page precisely where they belong.
It might also allow two savant twins to instantaneously count matches
spilled on the floor (one said “111”; the other said “37, 37, 37”).
Meanwhile, splitting numbers might allow math savants to factor 10-digit
numbers or easily identify large prime numbers-which are impossible to
Compulsive practice might enhance these skills over time, but Snyder
contends that practice alone cannot explain the phenomenon. As evidence,
he cites rare cases of sudden-onset savantism. Orlando Serrell, for example,
was hit on the head by a baseball at the age of 10. A few months later, he
began recalling an endless barrage of license-plate numbers, song lyrics,
and weather reports.
If someone can become an instant savant, Snyder thought, doesn’t
that suggest we all have the potential locked away in our brains? “Snyder’s
ideas sound very New Age. This is why people are skeptical,” says Ramachandran.
“But I have a more open mind than many of my colleagues simply because
I’ve seen [sudden-onset cases] happen.”
Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has seen similar transformations in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative brain disease that strikes people in their fifties and sixties. Some of these patients, he says, spontaneously develop both interest and skill in art and music. Brain-imaging studies have shown that most patients with frontotemporal dementia who develop skills have abnormally low blood flow or low metabolic activity in their left temporal lobe. Because language abilities are concentrated in the left side of the
brain, these people gradually lose the ability to speak, read, and write.
They also lose face recognition. Meanwhile, the right side of the brain,
which supports visual and spatial processing, is better preserved.
“They really do lose the linguistic meaning of things,” says Miller, who believes Snyder’s ideas about latent abilities complement his own observations about frontotemporal dementia.
“There’s a loss of higher-order processing that goes on in the anterior temporal lobe.” In particular, frontotemporal dementia damages the ventral stream, a brain region that is associated with naming objects. Patients with damage in this area can’t name what they’re looking at, but they can often paint it beautifully. Miller
has also seen physiological similarities in the brains of autistic savants and
patients with frontotemporal dementia. When he performed brain-imaging
studies on an autistic savant artist who started drawing horses at 18
months, he saw abnormalities similar to those of artists with frontotemporal dementia: decreased blood flow and slowed neuronal firing in the left temporal lobe.
One blustery, rainy morning I drove to Mansfield, a small farm town
180 miles northeast of Melbourne. I was heading to a day clinic for
autistic adults, where I hoped to meet a savant. The three-hour drive pitched and
rolled through hills, occasionally cutting through dense eucalyptus
forests punctuated with yellow koala-crossing signs. From time to time, I saw
large, white-crested parrots; in one spot, a flock of a thousand or more in
flight wheeled about like a galaxy.
I finally spotted my destination: Acorn Outdoor Ornaments. Within
this one-story house, autistic adults learn how to live independently. They
also create inexpensive lawn decorations, like the cement dwarf I see on the
Joan Curtis, a physician who runs Acorn and a related follow-up
program, explained that while true savants are rare, many people with
autism have significant talents. Nurturing their gifts, she said, helps draw them
into social interaction. Guy was one of the participants I met at Acorn.
Although he was uncomfortable shaking my hand, all things electronic
fascinated him, and he questioned me intently about my tape recorder.
Every horizontal surface in Guy’s room was covered with his
creations. One was an electric fan with a metal alligator mouth on the front that
opened and closed as it rotated from side to side. On another fan a metal
fisherman raised and lowered his pole with each revolution. And then I saw
the sheep. Viewed from the left, it was covered in wool. Viewed from the
right, it was a skeleton, which I learned Guy had assembled without any
help. Guy didn’t say much about himself. He cannot read nor do arithmetic,
but he has built an electric dog that barks, pants, wags its tail, and
During my visit, another Acorn participant, Tim, blew into the room
like a surprise guest on The Tonight Show. He was in a hurry to leave
again, but asked me my birthday-July 15, 1970.
“Born on a Wednesday, eh?” he responded nonchalantly-and correctly.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“I did it well,” he replied.
“But how?” I asked.
“Very well,” he replied, with obvious pleasure. Then he was out the
door and gone.
