Writer’s note: This was written in February 2013, in an attempt to land a summer internship at The Economist. I failed to get this internship, and ended up at a different one in Stockholm (the best city ever), so, you know, suck it.
Extraordinary talent is easily recognisable. Talented writers are published, talented musicians join orchestras, talented athletes compete in international events. What is it that sets them apart? A combination of aptitude – genes predisposing people to certain activites – and practice – years of training and hard-work. In this light, the paradox of savant syndrome is startling; recognisably advanced skills acquired seemingly spontaneously, alongside mental impairment.
Savant syndrome is commonly associated with autism, however, this is not always the case. Although a large number of savants are autistic, it is estimated that around 50% have isolated skills in the context of other developmental disorders, mental disabilities or injuries to the central nervous system. While the etiology remains largely unknown, there are common characteristics. Savant skills fall into three categories; 1) splinter skills, which include preoccupation with and memorisation of trivia, 2) talents, more highly developed skills in a single area, such as art or music and 3) prodigious skill, exceptional talent beyond the range of normal functioning. Of the last category, there are probably less than 100 known people worldwide meeting this level of ability.
Savants, like people with autism, appear to process the world in an unconventional way. Autistic children tend to focus on details and parts, ignoring contextualised meaning. This cognitive style could underpin savant skills, for example, realistic drawings; although they may ascribe no significance to the scene they are recreating, they would pay careful attention to the details. People who have studied savants note two distinguishing traits; an extraordinary memory and almost instinctual understanding of their particular area of interest. Some researchers claim they have a more ‘literal’ view of the world, accessing information which most of us process into holistic labels. Savants are naturally inclined towards structure and order, characteristics of the areas they excel in, namely arithmetic, music, art, calendar calculating and spatial skills. They are often obsessed by their interests, which hints at an intriguing possibility; is their talent a result of innate ability or exceptional attention?
Brain imaging studies of savants are only beginning to provide insights into this elusive condition. Although people have been studying savants for decades, research was restricted to behavioural observations, psychological tests, examinations of post-mortem brains and case reports of neurological events. A recent study has confirmed the common association of savant activities with the right hemisphere of the brain. Published last year, a group of researchers conducted multimodal brain imaging studies on a prodigious artistic savant; they found distinct regions, including the amygdala and the caudate nucleus, to be enlarged, and certain neurotransmitters to be substantially reduced. These structures and chemicals are all involved in the neurobiology of learning and memory. Previous case studies also commonly observed altered brain structure and utilisation of unusual neuronal pathways; the problem is that although some of these changes may be congenital, some could be due to the time spent practicing a particular skill, which is known to produce lasting alterations in the brain.
We need more research. Multimodal imaging studies on larger samples, with varying skills, could help elucidate underlying brain mechanisms. Early diagnosis and continued observations could help disentangle the roles of nature and nurture. The appearance of savant-like skills in people with damage to the left hemisphere, and incredibly, people subjected to transcranial magnetic stimulation in this area, suggests that savants are not as atypical as they appear. Regions in the left hemisphere have been implicated in semantic processing and conceptual knowledge, which may have evolved to accelerate decision-making and learning. Inhibition of these areas could mimic the right-brain compensation often observed in savants.
However, not everyone with left frontotemporal dementia will become a musician, and only 4 out of the 11 subjects under magnetic stimulation had markedly improved drawing skills. Understanding the savant brain could help reveal what it takes to be exceptional.