I’ve long been fascinated by savants and savant syndrome. Most of us think of Rain Man when we think of savants, but not all savants have mental development disorders. Most known savants do qualify on the Autism Spectrum, but it isn’t necessary. Some neurotypical individuals (normal people) have savant-like skills unleashed at some point in their lives. Occasionally, this will happen spontaneously, but more often, it happens after something alters the brain, such as bad concussion or stroke. These people are known as “acquired savants” since they weren’t born with their abilities (those born with it are known as “congenital savants).
To me, acquired savants pique my interest even more, since they occur in neurotypical individuals such as you and me. This indicates to me that many savant skills are actually dormant in individuals, but being repressed somehow. Once whatever is repressing them from coming to the surface is damaged/removed/whatever, these abilities erupt to the surface. Usually, these skills come at a high cost, often an extremely compulsive need use them.
I’m going to use what I know about computer science and artificial neural networks to try to explain what I think is happening. First, our brains are a big neural network. Actually, they’re a network of networks. Some neural pathways are optimized for memory or motor skills or math or whatever. Your brain has only a few inputs for data…your 5 senses. From these 5 inputs, our neural networks decide what cereal to eat, how to hit a golf ball, and which political party to vote for (or whether to even bother with voting). One can argue that memory is another input, and it may be that instead of just another network in the brain, but that’s not really important. Here’s a really quick (and I’m sure quite poor) description of how an artificial neural network works: The computer program has a variety of inputs which it passes information on to at least one layer in a neural network. There are usually many nodes in a given layer, and each node places a different emphasis on the inputs it receives. That layer may feed to other layers, but ultimately, there’s a decision layer. The decision layer essentially looks at the different nodes that send it data, and decides which node is closest to the network’s idea of what’s optimal. With an artificial neural network, you need to train the network by feeding it input, then telling it what the ideal was. For example, if one’s using neural networks for handwriting analysis, you might give the neural network a handwritten letter, then tell it the actual letter of the alphabet that was written. Your network should change the amount of emphasis it gives on given nodes/layers in itself and get better at recognizing that letter. Supply enough training events, and the neural network will get pretty decent at reading handwritten notes.
With Computer Science, you can muck with your networks and learn some things. If you went in and changed one of the nodes with a high emphasis (weight), to 0 or a negative value, it would essentially ignore that node. Sometimes this has only a small impact on the outcome of the computation, but if its a node with a high emphasis, it usually has a profound outcome. Without the dominating node or nodes, other parts of the neural network get to weigh much more profoundly on the outcome.
I believe the same thing happens in the brains of acquired savants. Since our brain is a network of networks, if something happens to change the emphasis or completely destroy what is currently the dominant network, another one will come to the surface. Say you always think of arithmetic problems with one part of your very conscious mind, but after taking a 2x4 over the head from Hulk Hogan in your weekly professional wrestling match, your brain no longer uses that part of your mind for analyzing arithmetic. Instead, the part of your brain near the very back that actually does the arithmetic calculations becomes the dominant neural circuit. All of the sudden, you can do normal arithmetic instantly in your mind. Your conscious mind doesn’t even think about it, and the answers “just come to you.” If I asked you to evaluate 7639 x 37.4332, you have the answer without any conscious thought.
While I completely made up that example, it seems to be what is common experience among many acquired savants: a head injury, stroke, near drowning/suffocation, or similar occurs, and when the individual is released from the hospital, they can play piano at expert levels (though never having played before in their lives) or calculate what day of the week any date in history or future will fall on, or recall where they were and how the weather was in any day of their lives or whatever they’ve ever read at any point in their lives, word for word.
My point, If I even have one, is that it sure seems to me that these skills are possibly latent in all of us, if only we could figure out how to let them out of their cages. Savants provide fabulous insight toward the true limits of human potential. How can we unleash these amazing skills?