The Savant Brain

The striking capabilities of the savant brain depend on the focus of the powerful memory of a neural pattern recognition intelligence on a narrow knowledge domain. The term savant originated in the late nineteenth century with the discovery of amazing intellectual capabilities in a few feeble minded European patients. The brilliance displayed by savants in narrow areas, such as mathematics, calendar calculation, art, memory, musical ability, or spacial skills provide explanations for human creativity.

Darold Treffert said “By finding out how savants work, we learn how we work." According to him, almost all of them have prodigious memories which are very deep, but exceedingly narrow. Simon Baron-Cohen noted that the powerful ability of autistic savants to systematize was offset by a low score on their ability to empathize. Generally, the superior pattern recognition ability of the savant brain in one domain comes at the cost of reduced competence in another. But those brain processes reveal the massive potential of the ordinary human brain.

  • A savant child drew pictures of horses comparable to Rembrandt.
  • While the hippocampus enables declarative memories after substantial repetition, the savant brain recalls an uncanny range of details after a single glance.
  • While combinatorial memories can hold an infinity of details, such memories expand in savant brains for a single function.
  • Procedural memories depend on repetitive activity for recall.
  • While neural functions are carried on by specific regions, entire regions have been known to take over new functions.
  • The distortion of the mirror neuron system may lead to social impairment in autism.
  • The focus of attention in narrow regions may enable massive comprehension of function specific details.
  • Focused reward oriented behavior may also explain the skills of savant brains.

The Savant Brain – Super Normal Skills
The savant syndrome is rare and, historically, there are barely one hundred reported prodigious savants, who display the skill levels of a prodigy.  As an example, one had memorized The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire after reading it a single time, while another could instantly recite the particular day of the week for May 12, 1834. One was known to be able to instantly recall the names and birth dates of the family members and cabinet members, of any president of the United States. A savant child is known to have drawn pictures of horses, comparable to those of Rembrandt. Another could listen to a classical piece played just once and play it back in its entirety.

The Savant Brain – A Powerful Declarative Memory
While a normal person may remember having seen the page of a phone directory (an implicit memory), the savant brain can recall each entry on that page (a declarative memory). An ordinary person recalls an entry in a phone directory by linking the text to the elaborate context of the numerous aspects of a known person. Such declarative memories are recalled using contextual hooks. Those memories are formed for normal people after substantial repetitions of the perception within their nervous systems. An organ called the hippocampus is known to spread associative learning to extensive regions of the nervous system over many sleep/wake cycles. On the other hand, a savant brain recalls an uncanny range of details after a single glance.

The Savant Brain – Combinatorial Memories
This explanation of the savant brain is based on a groundbreaking view of human memory, suggesting that neurons store memories as remembered combinatorial patterns in the arrays of their receiving dendrites. The pattern may be a single signal in the array, signals in a channel in the array, or a specific combinatorial pattern of signals in the array. Such remembered combinations in olfactory receptor arrays were discovered (Nobel Prize 2004) to enable the instant identification of odors. Different combinations of receptors were noted to fire on identification of specific molecules in the air.

This website suggests that such a memory for an odor is assembled by the olfactory system, when the related nerve cells routinely record the related firing combinations. Such memories, which subsequently cause the cell to recognize a combinatorial code and fire, could be inherited, acquired, or consolidated through LTP, neural plasticity, or neuronal reverberation.

Knowledge stored in nerve cells enables the brain to perform its myriad functions. Each function is performed by a specialized functional region, which stores the related memories. Damage to the region causes a loss of that ability. The phenomenal memories of the savant brains occur, when altered development causes specific region of the brain, or even an entire hemisphere to be taken over by a neighboring region or the corresponding region in the opposite hemisphere. One function expands in power, while many others become disabled.

The Savant Brain – Repetition Needed For Recall
The nervous system has the capacity to instantly store a memory. These are invariably implicit memories. Such memories of ordinary people enable them to indicate that they have seen a movie scene, after seeing it just once. Implicit memories enable them to indicate familiarity with the thousands of images of the movie. But they may not be able to recall any particular scene, unless it has emotional significance. The ability to recall a scene in the movie is achieved through neuronal reverberation, where linked nerve cells fire in rhythm, record the combinatorial patterns in all the linked network, spread over several brain regions. The hippocampus is the key organ, which is believed to play a role in the recall of emotionally powerful scenes of the movie.

