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The Inner Savant In All of Us

Darold Treffert, M.D. is considered one of the foremost experts on savantism in the world.

Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome: “Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome” in 2006 and “Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant” in 2010. […] In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a technical consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man that made “autistic savant” household terms and he maintains a very popular website at www.savantsyndrome.com hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Dr. Treffert was gracious enough to have a wide-ranging conversation with me. Over the course of a few days, we had a delightful time chatting about autism, savantism, genius, nature, nurture, intelligence, creativity, lessons learned, recent advances, and the future.[…] In my view, this interview demonstrates quite clearly the need for more compassion and research on all different kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness. In this seventh part, we discussed the inner savant in all of us.

SCOTT: A common theme running throughout your books is the idea that hidden brain potential and memory capacity may lie buried and dormant within each of us. Of course, the million dollar question is how such dormant skills can be accessed naturally without having to endure a catastrophe. Is there evidence that this access is possible in all of us?

DAROLD: In my book, I make reference to Betty Edwards‘ work, on her book “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain“. What Betty Edwards has done, for years now, is teach people to draw like you would teach somebody a second language. I’m not good at drawing, but I could take one of her courses, and I might be surprised that I’m able to draw better than I can.

I know I’m not going to be any genius at that, but if you read her book, the reason that she is teaching people how to draw is not because she wants them to be able to draw better. What she wants them to do is to shift gears a little bit and spend a little bit more time in the right hemisphere.

There are companies, major corporations, that send their executives to Betty Edwards’ courses, not to have them learn to draw better but because the vision, seeing the bigger picture, and creativity itself is more likely a right-brain-dominant domain than a left-brain one. So what these executives come away with, hopefully, is an increased ability to see the big picture of their company, or the big picture of their industry. It’s a convincing book, to me at least, and her examples show that in terms of getting people to shift gears a little bit.

Another reference I would use is Jill Taylor‘s work. I mentioned her book earlier, and she was certainly a left-brain scientist and a very successful one, but now she’s able to make that shift and she is making the argument that all of us are able to do that more, if we think about it, and if we work at it, and if we consciously try to shift to the right.

I think we’re showing that not only when one does meditation that one is getting into a different realm, cognitively, but if you look at the imaging that’s done on people when they’re meditating, they indeed are entering a different portion of the brain which is activated. So I think that those are some ways that one can do that. And then there’s Allan Snyder in Australia who uses transmagnetic stimulation (see “Conversations on Creativity with Allan Snyder” and “Thinking Cap Stimulates Insight“).

He continues his work in trying to address that, and uses a technological way of doing that. From my own conclusions or observations, it takes me back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of being able to simply shift focus in a conscious deliberative way and without seeing that as being frivolous or a waste of time, or “hobby”, if you want to call it that. And many times I think the extent to which their particular area comes out surprises the individual.

In my own case, I think if I’m not musical, mechanical, or artistic, well, where does that leave me. I can’t count or calculate, but I do have a pretty good mechanical sense, and a sense of nature. And I was impressed with many of the patients that I had through the years in my practice who were farmers, many of whom had not gone beyond the eighth grade, and yet they had a knowledge about the earth, and about nature, and about growing, and seasons, and the whole huge domain of knowledge about their industry of farming and earth and growing things, and I was simply amazed at some of the observations that they had.

We had a fellow one time doing some landscape work for us, and he had some rather unusual behaviors, but his knowledge of the earth, and his knowledge of what grows where and when, and his little secret potion that he put on each of the bushes, which I never could, like Colonel Sanders’ recipes for spices. Everything that he touched grew. So, it’s that kind of capacity, I think, that we need to discover within ourselves and to nourish them.

Now, we’re not all going to be Einsteins, or Picassos, or Rembrandts, but I think it enriches our life when you find some of those things and don’t see them as frivolous or just as hobbies but more central to our being.

For a review on this topic, see “The Rain Man In All Of Us“.

SCOTT: That was actually very poetic! Do you ever write poetry?

DAROLD: No, I haven’t written poetry, but I had written in a whole different area of what I call mellowing, or becoming more mellow, which means becoming relaxed, at ease, and pleasantly convivial. It’s just a booklet, but it talks about this not from a standpoint of savant syndrome, but I was into this long before, or as a parallel track of, and you’ll see the analogies here in terms of getting into the right hemisphere. So when I read Jill Bolte Taylor’s work, I said, you know, what she’s talking about is what I call mellowing, and it is a shift in emphasis. So, that’s where I’ve done a fair amount of writing in that area.

