Unleashing some of the genius that lies within

Are all brains preloaded with a reservoir of remarkable abilities that are lying dormant?


Most people have heard of savant syndrome, first described in 1887, whereby a person is naturally endowed from early life with remarkable skills in music, artistic, mathematics, memory or mechanical skills, an ability that stands out in marked contrast to their general impairments in social interactions, language and other mental faculties. Dustin Hoffman gave a good impression of the savant syndrome in the 1988 film Rain Man.

I was unaware of an alternative form of savantism, acquired savantism, until reading a fascinating account by David Treffert in Scientific American, August 2014. In acquired savantism, a person develops a newfound ability to sculpt, paint, play music, perform remarkable mental calculations or display extraordinary memory after suffering some form of brain injury. Treffert reasonably speculates that these remarkable abilities lie dormant in everybody’s brain but can only be expressed when the proper brain circuits are activated or switched off.

Research in this area may develop technologies that will allow people to switch on such remarkable abilities at will. Alternatively, methods may be devised to achieve the same result through focused practise of particular skills.

Treffert describes several examples of acquired savant syndrome. One is the case of Alonzo Clemons. Clemons was a quick learner as an infant. He suffered a brain injury in a fall at the age of three. This dramatically slowed his cognitive development, causing serious intellectual disability with limited vocabulary and speech. However, he later developed a spectacular skill for sculpting using whatever materials were to hand. He could look at a picture of an animal and sculpt a 3-D replica within half an hour, with every muscle outlined perfectly.

Another example is Derek Armato, a 40-year-old man who never showed any interest or skill in music. Following recovery from a severe concussion, he found himself drawn irresistibly to the piano. He began to see black and white spots that he could transpose into notes on the piano. He now makes his living composing music and performing.

Artistic skills

In the 1990s it was noticed that elderly patients suffering from frontal temporal dementia (FTD) started to demonstrate marked musical or artistic skills for the first time. This dementia differs from Alzheimer’s in that brain degeneration only affects the frontal lobes and not widespread areas of the brain. FTD targets brain parts that normally inhibit the visual system at the back of the brain involved in processing incoming visual signals from the eyes. Release of this inhibition allows the brain to process sight and sound in new ways, unleashing artistic and creative sensibilities, although the frontal lobe damage may lead to inappropriate behaviour that characterises FTD.

It appears that acquired savant syndrome results from diminished activity in some brain regions combined with a counterbalancing intensification of activities in other areas. There is also rewiring to connect regions that were not previously connected, releasing dormant capacity due to enhanced access to newly connected areas. Treffert says that a unifying phenomenon in all savants is one of left brain damage (causing language deficiencies and poor social fluency) and right brain recruitment. Rewiring allows the release of right brain capacities that would normally lie dormant (Psychiatric News, March 5th, 2010).

This hypothesis is backed up by experimental evidence gathered by Richard Chi and others at the University of Sydney. Electrical stimulation of discrete regions of the brain was used to simulate acquired savant skills in volunteer subjects. Electrical stimulation was used to reduce activity of part of the left hemisphere of the brain involved with sensory input, memory, language and other processes, and to increase activity in the right anterior temporal brain lobe. The volunteers were asked to solve a challenging puzzle, either with or without this brain electrical stimulation. No volunteer could solve the puzzle before stimulation, but 40 per cent of the volunteers were able to solve the puzzle during simulation. Treffert predicts that, in time, it will probably become possible for anyone to unleash some of their buried genius by toggling brain regions on and off using electrical or magnetic stimulation.

Treffert speculates that all brains are preloaded with a reservoir of innate predispositions for processing what the brain can “see”.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC understandingscience.ucc.ie

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