How do calendar savants do it? Several years ago Timothy Rickard, a
cognitive psychologist at the University of California at San Diego,
evaluated a 40-year-old man with a mental age of 5 who could assign a day
of the week to a date with 70 percent accuracy. Because the man was blind from
birth, he couldn’t study calendars or even imagine calendars. He couldn’t
do simple arithmetic either, so he couldn’t use a mathematical algorithm. But
he could only do dates falling within his lifetime, which suggests that he
He could, however, do some arithmetic, such as answer this question:
If today is Wednesday, what day is two days from now? Rickard suspects
that memorizing 2,000 dates and using such arithmetic would allow 70 percent
accuracy. “That doesn’t reduce it to a trivial skill, but it’s not
inconceivable that someone could acquire this performance with a lot of
effort,” he says. It’s especially plausible given the single-minded drive
with which autistics pursue interests.
Yet Tim, the savant at Acorn, can calculate dates as far back as
1900, as well as into the future. And there are reports of twins who could
calculate dates 40,000 years in the past or future. Still, practice may be
part of it. Robyn Young, an autism researcher at Flinders University in
Adelaide, Australia, says some calendar savants study perpetual calendars
several days a week (there are only 14 different calendar configurations;
perpetual calendars cross-reference them to years).
But even if savants practice, they may still tap into that universal
ability Snyder has proposed. Here it helps to consider art savants. That
Nadia began drawings with minor features rather than overall outlines
suggests that she tended to perceive individual details more prominently
than she did the whole-or the concept-of what she was drawing. Other
savant artists draw the same way.
Autistic children differ from nonautistic children in another way.
Normal kids find it frustrating to copy a picture containing a visual
illusion, such as M. C. Escher’s drawing in which water flows uphill.
Autistic children don’t. That fits with Snyder’s idea that they’re
recording what they see without interpretation and reproducing it with ease in their own drawings.
Even accomplished artists sometimes employ strategies to shake up
their preconceptions about what they’re seeing. Guy Diehl is not a savant,
but he is known for his series of crystal-clear still lifes of stacked
books, drafting implements, and fruit. When Diehl finds that he’s hit a
sticking point on a painting, for example, he may actually view it in a
mirror or upside down. “It reveals things you otherwise wouldn’t see,
because you’re seeing it differently,” he says. “You’re almost seeing it
for the first time again.”
Diehl showed me how art students use this technique to learn to
draw. He put a pair of scissors on a table and told me to draw the negative
space around the scissors, not the scissors themselves. The result: I felt I was
drawing individual lines, not an object, and my drawing wasn’t half bad,
Drawing exercises are one way of coaxing conceptual machinery to
take five, but Snyder is pursuing a more direct method. He has suggested that a
technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic
fields to disrupt neuronal firing, could knock out a normal person’s
conceptual brain machinery, temporarily rendering him savantlike.
Young and her colleague Michael Ridding of the University of
Adelaide tried it. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation on 17 volunteers, they
inhibited neural activity in the frontotemporal area. This language and
concept-supporting brain region is affected in patients with
frontotemporal dementia and in the art savant whom Miller studied. In this altered state, the volunteers performed savantlike tasks-horse drawing, calendar
calculating, and multiplying.
Five of the 17 volunteers improved-not to savant levels, but no one
expected that, because savants practice. Furthermore, transcranial
magnetic stimulation isn’t a precise tool for targeting brain regions. But the five
volunteers who improved were those in whom separate neurological
assessments indicated that the frontotemporal area was successfully targeted.
“Obviously I don’t think the idea is so outlandish anymore,” says Young. “I think it
is a plausible hypothesis. It always was, but I didn’t expect we’d actually
find the things we did.”
Snyder himself is experimenting with grander ideas. “We want to
enhance conceptual abilities,” he says, “and on the other hand remove them
and enhance objectivity.” He imagines a combination of training and
hardware that might, for example, help an engineer get past a sticking point on a
design project by offering a fresh angle on the problem. One method would
involve learning to monitor one’s own brain waves. By watching one’s own
brain waves during drawing exercises, Snyder imagines it may be possible
to learn to control them in a way that shuts down their concept-making
machinery-even the left temporal lobe itself.
Even if further research never fully reveals why savants have
extraordinary skills, we may at least learn from their potential. Snyder
is optimistic. “I envisage the day,” he says, “when the way to get out of a
[mental rut] is you pick up this thing-those of us with jobs that demand a
certain type of creativity-and you stimulate your brain. I’m very serious