SCOTT: Do we all have this autobiographical memory ability that savants have but they’re just better at accessing those memories?

DAROLD: Yeah. In my my experience, I’ve come to that conclusion. Again, these are conclusions I’ve come to, as opposed to starting out with. That we all have a running tape of our existence is not something which I would have espoused before I got into some of the things with the savant. A couple of things have made me wonder about that.

One is that there are savants with tremendous autobiographical memory, not just memory for dates, and places, and calendar calculating, but actually can recall what they had for dinner on Thursday, July 20, whatever year, and know July 20 was on a Thursday.

And then there is this condition called hyperthymestic syndrome, which is not in savants. These are neurotypical people who have vivid autobiographical memory, and there are some cases described now, I think four or five such cases, that seem to meet the criteria for hyperthymestic memory but working with several things have colored my observations about that.

One is, in my practice, when I did sodium amytal interviews on some patients, I remember one patient in particular had panic attacks and anxiety disorder, and she was convinced that something had happened to her because when she got in certain places with certain reminders she would be more likely to have this panic attack. And she was convinced that something had happened to her on a particular day in her life. She couldn’t retrieve the memory, but she was convinced that that’s when it started.

I don’t do hypnosis in the usual way. I use sodium amytal, which is chemical hypnosis, because it’s quicker and easy to administer. Anyway, I took her back to that particular day, and she remembered driving down the street, she remembered the street names on the street signs, she remembered the light turning green from red, remembered the trip to this particular place, and details which she never could have recounted before this sodium amytal. It turns out that there was an event that took place.

It was not nearly as drastic or traumatic or as awful as she imagined it might have been, but there was an event which did occur, and she was able to retrieve that. When she woke up from it, she said, what did I tell you, or, you know, what did you find out? And I told her, and she then had no recollection except as I recited the route. So it was all stored there and the sodium amytal made it possible to retrieve that.

I just kind of tucked that away, but then I came across the work of Wilder Penfield, who was a neurologist in Canada, and really a pioneer in mind brain research in those days and his trying to find the epileptogenic foci in the person, which we still do, by the way. If somebody has epileptic seizures which are not controlled by medication, and they seemed to be triggered by a particular scar in the brain, you can, in fact, expose the brain, and use a probe to put it down in different places on the brain, trying to find out where is that scar, and when does the patient have a seizure. And if you can find that scar, it can be removed surgically and the person will not have seizures, so there’s a real valid search.

We can search now for those foci with the neuroimaging that we didn’t have before, and so you don’t actually have to do the kind of thing that Wilder Penfield did. But in his doing that, he would put the probe down on the cortex trying to find the scar, and the person is like, “oh, my God, it’s my 3rd birthday, and there’s Aunt Mildred, and Uncle Tom, and my cousins”, and as we are able to probe down, we come to these vivid, colorful memories which were just buried there and were there but in real life unable to be accessed.

Well, fast forward a little bit to about two years ago when a physician, a neurologist, decided to try to treat morbid obesity by finding the appetite center in the hypothalamus and maybe being able to implant an electrode which would change the hunger, and therefore the person would be able to lose weight and so forth, but as he put the probe down to find that spot in the hypothalamus, the same thing happened.

As that probe went down, he was finding all sorts of autobiographical memories flooding forth in these individuals which were simply not available to them when they were awake. So those things all raise that possibility that there is a continuous tape, but we simply don’t have access to it.

Another thing which makes me think that is that many times in our dreams, or at least maybe I should just speak from my own dreams, but many times in dreams, I will find myself in a situation that I hadn’t thought about for ages, and if you would ask me about it early when I was awake, I wouldn’t be able to recollect who was there, or what it was, but it appears.

And dreams are kind of crazy because everything is out of time sequence. This may be a little boy scene now that I’m grown up and the kind of craziness of dreams but the recollection of events that we just, “Oh, my God, where did that come from, I had not thought about that for years”. So I have come to the impression that we indeed do have a continuous tape and that we simply don’t have access to it, but it is there.

