Incredible Savants

I’m not going to lie. I had a major brain fart when thinking about what to write about for this blog post. I called my friend and asked him what topic somehow relating to cognitive psychology would be interesting to look further into. He told me about Savant Syndrome and was talking all about the movie “Rain Man”. I haven’t seen the movie, but after learning more about this syndrome, I would really like to! After doing more research online and seeking for answers in our textbook, this is what I have found regarding Savant Syndrome:

Individuals with savant syndrome generally have extraordinary and profound abilities in certain areas of learning or memory, while they are considered extremely disabled in other areas. It’s common for savants to have particularly low IQ scores. About fifty percent of individuals with this syndrome have autism, and the other fifty percent usually suffer from developmental disorders or central nervous system injuries. An incredible one in ten autistic people show evidence of savant skills. The most common areas or skills for these individuals to be exceptional in are:

  1. Calendar Calculations
  2. Musical Abilities
  3. Artistic Abilities
  4. Mathematics
  5. Spatial Skills

The most common of these skills is the calendar calculations. These savants could be asked a question such as ,” What day of the week did January 8, 1971 land on?” and answer within seconds– Friday. Because there are specific calculations one can do to come up with the answers, many people are skeptical of the calendar calculating savants, but when asked, all of the savants say they don’t know where they get the answer from; it just comes to them. They swear against using formulas to calculate and and describe that they somehow just know the answer. Here’s a short clip of a calendar calculating savant from a National Geographic interview:

Not much is known about savant syndrome, but it is know that an individual can either be born with it or it can be acquired. It is also more prevalent in males than in females. As for a cognitive explanation for this odd syndrome, no single theory has been found to potentially explain all savants, but no matter the skill a savant possesses, in all cases it has been linked to an incredible and massive memory.This memory has been said to be an unconscious memory, which Mishkin et al. (1984) referred to as a “non-conscious ‘habit’ formation rather than a ‘semantic’ memory system”. In the skill the savant is an expert in, the memory is very deeply rooted, but the savant has no knowledge of having such memory. This explains why the calendar calculators often say the answers “just come to them”.

One possible explanation is that, because of stunted development or injury to the left brain, the right brain compensates. It’s as if the brain rewires itself to account for what is missing. If a savant exceeds far above average in artistic abilities or musical abilities, it could be the right side compensating for the left brain. Brain scans of autistic individuals has revealed prevalent left brain dysfunction. Again, this is just a theory and the true cause of such a strange, but incredible, syndrome is still unknown. Many psychologists say now that “until we understand the autistic savant, we will never truly understand memory or cognition”.


8 thoughts on “Incredible Savants

  1. Maryfay Jackson

    I loved reading about this subject because my uncle was a savant. He was fantastic at math and if people had understood him the way that they should then he could have been beneficial to society. Studying savants can give some great insight into the way that our brain works and I think that studies are necessary to find out more about these extraordinary people.

  2. amarti22

    This is one of those topics that have always amazed me and made me wonder how this unique knowledge is developed. I had never really looked further into it, I just passively thought about it when the topic was mentioned. As i read this article, all I could think about was Parenthood, the tv series about the family that has an autistic kid. He is definitely a savant. It is just incredible to see how someone could possibly know so many little details about such broad topics.
    I was slightly confused with the fact that you could either be born a savant or develop it, but then you mentioned that it is referred to as a non conscious habit formation. What is confusing to me is the idea that how to you learn yourself to have a non conscious habit. We have learned how to learn, and methods to be more effective at it, but that is mostly conscious thinking. How do you develop non conscious learning, the possibility of that is mindblowing!

  3. Carrie Leaman

    I’m sorry I should have clarified that! When I said “acquired” I meant those people who became savants after an injury or disease, rather than those who have autism and are savants from birth. Certain skills, such as the calendar calculating, can be learned by the average individual (by formulas or memorization), but not to the extent that savants reach and not by using the “unconscious memory”. I hope this answers your question!

  4. Remy Marcus

    I found this very interesting to read because I knew a savant personally. She was a really good friend of mine from middle school. She had the most incredible memory. She could remember the full names of my entire family tree and she would remember very detailed accounts of any day you asked her about. She also was a straight A student and could memorize anything and everything from her classes. This makes me wonder about how people who have deficits in some cognitive areas also have extremely high cognitive abilities in other areas. How is this the case and how can this help us learn more about the brain and how memory systems work?

  5. gord0n

    Such an interesting topic. I was lucky enough to take a freshman seminar with a focus in autism, things like this amaze me so much. It’s such a wonder that people have such extreme differences in consciousness. It makes me wonder if there are similar differences (but less severe) in people that aren’t diagnosed. There must be some similar smaller leveled mutations that are yet to be discovered. The future of cognitive science holds so much potential, I feel so blessed to be a part of this era for these reasons.

  6. bflood7174

    I found this to be really interesting and enlightening. I had noticed that disabled people tend(?) to have abilities like incredible skills in art or music, but I never knew there was a word for it. I was also intrigued by the fact that this could be an acquired trait! I looked up the definition of “savant” and it makes sense now that it could be learned since the word literally means “a learned person”. But if these savants just have things come to them, like the day of a date long gone, how is it learned? They claimed they don’t have any formula with calculations that they use to arrive to the answer, so how does one learn to know days of the week specific dates landed on (and are they able to know what days dates in the future will land on)? Maybe the acquired skills are just musical and artistic abilities, it would make more sense in my mind, but it wouldn’t be the first incredible thing our minds have done!

  7. Carrie Leaman

    @bflood7174 If you look three replies above your own, you’ll see I clarified that question for someone else! “Acquired” wasn’t the best word to use. Sorry for the confusion!

  8. kharner

    My music teacher was just talking about this today. She used to work with a savant who memorized every single piece of music he ever listened to, even if he only heard it once!! That is unimaginable. It also makes me think about how just because someone is “disabled” in one area of life doesn’t mean they are disabled across the board. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and no one deserves to be reduced to a disability or even idolized for being a savant or genius.

Comments are closed.