The Puzzle of the Savant Mind

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Savant Syndrome is a rare condition, with only 319 recorded cases. Persons so diagnosed possess unexpected and sometimes prodigious abilities in stark juxtaposition to underlying neurodevelopmental disorders. These abilities are most commonly in music, art, mathematics, calendar calculating, language, or visual-spatial/mechanical calculations. Savant Syndrome is usually described as islands of genius and ability, in persons who clearly “know things they never learned.”


Just before midnight, in 2002, as Jason Padgett was leaving a Tacoma Karaoke bar, two guys jumped him from behind. Jason had suffered a severe concussion and had a bleeding kidney. He was given painkillers by the attending staff in the ER and sent home.

Soon after the mugging, Jason started experiencing the world differently. He saw everyday objects as geometric patterns and would talk incessantly about math, Pi, and infinity. Jason also had an urge to draw. He began drawing complex, fascinating figures using only a pencil and a ruler. He said he had no idea what he was drawing.

Jason is an example of an Acquired Savant as opposed to Mozart, classified as a Born or Congenital Savant. Whatever the special skill, it is always associated with massive memory, a memory exceedingly deep but very narrow within the area of the special skill.

In the congenital form, the savant skill surfaces in childhood. This skill is always accompanied by an underlying developmental disability, often—but not always—autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Acquired savant syndrome occurs in previously neurotypical individuals who suffer head injury, stroke, dementia, or other central nervous system event or disorder. After this incident, savant skills surface unexpectedly, sometimes at a prodigious level.

Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist who studied the Savant Syndrome for over 50 years, is of the opinion that the brain of a person who has suffered a severe head injury is capable of “recruiting” another part of the brain to compensate for the part that was damaged. Fancy word – recruiting. Why would that other part of the brain suddenly give rise to genius cognition? This explanation makes no sense.

Since most of the savants are born with special gifts and often with cognitive challenges, such as autism, while a few develop exceptional expertise following some physical trauma to the head, it follows that savantism is genetic. In some people that exceptional talent is apparent early in life, in others it remains dormant until triggered by an environmental event such as a blow on the head.

Treffert, in a 2010 paper, reported on eleven cases in which savant abilities suddenly and unexpectedly surfaced in persons without developmental disabilities (such as autism) or head or other brain injury. Treffert referred to these cases as Sudden Savant Syndrome, thus introducing a third sub- group of the Savant Syndrome. These individuals had no special prior interest or ability in the new skills, accompanied by an obsessive interest with and compulsive need to display the new abilities. No mention here of “recruitment.”

In addition, despite initial reports that savants as a group are not very creative, more recent observations provide a different picture. One musical savant was able to play back a Tchaikovsky piano concerto flawlessly after having heard it for the first time on TV. However, in concerts performed later in life, the same individual incorporated not only replication, but also improvisation into his performances by changing the pitch and tempo to produce variations on well-known pieces, and eventually began creating and composing entirely new musical pieces.
I assume that the proclivity, the extraordinary ability that savants exhibit must have been always present but latent. You might say it was locked away, and the injury, in Jason’s case and similar cases, unlocked it. I think the simplest, most logical and scientifically sound explanation for the Savant Syndrome is on the basis of epigenetics.

Very few savants, if any, for that matter, had brilliant parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. So where did these genius genes come from?

The genes that control these special musical, mathematical or other exceptional talents were expressed, that is, activated, in the born savants, whereas in the late-bloomers, these same genes were switched on by known environmental events like a blow on the head or, by yet unknown factors.

Of course, because we don’t yet have savant mice or rats, it will take some time before ways can be found to foster and develop such talents without, at the same time, inducing undesirable side effects such as autism spectrum disorder.

Final Thoughts

Over the years, many myths and misconceptions have arisen concerning savants. For example, not all savants are autistic, and not all autistic persons are savants. Similarly, a savant does not always have a low IQ. Savants who don’t carry a diagnosis of ASD often have unique skills that potentially enable them to make significant contributions to society. At the same time, they face unique challenges during the transition to independent living because of a lack of appropriately tailored services for such individuals.

Cognition Essential Reads

All humans carry these savant genes but, they need to be triggered by epigenetic mechanisms.

The challenge is how to tap that dormant capacity non-intrusively and without a brain injury or a similar traumatic event.

The acquired savant and the sudden savant, raise questions about the dormant potential for such buried skills in everyone.

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