My Brilliant Brain – Accidental Genius

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Articles in this series:

Accidental Genius

In this post, we’re going to look at part 2 of My Brilliant Brain – the accidental genius. The documentary features two “accidental geniuses”:

  • George Widener – a prodigious savant with amazing skills in calendar calculating and art; and
  • Tommy McHugh – the victim of a stroke who recovered and discovered his hidden artistic talent.

As we look at these two accidental geniuses, several questions come to mind:

  • Is there a genius present in all of us, unbeknownst because we are unable to tap into that potential?
  • Is there any way for us to bring out that genius without having to go through brain injury to awaken it?
  • Would we want to be able to bring out that genius?

What are Savants?

A savant, by definition, is a person of learning. They usually have detailed knowledge in some specialized field, such as, science or literature. A savant may be a person affected with a developmental disorder (such as autism or intellectual disability) who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (such as mathematics or music). One such savant is known as the Autistic Savant. People of this nature are said to have the condition “savant syndrome”.

Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. As many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.

Darold A. Treffert

Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, memory, arithmetic, musical abilities, and spatial skills.

  1. Music – playing in perfect pitch, being able to play multiple instruments (as many as 20).
  2. Art – usually in drawing, painting or sculpting.
  3. Calendar calculating – for instance being able to determine the day of the week any particular date falls on.
  4. Mathematics – for instance, lightning calculating.
  5. Mechanical or spatial skills – for instance, the ability to measure distances precisely without the use of measuring instruments, the ability to construct complex models with accuracy, the mastery or mapmaking and direction-finding.

There are other skills such as the polyglot ability (prodigious language capabilities), synesthesia, appreciation for time without a watch, and outstanding knowledge in particular fields of study. Regardless of the skills present in each individual, all savants have a prodigious memory.

Types of Savants

There are 3 types of savants:

  1. Splinter skills – obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, and historical facts.
  2. Talented savants – “cognitively impaired persons in whom the musical, artistic, or other special abilities are more prominent and highly honed, usually within an area of single expertise, and are very conspicuous when viewed in contrast to overall disability”.
  3. Prodigious savants – “extraordinarily rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-impaired person”.

Some prodigious savants:

  • Kim Peek – mentally and physically handicapped but able to read 500 pages a minute and has memorised 9000 books (at the time the documentary was created).
  • Leslie Lemke – blind and mentally disabled but able to play back a piece of music after only hearing it once even though he never learned music.
  • More prodigious savants.

The Abilities of Kim Peek

Kim Peek has memorized over 6000 books and has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, music, literature, history, sports and nine other areas of expertise. He can name all the US area codes and major city zip codes. He has also memorized the maps in the front of telephone books and can tell you precisely how to get from one US city to another, and then how to get around in that city street by street. He also has calendar-calculating abilities and, more recently, rather advanced musical talent has surfaced. Of unique interest is his ability to read extremely rapidly, simultaneously scanning one page with the left eye and the other page with the right eye. 

Darold A. Treffert

Notes from My Brilliant Brain

To understand more about what’s different about a savant’s brain, neurologist Joy Hirsch scanned the brain of George Widener. She found that although George’s brain was structurally the same as any other individual, what was different was the wiring. When performing certain tasks, the areas of activity were not where they were expected. Areas that should have been active were not and areas that were not expected to be active were. In short, a savant’s brain has been mis-wired – but how?

Psychologist Darold Treffert says that prodigious savants are born with the knowledge they never learned. He believes it begins in utero when the two hemispheres of the brain are forming. Each half is responsible for different functions – the left is the domain for language and logical thinking, while the right is the domain for art, math and music (the talents commonly observed in savants). In utero, the right hemisphere reaches completion first while the left hemisphere is susceptible to the flood of testosterone which interferes with the wiring of the brain. This results in a compromised left hemisphere leaving the right hemisphere free of its logical influence.

Professor Allan Snyder states that in order to access these savant abilities, what we need is not a better brain but a brain with less. He cites the example of a young autistic girl who demonstrated remarkable artistic abilities. She was late in the development of language but once she gained language, she lost her artistic ability. It is the presence of our higher brain functions that prevent access to these abilities. Only with the suppression of the higher brain functions – such as in autistic individuals or in individuals with brain injuries – can the potential be unlocked.

Snyder’s belief that we all possess these capabilities (but are merely unable to consciously access them) is supported by individuals like Tommy McHugh who discover their savant abilities later in life following some sort of brain injury. Tommy, who had never held a paintbrush before in his life, discovered his hidden artistic talents after suffering a stroke. I thought it was interesting that Tommy also developed a talent for writing in prose. This was something I noticed that went hand in hand with child prodigy Akiane‘s artistic talent for she, too, was not only a talented artist but a poet as well. Is there a link between the ability to paint and the creativity to write poetry? Food for thought…

If savant abilities are inherent in us all, is there a way to access them without having a brain injury? How can we release the creativity of the right brain from the dominant logic of the left? In the documentary, Snyder achieved this by creating a “thinking cap”. It utilises Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to block the electrical impulses in the left hemisphere, freeing the more creative right hemisphere for expression.

The Thinking Cap

In the documentary, Snyder tests a subject before and after wearing the thinking cap on the following:

  1. Reading a well-known proverb deliberately printed with a grammatical error:
    A bird in the
    the hand is worth
    two in the bush.
  2. Drawing a horse.
  3. Estimating the number of dots on a screen (20 questions).

The test subject’s results before and after wearing the thinking cap:

  1. Before wearing the cap, he misses the grammatical error. After wearing the cap, he spots the grammatical error.
  2. Before wearing the cap, he draws a very basic and simple horse outline. After wearing the cap, his horse is more detailed and artistic.
  3. Before wearing the cap, he is hesitant in his estimates and gave round numbers, e.g. 160, 100, etc. Out of 20 questions, he got 2 correct. After wearing the cap, he was more confident and specific with his answers, e.g. 62, 103, etc. Out of 20 questions, he got 8 correct.

Unfortunately, the effects of the thinking cap were not permanent. The benefits were gone after an hour. You can watch the segment on Snyder’s thinking cap test in the following video:

The full documentary of My Brilliant Brain: Accidental Genius is available on Culture Unplugged.

You might be wondering about the availability of the “thinking cap” since this documentary was released in 2007. You can read more about it here:

That said, there are still some issues with the Thinking Cap that raises more questions for me. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, co-author of the “thinking cap” study says, “We can improve very specific think-out-of-the-box [processes], but at the same time we decrease working memory processes.” However, I have also read in other studies that working memory ability is quality that differentiates prodigies from the rest of us. Additionally, despite 13 years having elapsed since the documentary was realeased, we don’t seem to have progressed very much with the “thinking cap” either.

Perhaps the answer lies in the third part of this documentary – Make Me a Genius.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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