Savant syndrome is thought mainly to be the result of trauma to the left hemisphere of the brain.This is the area which is in charge of language skills, making language savants extremely rare.
Think of a savant and you’re likely to jump straight to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in Rainman. His character Raymond was based on real-life savant Kim Peek, who, despite having an IQ of 87, could remember the contents of 12,000 books he had read.
As the first mainstream portrayal of a savant, Rainman did much to raise awareness of both savant syndrome and autism. However, it also created certain stereotypes that still hang around today.
Namely, that savant skills and autism go hand in hand. In various media, savant skills are used as a kind of shorthand to indicate autism, and vice versa. But the statistics tell a very different story. Not all autistic people are savants, and not all savants are autistic. In fact, around 1 in 10 autistic people show some savant skills, and only about 50% of people with savant syndrome have autism
Islands of Genius
People with savant syndrome have mental disabilities- either autism, or disabilities caused by a Central Nervous System (CNS) injury. These disabilities are coupled with an “island of genius,” a term coined by Darold Treffert, a pioneering expert in the field.
This island of genius is extremely deep, extremely narrow, and tends to be right hemisphere in type. For example, Leslie Lemke, who can play a piece of music flawlessly after only hearing it once. Or Jedidiah Buxton, who could calculate numbers up to 39 figures. Or calendar-calculating savants, who can specify the day of the week of a given date-sometimes 100 years ago. Other savants are exceptionally skilled in mechanical skills or art. “(But) whatever the particular savant skill,” says Treffert, “it is always linked to massive memory.”
The term “idiot savant” was first coined by Down in 1887 to describe the dualities of the condition-idiot did not then have the negative connotations it has now. But although the syndrome has been known since then, it remains far from understood.
Extraordinarily rarely in an already rare condition, stunning language skills are the island of genius. What makes language savants so rare and unexplainable is that the left hemisphere- the damaged hemisphere in savants- is mainly responsible for language skills.
Take 50 year old Christopher Taylor, who was diagnosed as brain damaged at the age of six months. He also has a speech defect, poor eyesight and apraxia, meaning he has poor motor skills. The damage to his brain has been variously diagnosed as autism and hydrocephalus (a distortion of the brain caused by a build up of liquid.) He requires round-the-clock care, and can’t leave the house alone.
Yet Christopher Taylor is also a polyglot savant who has learned more than 20 languages without being formally taught. Among the languages he has learned are German, Greek, Italian, Hindi, Turkish, Swedish and Portuguese. In fact, he was able to learn Epun, an artificial language whose grammatical rules defy the universal grammar espoused by Chomsky et al.
In Christopher, we have the perfect example of what Dr. Treffert calls “the juxtaposition of ability and inability in the same person.”
A different but equally unusual case is that of 33 year old Daniel Tammet, who speaks ten languages, including French, Icelandic, Lithuanian, Esperanto and German. He is even creating his own language, Manti.
Daniel’s savant skills aren’t limited to languages either. In 2004, he recited Pi to 22,514 decimal places from memory, and he can also make enormously complex mathematical calculations. On the savant spectrum, he is classified as prodigious, one of only 50 prodigious savants alive today.
Daniel suffered from epileptic fits as a child, but it was not until 2004 that he was diagnosed as a highly functioning autistic savant. He has written books, traveled the world and runs his own business.
Daniel stands in sharp contrast with Christopher, and the contrast between the two illustrates the wide-ranging complexities of savant syndrome and the fallacy of automatically tying “savant” with “Rainman.”
So why do some people have savant skills?
Now, to the nitty-gritty. What causes some people with mental disabilities to have savant skills, but not others? The short answer: Nobody knows. The long answer: There are a number of theories, none of which fully satisfy all cases of savant syndrome.
In most cases, there is damage to the left hemisphere of the brain: congenital damage caused in the womb, an acquired brain injury in life or even, in some cases, damage caused by dementia.
This is one reason why the island of genius in most savants is right hemisphere in nature- a sound theory, until you consider language savants like Christopher and Daniel.
Another debate rages over how exactly savant skills develop. One major train of thought is that the right hemisphere simply overcompensates for the damaged left. The other is that that the right hemisphere is freed from “the tyranny of the left.”
This theory of the “tyranny of the left,” as proposed by Professor Allan Snyder, lends itself to the intriguing notion that perhaps we all have savant skills, and we just don’t know how to access them. In other words, the brain damage actually creates the savant.
The Human Brain: Revealed?
Thanks to advances in technology and science, we have learned more about savant syndrome in the last couple of decades than in the previous 120 odd years. But the startling difference between the disability and sometimes prodigious ability in savants remains as mysterious as it does intriguing.
As research continues, we are inching closer not only to an explanation as to why savant syndrome occurs, but a potentially revolutionary discovery of how all our brains’ work, and their hidden potential for extraordinary feats. As Kim Peek said, “You don’t have to be handicapped to be different – everybody’s different.”