Savant Syndrome and Intelligence

Savant syndrome is a rare condition that gets a lot of attention in the media. Those affected have a special ability that exceeds all expectations and amazes almost everywhere with their skill. Would you like to be a savant?

Many people would and considering all the attention they get for their incredible abilities, I can understand why. For example, one of the most popular savants is Kim Peek. He was the inspiration for the character Rain Man (https://www.neatorama.com/2008/09/05/10-most-fascinating-savants-in-the-world/). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie Rain Man, the main character could memorize countless amounts of trivia, had amazing math skills, and autism. Kim Peek, the real Rain Man, was born with brain damage and doctors claimed he would never be able to walk. However, now, while he does have trouble with normal motor skills and a below average IQ score, he has memorized 12,000 books, can read two pages at once in just three seconds, and knows countless amounts of trivia from various subjects.

Another popular savant is Leslie Lemke (https://www.neatorama.com/2008/09/05/10-most-fascinating-savants-in-the-world/). He was born with severe birth defects that resulted in the removal of his eyes. Unwanted by his own mom, he was put up for adoption and struggled throughout his life. He did not know how to stand until he was 12 and could not walk until 15. However, at 16 years old, something changed in the middle of the night. Leslie got up and played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a complicated piece of music, perfectly after hearing it once on the television and without having any classical music training beforehand. Since then, he has been able to play music from all different genres after only hearing it once. For years he put on beautiful concerts for everyone to enjoy.

One of my personal favorites is Stephen Wiltshire, who is known as the Human Camera. When he was young, he was mute and diagnosed as autistic (https://www.neatorama.com/2008/09/05/10-most-fascinating-savants-in-the-world/). He was even sent to a school for special needs children. It was at that school that he discovered his joy in drawing, which is how he communicated with others until he started speaking when he was 9 years old. Now, he is known for his amazing memory and drawing skills. He can draw very detailed and incredibly accurate landscapes of any city after seeing it only once. His most famous work is a 33-foot-long drawing of Tokyo, with his only reference being a short helicopter ride he took earlier.

These three amazing people, along with others, can be seen in the media and online. However, if you watch videos or read articles about them, you usually only learn about their special ability. However, doing some research will give you more information about their lives and who they are. And unfortunately it is not all sunshine and rainbows.

Approximately 50% of people with savant syndrome have autism disorder and the other 50% have some form of developmental disability or have experienced a disease or injury that resulted in damage to their central nervous system (CNS) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/). While most savants have a disability or damage to their CNS, not everyone who fits that description are savants. 1 in 10 people with autism and 1.4 in 2,000 people with brain damage have savant characteristics.

Savants are broken up into three different categories: splinter skills, talented savants, and prodigious savants. The first is the most common and describes people who have deep passions for certain topics and therefore have more than the usual amount of knowledge on said topic. Talent savants describe cognitively impaired people who have a special ability. And prodigious savants are those whose special ability is so incredible that people have made movies about them, such as Rain Man. There are less than a hundred known living prodigious savants worldwide at this time.

The known savants generally have a below average IQ score and outside of their ability, can often struggle with daily life.

So why do these people who lack intelligence elsewhere have such extraordinary skills and knowledge in a particular topic? Scientists say it is because they have an amazing memory (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/).

Right now one theory of why their memory is superior is that savants have either a higher level corticolimbic circuit for semantic memory or a lower level cortico-striatal circuit for implicit memory (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/). Basically, their brain’s chemistry allows them to retain and recall an insane amount of common knowledge and/or things that people process unconsciously. Two other hypotheses are that savant syndrome is the result of a change in a gene, or genes, or that because they have had some type of damage in their brain on the left hemisphere their brain attempts to compensate for this damage and in that attempt something gets activated in the right hemisphere (http://www.healthofchildren.com/S/Savant-Syndrome.html).

It is believed that savants have more gray matter in their precuneus in their brains, which is associated with spatial representation of numbers and ordinal sequences (like weekdays); meaning savants have super effective spatial strategies. Evidence also shows that they have awesome working memory capacities due to having an above average amount of high putamen activity in their brains (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262614001146?via%3Dihub).

No matter what the cause of savant syndrome is, it is important to remember that while they have their special ability, or abilities, they face difficulties and hardships like everyone else, perhaps maybe even more. So while you might think it would be cool to be the next Rain Man, keep in mind the costs that generally come with being a savant.

One of those costs is having a lower IQ, which can be heartbreaking to find out for those who pride themselves on being smart. And I believe savants would definitely be proud of that since they are so well known for their abilities. So… the question is, do their low IQs mean that savants are not smart?

In my opinion, no. I consider them to be geniuses in their field, and many would agree with me. They are not “dumb”, they simply have a narrow skill set. In fact, I know a lot of people who I would consider intelligent but have below average IQs. This is likely because the current intelligence tests do not test every single type of intelligence, which is a major flaw and needs to be changed, as a lot of people value IQ scores.

My one thought on how we could make intelligence tests better would be to make one big test that includes questions from all sorts of backgrounds and then break down the results into the different kinds of intelligences and averages them together to give a general intelligence score. However, that probably would not be a realistic solution seeing that the test would have to be incredibly long in order to include everything and there would still be the threat of cultural differences affecting people’s scores. Can you think of a way to make a better IQ test?

References:

http://www.healthofchildren.com/S/Savant-Syndrome.html

https://www.neatorama.com/2008/09/05/10-most-fascinating-savants-in-the-world/

PAYNET: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/

PAYNET: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278262614001146?via%3Dihub

 

3 thoughts on “Savant Syndrome and Intelligence

  1. rachelg

    This was a very informative post! Rain man is one of my favorite movies and I have always wondered what exactly was happening inside the brains of autistic savants. Your post was very organized and I liked how you highlighted the fact that most of these savants struggle daily with all sorts of tasks. I think that many of them do not even recognize that they are extraordinary.

  2. serena130

    I have always found Savant syndrome and the people affected by the syndrome to be so interesting. I feel like my interest came when I was younger because I know someone that is autistic and is a WONDERFUL violinist and has a lot of accolades regarding their playing. And to know them you would never think that theyre that talented because of the lack of social skills and any other interactions but they amaze me at times with their musical talent.

  3. afjones

    Wow, it is so amazing to learn about these insanely talented people! I have seen videos of the “Human Camera” before and have always been amazed that he is able to do that. Before reading your post, I had never heard of savant syndrome so it is interesting to learn about this syndrome and its connection with various disabilities. It is interesting how it is so rare, and that they struggle with daily life, yet they have these amazing abilities. It is intriguing that they are able to be so talented due to the few changes within the chemistry of their brain. Perhaps researching more into savants and their brain make-up will help lead to more discoveries about our memories and ability to remember. I agree with you, I do not think that their low IQ does not mean they are not smart. I think they are smart in their own fields and areas, kind of like how we discussed “book smarts” and “street smarts” in class. I think people’s intelligence varies and is not fully expressed by IQ tests. Savant people are talented and intelligent, they have learned how to work with their disabilities and astound people. I agree that there is definitely room for improvement in IQ tests, they do not test the full span of people’s intelligence. I agree that thinking of a better IQ test is difficult, it has to encompass a lot, but our society should also not define people on their intelligence level.

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