Monthly Archives: March 2005

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 12 – SAVANT SYNDROME

This post was written on Thu, 10 Mar 2005.




In 1887 Dr J.L Down( the one who discovered Down’s syndrome) gave a series of lectures based on his 30 years experience at a mental asylum.
He described 10 patients who were mentally retarded but who possessed one or the other exceptional skill. One patient had memorized the book ‘Rise and fall of the Roman Empire” and could recite it forward or backwards. Another patient could multiply 8 digit numbers in seconds in his head. All these patients had an IQ less than 50 but were exceptional in one narrow activity. This condition came to be known as the savant syndrome.

       A person who suffers from the savant syndrome is usually mentally retarded. He is extremely unsocial and uncommunicative. ABout 50% of
people who have savant syndrome are people who suffer from autism. The rest are also mentally handicapped. They seem to live in a world of their own. Yet these people have one skill in which they are giants compared to the rest of us normal people.

       There is an  example of an autistic savant who could draw as well as Leonardo Da Vinci at the age of 9. Another autistic savant known as
“blind Tom” could play more than 1000 pieces of music. Out of these 100 were his own compositions. Yet his vocabulary was a mere 100 words.
Another savant could generate 8 digit prime numbers in his head.


       Typical savant skills are : drawing, numbers, able to learn and play a piece of music perfectly, able to tell you the day for any day of any year, memorising large books.

       Notice the list above and we can classify savant skills into two components exceptional ability to recognitize complex patterns and a deep
memory in a narrow area. So the savant is pure sense and memory. So a savant who has the musical skill can form patterns from mhe music that he hears, his recognition of every sound in the piece is perfect and he has a huge memory of music that he does not forget.

        Scientists have suggested that a musical savant’s recognition of frequency of every sound in a music piece is perfect because every sound
goes as it is into the memory. The savants taps the raw frequency of the sound. Whereas in the rest of us “normal people” the music has to pass
through barriers of likes/dislikes, concentration lapses, emotion, logic before it can reach the memory. A musical savant has no distractions or
emotion so the musical notes/patterns go as they are into a huge storehouse of memory. Also the memory of this one exceptional ability
is undisturbed by the rest of the mental processes( because there are so few other mental processes). In the rest of us our memories constantly
modified by other things. Similar reasoning can be applied to mathematical savants too.

       Scientists have tried to explain savant syndrome by the “left brain injury and right brain compensation”: if the left brain is damaged in the unborn child, the right brain compensates. Note that left brain is responsible for logic, social skills, problem solving etc. Right brain is responsible for recognizing patterns, non verbal ideas etc. So a savant has a large right brain and a small left brain. This theory also explains why savants usually are left handed( right brain is responsible for left hand).

       There a 7 times more male savants compared to females. This thing has also been explained. In the fetus the left brain completes its development faster than the right. Therefore the left brain is exposed for a longer time to possible injuries. Around a male fetus there is a huge
surge of the male sex harmone testerone. The amount of testosterone released around the fetus can sometimes reach toxic levels damaging the
exposed left brain. The right brain develops later and compensates for the left brain loss of creating extra neurons. This causes the savant
syndrome. Female fetuses are safer bacause the male sex harmone is not released, so the damage chances are so much lesser.

       Similarly damage to higher memory structures in savant brains results in lower memory structures to be developed more. When we see a
picture our eyes collect all the detailed information and passes it on to lower memory. But when it is being passed to higher memory the details are lost because the brain does not want to retain useless information. So only the basics are passed on to long term memory. But in a savant the higher memory is damaged. There is no removal of useless information. So every detail is preserved forever.

       So we have seen how exceptional musical, artistic and mathematical abilities arise in otherwise retarded people. Have we discovered the
secret of genius? Is a genius a person who has one magnificient skill(like the mathematician Ramanujan) or a person which all round brilliance( like Leonardo Da Vinci)?

       Note that a person suffering from autistic savant syndrome cannot be called a genius no matter how exceptional he may be at the one task.
This is because he lacks the essential component of genius: creativity!

       But imagine this: a fetus suffers from a small damage on the left brain but by mistake the right brain overcompensates. This would create a
person who would have good overall intelligence plus a phenomenol memory and pattern matching and calculation skills. Was the great Indian
mathematician Ramanujan  such a person? Ramanujan never derived equations. He had equations “whispered” into his head by the Goddess Namagiri! This looks like a case of patterns being discoved out of a enormous memory of equations at a subconcious level. A classic savant sign!


    This theory of mine may also explain why there are so many more geniuses in mathematics than in Physics. Mathematics( especially number
theory) is about finding patterns in numbers and equations. Physics is more about finding causes for phenomenon. There is a huge scope for
savants in mathematics and almost none in Physics.

       Friends, the more we study the brain the more mysterious it seems.It almost looks like there is a infinite universe inside our heads. And
there is an infinite universe outside. And the only purpose of life is to form relationships between these two infinite universes. And to do that we
must free our brains  from lower thoughts  and move to the higher plane: only through Science, art, music, poetry, philosophy can we form the
connections between these two infinities:

                 Come, lets fathom it,
                 whatever may befall!
                 In this, thy nothing…
                 I may find my all!

               To see this world in a grain of sand
               And the heavens in a wild flower
               Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
               And eternity in an hour



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;