Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Brilliance by accident

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, savant syndrome

What is a savant? Historically, it is an exceptionally learned and intelligent person. Since the coining of the term "idiot savant" in about 1900 AD, the old meaning has been declining. "Idiot savant" originally referred to a severely impaired person with superior ability in a narrow field such as music performance or painting or drawing or memory skills. Many such persons were found to be autistic, so "autistic savant" was promoted starting about 1970, and particularly after the 1988 release of the film Rain Man. The character Raymond, the "rain man", was modeled on the talents of the autistic savant Kim Peek, now unfortunately deceased. But not all narrowly-focused savants are autistic, so the preferred term now is simply "Savant", usually capitalized, or, more cumbersomely, "person with savant syndrome."

Characteristic of Savants is that they attain or develop almost unbelievable skills with little or no practice. The prototype is someone who sits down at a piano for the first time and is able to play a symphonic piece he recently heard. Most savants are male, so I'll use male pronouns when avoiding pronouns altogether is too onerous. I have a friend, someone of greater than average intelligence, but no genius, and he plays piano really well. He can read music, sight-read, play by ear or from memory, and transpose to any key. He simply sat down one day and could do it. In that, he is a Savant, but he is certainly not autistic.

A very few people develop Savant skills in one area or another after a serious injury. Worldwide about thirty such people are known. They have "acquired savant syndrome", as opposed to being born a Savant. One such is Jason Padgett, whose new book, co-written with Maureen Seaberg, is Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel. Jason is apparently exceptional among Acquired Savants in having gained both extraordinary skills in certain areas of mathematics, and also synesthesia.

As he writes, he didn't care about math in school, and mostly didn't like it. When he was a little over thirty years old he was mugged as he left a Karaoke bar. He was struck severely in the head at least three times. The first blow, he remembers, was followed by a very low note, a kind of Bong as from a piano, but lower than a piano's lowest note. By the next day he began seeing things differently. Moving things now moved in rapid stop-action, and everything seemed to have lines radiating out. It was as though the construction lines of a detailed mechanical drawing had not been erased. (My insta-theory of this is that he was seeing what the vision system usually hides, the various shape detection circuits decoding all the objects in his visual field.)

Synesthesia is the mixing of senses. Some synesthetes see each letter of the alphabet, or each number, or certain words, in specific colors. 3 may be chartreuse (seldom a prosaic "green") and 5 tangerine orange. Or each may be accompanied by a unique musical sound. Or music may evoke colored visions, or smells. Jason sees numbers and other math symbols as collections of boxes stacked in ways that are meaningful to him, for one; other synesthetic reactions occur for him but I didn't get a clear idea of them.

An injured brain will try to heal. It takes time. Jason spent more than three years in self-imposed isolation, driven by agoraphobia, while his brain healed as well as it could. Just prior to that, however, he was very active, first trying to get justice against the muggers, and later searching for some understanding of why he now saw differently and thought differently, and also had much stronger empathetic emotions; he could read people better than most of us (It strikes me that this is a third Savant skill).

One thing that helped him greatly was to begin drawing what he saw or what he imagined about math concepts. This drawing (note his copyright information) represents wave-particle duality, a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics. Some of his drawings take months to complete. When he explains one to a professional mathematician, they recognize his insight.

This shape looks totally symmetrical at first, but there are subtle asymmetries that enhance its beauty, and convey the meaning. Even without an explanation of the mathematical underpinnings, the drawings are compelling artwork!

Learning how to cope with the negative effects of his injury took years, and healing is still going on. He was greatly helped once he was able to get MRI scans and other brain images that validated his study of what must have happened in his brain. He was also greatly helped by meeting, wooing and marrying his wife Elena. He is healing better than if he'd remained a loner.

Jason has found new communities, most particularly other synesthetes, to whom he doesn't seem weird at all. He has been studied by various experts, some of whom are studying techniques such as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TCMS), which can apparently induce temporary Savant-like abilities. Perhaps one day it will be possible to unleash a hidden skill that was buried in our "genetic memory" (whatever that means!)…without getting whacked by a mugger! Many skills will always need practice and refinement, but perhaps some are innate yet hidden, waiting for us to learn how to find them.

Jason's co-author Maureen Seaberg also experiences synesthesia and blogs about it. Jason has this website, and you can find Maureen on Twitter.

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