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The weird and wonderful world of savant syndrome

Case study / by Ufuoma Onemu

Affecting an estimated one in every million people, savant syndrome provides those with mental impairment with abilities far above average. Ufuoma Onemu explores this incredible condition, from what causes it in the first place, through to the remarkable talents it can produce.

First described in 1783 in the German psychology journal Gnothi Sauton, savant syndrome has since baffled scientists around the world with its seemingly contradictory core attribute: above average abilities in people who otherwise demonstrate below average cognitive skills.

Its first mention in a scientific paper was in the case of Jedediah Buxton who astounded researchers with his extraordinary memory and ability for making rapid calculations. A few years later, the case of Thomas Fuller was described by Benjamin Rush – often referred to as the 'father of American psychiatry' – who described Fuller's ability to produce lighting-quick calculations, despite also being someone ‘who could comprehend scarcely anything, either theoretical or practical, more complex than counting’.

The syndrome was eventually given an official title in 1887 by Dr John Langdon Down (the first doctor to describe Down's syndrome) who referred to individuals affected as an 'idiot savant'. Although offensive by today's standards, 'idiot' was widely used in the scientific community at the time to describe someone with an IQ below 20. With time, the descriptor was dropped due to it being factually incorrect – the vast majority of people with savant syndrome have an IQ well above this – but the French term 'savant' has remained intact, translating directly to 'learned'.

What causes savant syndrome?

Savant syndrome is an extraordinary condition experienced by people with different neurodevelopmental states. It affects around 1 in 10 people with autism, and around 1% of people with other developmental conditions, intellectual disabilities, or brain injuries. Around half of the people diagnosed with savant syndrome will have some degree of autism.

Savant syndrome can be congenital, meaning that a person is born with it, or it can be acquired as a result of disease or injury. People with chromosomal disorders, or people who developed some sort of prenatal (before birth), perinatal (during birth), or postnatal (after birth) disease may also display savant skills.

However, the exactly cause of savant syndrome remains unknown. Various theories have been proposed since its identification, but none have been satisfactory. Some researchers have proposed that there might be an abnormality in a part of the brain called the anterior temporal lobe, which is an area of the brain responsible for object recognition and perception. Damage to this area of the brain has been observed in people with acquired savant syndrome.

What types of skills do savants exhibit?

Savants exhibit genius ability in a specific area of life, in stark contrast to their overall disability. Their extraordinary ability is often paired with exceptional memory, meaning that savants can remember vast amounts of information.

Savants who have very prominent, well-honed skills in a specific discipline such as mathematics or music are known as talented savants.

Typical areas in which savants excel include:

  • Art – artistic savants show a remarkable affinity for art from a very young age. They can perfectly recreate a scene they have only seen once or create complex art pieces in short periods of time. Stephen Wiltshire and Alonzo Clemons are well-known artistic savants. Stephen Wiltshire also known as “the human camerais an artistic savant who can produce perfect representations of landscapes after seeing it once. Alonzo Clemons on the other hand can produce detailed sculptures at amazing speeds, sometimes building them from two-dimensional subjects. He made a life-sized sculpture of three horses in just three weeks.

Image of Stephen Wiltshire drawing a landscape of Mexico City entirely from memory
Stephen Wiltshire drawing a landscape of Mexico City entirely from memory.

  • Calendar calculation – savants with this skill can state the exact day, week of the month, and year on which an event occurred. 11-year-old Nigerian, Siju Olawepo, can identify the exact day of any date whether past, present or future, and can also create calendars for future years without checking or using any external resources. Savant twins Flo and Kay Lyman also have this ability.

  • Mathematics – mathematic savants can carry out complex calculations without a pen, paper, or calculator. Daniel Tammet is one such savant famous for breaking the European record for reciting Pi from memory, recounting 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes.

  • Language some savants are what are termed 'polyglots'. These individuals are able to learn and speak multiple languages at a much faster rate than a regular person. Alongside his mathematical skills, Daniel Tammet also displays remarkable language abilities, being able to speak more than 12 languages including Icelandic – a language considered to be one of the hardest to learn. A linguistic savant named Christopher is also described in the book "The Mind of a Savant: Language, Learning and Modularity" who could speak, read, and write in about 15-20 languages.

  • Music – musical savants display their skill in various ways. They may be able to play perfectly or recognise music they have only heard once; play musical instruments extremely well (usually starting at a very young age); or sing with perfect pitch. Examples include Leslie Lemke who, at the age of 14 and with no previous musical training, played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 from memory after hearing it just once. More recently, Kodi Lee, a young man diagnosed legally blind, won the final of America's Got Talent 2019 after astounding viewers with his incredible musical abilities.

  • Spatial/mechanical skills – savants with this ability can do things such as calculating height and distance without any measurement tools, reading a map perfectly, or completing jigsaw puzzles at amazing speeds.

Despite some incredible cases of genius in particular settings, the most common savant abilities are what are referred to as 'splinter skills'. These skills are so called because they are disconnected from their usual purpose, therefore often serving no useful purpose. For example, a person may have a splinter skill of being able to recite the entire script of a TV show or movie, yet also be unable to understand what was said or what the show is about.


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The extra-extraordinary: Prodigious savants

Prodigious savants are people who display rare outstanding abilities that would be impressive even if displayed by a person without a neurodevelopmental condition. In other words, these individuals are geniuses.

All of the examples discussed above are prodigious savants, but these are very rare cases. Prodigious savants are so rare in fact that there are only around 75 of them in the world.

One prodigious savant many people are likely to be familiar with is Kim Peek who Dustin Hoffman based his character in the movie “Rain Man” on.

Kim Peek was born without a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. This part of the brain connects both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, allowing each side to communicate with one another.

Despite this, Peek had astounding memory and calculation skills. Before his death in 2009, he could remember more than 12,000 books, and was an up-to-date and almost complete encyclopaedia of world history. He could read both the left and right pages of a book simultaneously and memorise them in 8 seconds, and he could recall the location of most roads and highways as well as area codes and zip codes.

Ellen Bordreaux is another prodigious savant. Born prematurely which resulted in a permanent visual impairment, Bordreaux demonstrated remarkable ability from a very young age, being able to hum the lullaby playing in her cradle at just 6 months old.

Alongside exceptional musical talent, Bordreaux also demonstrates astounding time-keeping abilities, and can move around freely despite her impairment through echolocation. She is referred to as the time-keeping wizard because she can tell the time down to the seconds without using a watch or clock.

What can savant syndrome teach us about human ability?

As we've seen, our understanding of savant syndrome was once mired in ignorance. But through decades of research, savant syndrome and the people affected by it are now quite rightly perceived as remarkable.

It's also thanks to this scientific curiosity that savant syndrome has opened the door to perhaps an even more interesting discussion about human ability and whether we all foster hidden talents on the same scale as savants. It will likely take some time to discover, but there's something about the possibility of us all harbouring otherworldly, mind-boggling skills that makes savant syndrome one of the most interesting mental health conditions known to mankind.

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