19 February 2008

Savantic Latency: Mind the Current

Are you a latent savant, with hidden mental powers waiting only for the proper trigger, to reveal themselves? Perhaps. A recent posting by commenter Mike led to this provocative NYT article from 2003 about the work of esteemed neuroscientist Allan W. Snyder:
If Snyder's suspicions are correct, in fact, and savants have not more brainpower than the rest of us, but less, then it's even possible that everybody starts out life as a savant. Look, for example, at the ease with which children master complex languages -- a mysterious skill that seems to shut off automatically around the age of 12. ''What we're doing is counterintuitive,'' Snyder tells me. ''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!''

...Snyder's theories are bolstered by the documented cases in which sudden brain damage has produced savant abilities almost overnight. He cites the case of Orlando Serrell, a 10-year-old street kid who was hit on the head and immediately began doing calendrical calculations of baffling complexity. Snyder argues that we all have Serrell's powers. ''We remember virtually everything, but we recall very little,'' Snyder explains. ''Now isn't that strange? Everything is in there'' -- he taps the side of his head. ''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?''____Source

Snyder, who has been publishing in the scientific literature for several decades, currently experiments with transcranial electromagnetic stimulation to bring out latent abilities mental.
The researchers think that by temporarily inhibiting activity in the left anterior temporal cortex, the TMS allowed the brain’s number estimator to act on raw sensory data, without it having already been automatically grouped together into patterns or shapes. In other words, they believe it caused the 'normal' brain to function more like an autistic 'savant' brain.___Source

Some forms of electromagnetic stimulation enhance the function of the stimulated portion of brain, and other forms of EMS suppress the function of the stimulated brain. Such a tool can function in an analogous way to a reversible "knock-out gene" in genetics research. By removing particular "instruments from the brain's symphony", we can glimpse the workings of a differently arranged brain.

It is not really a matter of whether savants have more or less brainpower than the rest of us. It is a matter of how the brain is being used. As people gain experience in life, they use forms of "mental shorthand" to speed repetitive mental functions. We do not actually read every word, but rather clump words and paragraphs into "essential meanings" to save time as we read. It seems that by taking shortcuts, we gain some time, and possibly lose something else.

"Modern" education is geared to shortcut thinking. The savants are "weeded out" by our educational system, because they make the teacher's work harder. Teachers have forgotten how to see the world in "raw" terms, without the learned shortcuts. The savants do not fit, so we toss them in with the refuse, or drug the savant out of them.

Yet, never have we needed the savants more than today, when modern societies find themselves in traps of their own making, but without any understanding of what is needed to open the cage door. Political systems are tightening the trap, and every proposed and attempted solution promises to make the situation worse. Political "change" is merely shorthand for a re-dressing of more-of-the-same. Savants have the ability to see elements of a problem that are hiding in plain sight.

An autistic savant is different from a genius savant, or prodigy. A normal person with savant-latency is a different creature still. Presumably, after the brain stimulation is turned off, the normal-cum-savant reverts back to normalcy. Autistic savants and prodigies typically retain their gifts for much longer periods of time, although not always permanently. Most of us probably wish to be polymaths, which may be possible eventually, with more advanced brain stimulation, or brain machine interfaces.

Here is more about the polymath.

More on Snyder's work here.

BTW, check out the new blog Brain Stimulant, if you are interested in brain electromagnetic stimulation.

Labels: , , , , ,

Bookmark and Share


Blogger Dennis Mangan said...

It's curious that "calendrical calculations" come up so often with savants. Why aren't they writing symphonies, or solving problems in astrophysics? It makes me wonder about their real abilities.

Tuesday, 19 February, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Autistic savants like "Rainman" may exhibit different skills. Some are rapid calculators, some are musically gifted and actually do compose music, some are gifted visual artists. Perhaps when parts of the brain are permanently "turned off" it allows other parts of the brain to excel. That idea is somewhat consistent with other findings in brain plasticity. (we have to remember that the child brain is different from the adult brain in terms of plastic ability)

Prodigies are children with fairly normal mental/emotional integration, who also are gifted (to the extent of an adult "expert") in one or more fields.

Polymaths are adults with multiple exceptional areas of knowledge, skills, talents, etc. Polymaths may be the most desirable end state of all, and perhaps the easiest to achieve--once we understand the brain better.

I suspect the best time to start when attempting to create a polymath is before conception.

Tuesday, 19 February, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tuesday, 19 February, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks, Mike. I am happy to see that you are posting frequently. Your blog covers an extremely timely topic.

By the way, if you create a blogger profile, every time you post a comment, the reader can click on your name to reach your profile--and from the profile they can reach your blog, email, etc--whatever you want to link.

As you say, Mike, autistic savants (and most Asperger's) have focal and regional brain deficits that prevent them from making the most of whatever talents they may have.

I might add that most of us have exactly the same problem, but to a lesser degree. "Executive Function" is extremely important in translating human potential into human achievement. EF is largely a function of the frontal lobes. EF can be strengthened and developed in early childhood education but is too often neglected.

Wednesday, 20 February, 2008  

Post a Comment

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts