Tag Archives: savant

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”.