SCOTT: Yeah. I would tend to agree. In my cognitive psychology class I taught a lecture on memory, and I posed to the students, “Do you think that we have a store of every single trace in our memory system, somewhere in some neuron of everything we ever experienced”, and they were like, “Oh, of course not, you know, there’s no way, like, if you just look at the ceiling you can remember all the dots that are there”. And then I posed the example of Stephen Wiltshire who can go in an aerial view and paint everything from memory. I think his talent raises a lot of interesting questions because he’s not supernatural. I mean, it’s not like he’s Superman.

DAROLD: Yeah. Precisely. It’s interesting with Stephen. We haven’t tested him on this, but he says that if he were asked to reconstruct one of those drawings, that he could do that. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but the point is that it’s not just a fleeting recollection but that it may remain. The capacity of the brain is astounding as it is, but then in that one section of the book where I have the one image of this gentleman who just has a thin rim of cortex and nothing else except fluid in the brain, and yet his IQ is 80, he’s married, he has a successful job, and he’s not in any way disabled.

So that means there’s an awful lot of excess capacity that I think we don’t use, or maybe we do use and it’s simply stored and not available. But whether it’s an actual bit-by-bit, continuous tape, or whether it’s relatively so, the point is there’s just so much more information.

Another indication of that, to me, is dealing with some patients with Alzheimer’s disease. As the short term memory disappears early in the Alzheimer’s patient, what I call “the onion” unpeels, you learn things that they have never talked about before, and family members will say, “I never heard that story before”. And yet if you went back to childhood, or adolescence, or back on the farm, these are good stories, interesting things, but they had never heard them before. It’s as if the onion unpeels in Alzheimer’s, and these things come to the surface.

SCOTT: You know, the more and more we learn about memory and how it works, it seems like retrieval cues are the really important thing and that without those cues it can seem as though we just don’t have that memory anymore, but maybe with some sort of retrieval cues we can access things we never thought we knew.

DAROLD: That’s right. I think that’s what the probe is, a technological retrieval cue. I think I mentioned this in the book. I did a 45 year follow-up on this young lad who had memorized the buses in Milwaukee. He was on the unit, and he remembered every patient that was there, and he remembered when they came, when they were discharged, remembered things about their family, and remembered each staff person who was on the unit by name, and by description, and so forth and so on.

We had lunch together, and then he said, “do you remember such-and-such a patient”? And I was like “yeah, now that you mention it, I do”. And then he started to mention each of the staff people and their characteristics, and I remembered each of those people too. But if you’d asked me before who’s who, or the names of the patients on the unit, and the names of the staff people, I can remember some, but as he provided these retrieval cues, by George, each of those people came to memory. And so it’s there, but it took his remarkable memory. I mean, he remembered all those things that most of us would have just simply discarded.

And then I actually had kept the patient names in a folder because I was doing a couple of studies on the unit, one of which was the epidemiology study, and another had to do with enuresis, of all things. I tend to keep things, and so I went back and, by God, that’s exactly each of those people that he mentioned, to the extent that there was an admission and discharge. He was correct!

So, he was able to trigger that in me, and that made me even more convinced that there is an awful lot down there, or up there, that we need retrieval cues, and the people with autobiographical memory, the hyperthymestic, for whatever reason, is able to have much more access to that than the rest of us.

SCOTT: What factors determine whether or not high abilities will surface? What factors determine the skills, once accessed, will be spectacular? In other words, what caveats are there to the inner-savant-in-all-of-us idea, if there are any caveats?

DAROLD: Well, I think one caveat is that we are not all little Mozarts, or Einsteins in waiting. The differential endowment issue is one which plays into that, and that’s something over which we really don’t have any control. That’s just there. I think the acquired savant caveat is that it depends on where an entry occurs and it depends on the differential endowment, and what I call the bell shaped curve phenomenon is certainly there.

So when I talk about the inner Rain Man within us all, I’m not suggesting that we can all sit down and memorize the telephone book as Raymond Babbitt did, or all the things that he did, but I think that if you take into account the differential endowment issue, the bell shaped curve, and to some extent our family, or the people around us, if they are supportive of our parallel or sometimes even odd interest that might help.

If somebody decides they want to investigate UFOs in more depth, or if somebody gets deeply into religious studies, then some people would just discount that out of hand and be skeptical, or cynical, saying that’s preposterous. Depending on where their thinking is, they may not support that in the same way as they would if they had some other parallel interest.