Signals from the hippocampus repeatedly activate the associative space/time/sensation/emotion regional links over many sleep/wake cycles. Such memories enable the conscious recall of a memory of a scene after months and years, when the system encounters any of the related links. On the other hand, p
rocedural memories enable a person to play a musical instrument, or to ride a bike. Such memories, which directly empower the motor system in real time, are also acquired through repetitive practice. Repetitive activity entrains the combinatorial memories in connected motor nerve cells. Procedural memories cannot be consciously recalled. They are assembled without the assistance of the hippocampus and are available as a remembered ability.

The Savant Brain – Hemispheric Dominance
Specialized memories are stored in distinctive functional regions of the brain. In general, for all vertebrates, including fish, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals, the left hemisphere of the brain focuses on routine functions, while the right one focuses on novelty. The left manages customary feeding, while the right remains on the alert for predators. In experiments, chicks displayed the ability to selectively pick seeds out of pebbles with one eye and one half of the brain, while using the other eye and the other half of their brains to monitor the skies for hawks. Each region stores the memories required to meet its functional responsibilities.

With increasing specialization, the left hemisphere manages systematic and logical functions like grammar, vocabulary and literal meaning. The right hemisphere became superior in the perception of visual and auditory stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, and artistic ability. The functions of the right brain became the production of language, such as intonation and accentuation. In savant brains, injury, or destruction caused specific region of the brain, or even an entire hemisphere to be taken over by a neighboring region or the corresponding region in the opposite hemisphere. Alternate pathways developed to replace injured pathways. There was lopsided functional specialization.

The Savant Brain – Systematization Displaces Empathy
Autism alters brain development soon after conception. Just after birth, the brains of autistic children tend to grow faster than usual, followed by normal or relatively slower growth in childhood. Early overgrowth occurs in all autistic children. There is usually left brain damage, where the right brain compensates and takes over those vast regions, which are devoted to complex habit formation functions in normal people. This leads to a weakness in the ability to form new habits and leads to an unusually narrow interests and highly repetitive behaviors, involving a resistance to change, with a need for sameness.

Children with autism are delayed in their development of a theory of mind - the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of themselves or others leading to the empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory, developed by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. The cognitive difficulties in autism appeared to lie in domains, where females outperformed males. Females show a greater ability to empathize, (E) the ability to identify a person's thoughts and feelings and to respond with appropriate emotions. A better developed language repertoire and higher empathy skills appear to protect them more against autism.

The mirror neuron system (MNS) theory of autism hypothesizes that distortion in MNS development interferes with imitation, leading to social impairment and communication difficulties. Males show a greater ability to systematize (S) the ability to analyze or construct a system, including mechanical systems, natural systems, abstract systems, and collectible systems, which follows repeating, lawful patterns. Cognitive strengths in autism appeared to lie in domains, where males outperform females.

The Savant Brain – The Role Of Attention
The key to the storage of memory is attention. When attention is paid to a task, neural activity increases in all contextual regions of the nervous system, which are involved in execution of the task. If the mind is engaged elsewhere, the task is less well remembered. The hippocampus assists in the consolidation and storage of the declarative memories of such experiences.
After a novel experience for an animal in a cage, the correlation of neuronal reverberation between groups of cells increases dramatically. This process repeats for several hours after the learning experience. Conscious recall becomes possible, when attention is paid to a new and novel experience.

Baron-Cohen noted the extreme repetitive behavior in autism. They spend hours bouncing on a trampoline, keep repeating phrases with exact intonation, or intensely observe the spinning wheels on a toy car. They also exhibit distress if anyone disrupts these activities. Such repetitive cycles of focused attention and neuronal reverberation may occur in a narrow domain in a savant's brain. Functional neuroimaging studies on autistic individuals indicate local overconnectivity in the cortex and weak functional connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the cortex.

In savant brains, repetitive application of the massive memory capacities of the overconnected neurons in the invaded brain regions may trigger virtually instantaneous assembly of the vast rules of music, art or mathematics. Once in place, intense concentration, repetition, compensatory drives and social reinforcement develop and polish these super normal skills.

The Savant Brain – Nature Decides One's Focus Of Interest
With just the access to a pencil or a brush, most savant artists burst into their fields, with full fledged skills. A narrow focus of attention and a repetitive reward oriented behavior provide the pivotal support for the uncanny creativity of the savant brain. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the choice of a need itself is prewired into the nervous system. Professor Wolfram Schultz discovered the principles behind reward oriented behavior.

