News Stories

You Too Can be a Savant

In the June 22nd Sunday New York Times, Lawrence Osborne writes about Australian researcher Allan Snyder, who has developed the Medtronic Mag Pro. When you wear it on your head, it turns you into a savant. Scientists have always been puzzled by savants?retarded or autistic people who are geniuses in one area, like math or calculating dates. Snyder is trying to figure out how their brains do this, and how to turn anyone into a savant.

The Medtronic was originally developed to slow down specific areas of the brain for surgery, but Snyder discovered that it could cause people to exhibit the genius-like mental abilities of savants. He says, ''You could call this a creativity-amplifying machine. It's a way of altering our states of mind without taking drugs like mescaline.'' He has used the tool on university students, who can suddenly draw images much more accurately while wearing it. It can also increase their ability to proofread and do difficult math.

A small group of autistics are savants. One in turn-of-the-century Vienna could calculate the day of the week for every date since the birth of Christ. Others can speak dozens of languages without formally studying any of them or can reproduce music at the piano after only a single hearing. It's as if when certain mental functions, like the capacity to think conceptually, don't work, other mental functions increase. Snyder wants ''to enhance the brain by shutting off certain parts of it.''

''In a way, savants are the great enigma of today's neurology,'' says brain researcher Joy Hirsch. ''They exist in all cultures and are a distinct type. Why? How? We don't know.?

Snyder thinks everyone starts out as a savant. For instance, children can learn foreign languages much more easily than adults, but that ability seems to shut down around age 12. He says, ''We're saying that all these genius skills are easy, they're natural. Our brain does them naturally. Like walking. Do you know how difficult walking is? It's much more difficult than drawing!''

There are cases where sudden brain damage turned people into savants almost overnight. After being hit on the head, 10-year-old Orlando Serrell, who was not highly educated, immediately began doing complex calendar calculations. Snyder says we all have these powers. ''We remember virtually everything, but we recall very little,'' Snyder explains. ''Now isn't that strange??Buried deep in all our brains are phenomenal abilities, which we lose for some reason as we develop into 'normal' conceptual creatures. But what if we could reawaken them?''

Sometimes we meet strange people who seem to know EVERYTHING.

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