I think the caveat would extend too, in terms of the third part of the stool and the savant which has to do with the family, and the support system, and the reinforcement that they get, and so I would put that into this equation as well.

SCOTT: You raise the intriguing suggestion that dormant skills may be present in all of us as a child, but they get reverted to some obscure, I think you call it spot of storage, through under use. In what ways can schools and society minimize this from happening?

DAROLD: We tend to be a left-brain society. I don’t mean to demean that or to knock it because it serves us well, because we depend on logical, sequential thinking and language to make many advances, but I think we establish those well worn paths because they serve us well, and we reinforce them because they are going to serve us well when we get into the work world and so forth.

I think some of the other endeavors in school are seen, and you can see it now when the budget cutting is occurring. They’re cutting the budgets not in language, they’re cutting them in arts, and music, and athletics, and other kinds of things that are seen as not central to the educational purpose of the school. So that’s one thing that I think we tend to deemphasize for the broader term of right brain kind of skills, or right-brain endeavors.

And not only do we do that somewhat at our peril because we tend to minimize those skills that can be valuable, but also there are a fair number of youngsters in school who are having trouble with left-brain learning and may be very adept and very skilled in right-brain areas.

Now, I think that’s changing to some degree. I think we’ve drifted a little away from the fact that college education is always superior to vocational education, and being a nurse is better than being a carpenter in terms of the life skills, or being a computer programmer is better than being a plumber, and I think we’re seeing some change in that.

Again, I think most things, it comes in a pendulum, but when I was in grade and high school, those of us that were successful, and sort of behaved ourselves, continued in school and those that didn’t make it in the left-brain classroom or were not behaving themselves would go to what was called a vocational school.
And it really was clearly a second-tier education and a second relegation kind of thing. Now, we’re finding that many of the technical schools, as they’re called now, are competing actively with colleges in vocational skills and training people for vocational skills instead of academic skills and learning that that may be just as important and just as successful, in terms of income, than some of these other areas.

I think that in some of our schools they are building houses in the vocational classes and doing some very useful kinds of things and seeing that as valuable. So I think there’s some recognition of that. However, I think, particularly in the arts, there tends to be a minimization of that as you can see by what’s getting dropped. Also, I think there’s a tendency now, with the budget cutting, to do away with the gifted and talented programs, which I think is a mistake because there are kids who are gifted and talented who do learn at a different pace and in an accelerated way.

And in some school systems, we’re finding that the savants are now being included in the gifted and talented classes, which they should be, even though their IQ may not be as high. So I think we need different ways of educating. There are a fair number of kids in school who have a nonverbal learning disorder, and they just don’t do well until they finally are educated in a way that taps their style of learning, and I’ve seen them take off and just fly away once that happens.
So I think that we need to be looking at more versatile kinds of educations and different educational populations, and we need to rethink a little bit how we’ve sort of tended to value academics over vocational kind of schools.

SCOTT: I’m completely with you. I wonder if we should not call people learning disabled but maybe learning different.

DAROLD: Yes. Indeed. Right. I think, as you know, Daniel Tammet wrote that in the foreword to my book.

SCOTT: Yeah.

DAROLD: And in there he suggested just what we’re talking about. He doesn’t use the word disabled, he uses the word differently-abled.

SCOTT: I like that.

DAROLD: And that is a much better way of looking at it. You know, through most of our conversation, I have used the word disabled more than I should. I should have continued to say these differently-abled people because that’s really what savants are. I think it’s that they are differently-abled and we ought to look at that rather than their disabilities. Although I’m a bit guilty myself of not practicing what Daniel said, I think your observation is correct that instead of talking about a learning disability, we ought to call it like a learning-different ability or something, because the disability is only in a relationship to that which we stress.

See other parts of the series here:

Part II, Dispelling Myths about Autism

Part III, Inside the Savant Mind

Part IV, The Origins of Extraordinary Savant Skills

Part V, The Acquired and Sudden Savant

Part VI, What Savants Reveal about Greatness

Part VII, The Inner Savant in All of Us

—-  Scott Barry Kauf­man, Ph.D. is a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist and writer based in New York City. His lat­est Sharp­Brains articles are:

Our Brain on Music: We need to do more than listen

Take that Nap! It May Boost Your Learn­ing Capac­ity Among Other Good Things.

Reflec­tions on Cre­ativ­ity: Inter­view with Daniel Tammet

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