Autistic Savants and other Extraordinary People
Autistic savants comprise a very small percentage of the autistic population but their enhanced capabilities along with those of some people whose left hemisphere has been damaged show what potential function there is when the constraints of the left hemisphere are even partially lifted.
from Left in the Dark by Tony Wright:
...one nine year-old boy was transformed from an ‘ordinary’ school child to a genius mechanic after a bullet destroyed a part of his left hemisphere. Ten year-old Orlando Serrell also acquired uncanny abilities after a baseball struck him on the left side of the head. After the injury healed, he found he could perform calendar calculations of baffling complexity and also recall the weather, where he was and what he was doing for every day since the accident. His feats made the news headlines.
In yet more cases, five patients from the Californian School of Medicine developed amazing drawing skills after dementia destroyed some specific parts of the left side of their brains. One of them had spent his life fitting car stereos and had never shown an interest in art. When dementia destroyed neurones in his left front temporal cortex, he suddenly started to produce sensational images depicting scenes from his early childhood. It was as if the destruction of those brain cells took the brakes off some innate ability that had been suppressed for most of his life.
These unlocked abilities parallel the astounding numerical, musical and artistic skills of autistic savants, memorably portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film ‘Rain Man’. There is a well-documented real life case in which this sort of heightened ability has reached a quite phenomenal level. Stephen Wiltshire is an autistic savant. He has severe learning difficulties yet, despite huge deficits, he has an extraordinary talent for drawing. At the age of eleven, he drew the Natural History Museum and other notable London landmarks to such a high standard that the well-known architect/artist Sir Hugh Casson described him as “the best child artist in Britain”.
But it is Stephen’s memory that is so astounding. At the age of 15, for a television documentary, he was taken for a half-hour helicopter ride over London. He took no notes or photographs and yet, back on the ground, he was able to produce a totally accurate aerial drawing of four square miles of the capital, incorporating over 200 buildings. His pencil never stopped, and he never corrected his work. It could be argued that London was already familiar to him; but he recently performed exactly the same feat in Rome, this time reproducing an accurate panorama of the entire city on a wall-mounted six metre long roll of paper.
Stephen Wiltshire’s combination of photographic memory and highly accomplished draughtsmanship is an extraordinary, almost preternatural faculty. And yet it may be simply an extreme manifestation of a skill-set we all possess. It is possible that somewhere within all our brains there is the ability to mentally ‘photograph’ all the detail that we see. We normally filter out this detail, as it is either not relevant or too complicated for the dominant part of the brain to cope with.
Most experts assume that this left brain filtration system is necessary to enable us to focus on our thinking. The left brain just cannot cope with the mass of detail so, in order to function at all, it either has to filter most of it out or not process it in the first place. So where is a photographic memory like Stephen Wiltshire’s stored? Almost certainly in the right hemisphere or at least facilitated by its operation. ..
There is some evidence that suggests that the right hemisphere may be even better with language than the left. The autistic savant Daniel Tammet can not only perform extraordinary mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds but, unlike other savants who can perform similar feats, he speaks seven languages (French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Icelandic and Esperanto) and is even devising his own – "Mänti". Icelandic is a very difficult language to learn and yet Daniel Tammet mastered it within a week. Though there are many theories about savants, it is usual that some kind of brain damage causes the affliction – perhaps the onset of dementia later in life, a blow to the head or, in the case of Daniel, an epileptic fit when he was three.
Scans of the brains of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere might be compensating for damage in the left hemisphere. There is therefore the possibility that, in Daniel's case, his right hemisphere is giving him his outstanding language ability (as well as the ability to calculate cube roots quicker than an electronic calculator and recall Pi to 22,514 decimal places). If it is indeed right hemisphere processing that is giving Tammet his facility with language then, even if the right has compensated for a breakdown of the left, it somehow processes languages better than a normal left hemisphere can. Does this mean that the right has magically grown ultra proficient or are its skills inherent and normally kept bottled up by left hemisphere dominance? ...
Other unusual things happen to our language skills too when the dominant hemisphere is left without the support of the right. For instance, when the right hemisphere is irreparably damaged, speech is typically delivered in a monotone and even the difference between male and female voices becomes impossible to discern.
In one bizarre case, a nine year-old boy suddenly learnt how to speak after his left hemisphere was removed. ‘Alex’ was born with a disorder called Sturge-Weber syndrome, which disrupted the blood supply to the left side of his brain. He suffered epileptic fits and could only utter a few indistinct sounds; his only intelligible word was ‘mama’. He was so ill that doctors decided that the only way his fits could be controlled was by removing the damaged half of the brain. Most remarkably, two years after the surgery Alex could talk like a normal child. This result caused quite a stir because, according to accepted theory, we can only acquire language during the first few years of our lives. Most people who start to speak unusually late never become very proficient. As we grow older it seems that our brains lose ‘plasticity’ – networks of nerve cells lose the ability to form new connections on which learning depends.
Darold Treffert, Clinical Professor at University of Wisconsin Medical School, has studied savant syndrome for over forty years. His book 'Extraordinary People' was the first comprehensive summary of autistic savant syndrome and is probably the world authority on autistic savants. In a recent statement he has said: ‘I’ve come more and more to the conclusion that rather than there being right hemisphere compensation, there is rather release from the ‘tyranny’ of the left hemisphere’
The Boy With The Incredible Brain
Beautiful Mind: Stephen Wiltshire (autistic savant)
The Rainman Twins
Savant Syndrome: An extraordinary Condition Darold A Treffert MD
Allan Snyder and Enhanced Brain function
In the 1990's Professor Allan Snyder at the Centre of the Mind in Australia began conducting research involving temporarily shutting down the left temporal lobe of the brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation. During the experiments enhanced artistic and mathematical ability and improved memory emerge.
The skills that emerged in Allan Snyder's experiments mirror those of autistic savants and also occur in some people whose left hemisphere has been damaged.
In Snyder’s words: ''You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline. You can make people see the raw data of the world as it is. As it is actually represented in the unconscious mind of all of us.'' A number of Allan Snyder's subjects have reported perceptual changes too – feelings of euphoria and bliss more normally associated with ‘peak experiences’ and meditation.
Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses:
Allan Snyder, Homayoun Bahramali, Tobias Hawker, D John Mitchell, May 2006 http://www.perceptionweb.com/abstract.cgi?id=p5539
Savant for a Day Lawrence Osborne
New York Times Magazine June 22 2003