Reward oriented behavior is promoted by the release of a group of neurotransmitters by neurons in the early reptilian (approach or withdraw) part of the human brain. When these neurons detect signals of the possibility of a reward, they release dopamine in the forebrain, increasing its activity, bringing clarity to the focus of interest. The brilliance of creativity flourishes on such intense brain activity. People inherit aptitudes for art, music, mathematics, literature, or science.

Bruce Miller noted that a form of dementia also created new aptitudes in patients. One patient began composing classical music soon after the onset of dementia. Miller suggested that this process may not be the development of a new skill, but a release of a skill, because dementia stopped the inhibition of its expression. The primitive reptilian part of the brain decides whether an answer to a problem facing a particular skill set
constitutes a reward.

The Savant Brain – The Creative Process
The mind requires a goal for it to search for answers. Just as anger, fear, or hunger triggers dynamic neural drives, the curiosity emotion sets off an enquiry from a functional region, which elicits one individual's enthusiasm. The combinatorial demands of that functional enquiry subconsciously eliminate irrelevant links to arrive at a combinatorial pattern, which meets that demand. The whole mind participates. When the pattern is matched, the answer to a problem enters the conscious mind.

For each enquiry from a functional region, numerous intelligences interact to eliminate irrelevancies and arrive at a recognized pattern, which globally meets all parameters of that enquiry. Being an interactive system, the answer to one enquiry produces fresh enquiries and the cycle of pattern recognition carries on beneath conscious awareness. An animal seeks safety, an acceptable location which is not accessible to the predator, or out sight of the predator. Answers appear in milliseconds.

The Savant Brain – Attention & Creativity
In the movie Rain Man, Raymond Babbit could memorize a phone book and count 236 toothpicks at a glance. While the skill appears uncanny, normal minds can also absorb a massive amount of knowledge at a glance. Many people carry photographic memories of their surroundings, when they first heard the news of the fall of the New York towers on 9/11. For a physician with specialized knowledge, a single glance isolates a barely perceptible symptom, which identifies a rare disease. The narrow focus of savant brains magnifies the noticeable details in their narrow area of focus. A savant child confided to his mother “My brain is made of math problems.” Another said “Music is my way of thinking.” Babbitt's attention was obsessively focused on numerical relationships.

Focused attention to an area expands the potential of the mind. The human brain has the capacity to evaluate a vast amount of knowledge in milliseconds. Baron-Cohen suggests that the left hemisphere, particularly in males, is hard wired to extract the underlying rules that govern a system. Savant brains remain continually active, deepening their understanding of mathematical, or musical systems. Oliver Sacks reported that prime numbers just appeared in the mind of the “calculating twins.” That capability is is also empowered in ordinary people, when they pay attention to their fields of interest. Creativity is a process, where focused attention to a subject on an ongoing basis enables the brain to have ever deeper understanding of the subtleties of art, music, or the sciences. The savant brain is merely an indication of the potential of the human mind, when it pays intense attention.

This page was last updated on 05-Apr-2016

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For my peace of mind, I earmarked 20 minutes for meditation on the terrace. With my eyes closed, I sense my hands on the chair and feel the numbness in my feet.

I feel my breath flowing through my nose, my throat, my chest and my stomach. I can hear the chirping of birds, the phut phut of auto rickshaws, the occasional roar of a truck and the insistent hooting of horns.

When I open my eyes, I see a pale moon over two hundred thousand miles away. I see the nuclear fires, blazing for millions of years in the pale globe of the setting sun. A star millions of miles away in space.

I can see green shoots coming up on a tree, watch the dives and swoops of birds, the great circles of the hawks and flocks of birds flying home for the night.

Diffused light from the sun reflects off a parrot on the tree and enters my eye through a pinhole opening. I sense the bustling mood of the bird, even though it is smaller than a drop of water in my eyes.

All these things are seen and felt by me in a few brief minutes. In the distance, is the head of a man seeming to be no bigger than a pea. Yet, that head too sees and feels such things. Ten million people in this great city see and feel in ten million ways.

My mind wanders to a misty view of postwar London; an exciting glimpse of Disneyland. An awed view of Tiananmen Square. The looming Himalayan ranges. My mind takes me to distant galaxies.

It carries me into the heart of millions of invisible neurons, where electrical charges flash thousands of times a second powering my contemplation. I see the campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander. I feel the longings of Jehangir.

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