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 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:

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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