Acquired Savant Syndrome
February 22, 2013 11:09 PM   Subscribe

When Brain Damage Unlocks The Genius Within. [Single page view] "Brain damage has unleashed extraordinary talents in a small group of otherwise ordinary individuals. Will science find a way for everyone to tap their inner virtuoso?" [Via]
posted by homunculus (22 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The link dinnae work for me.
posted by taff at 11:12 PM on February 22, 2013

Mod note: Switched the url a bit to make the single page view an option; should be okay now.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:19 PM on February 22, 2013

posted by barnacles at 11:22 PM on February 22, 2013

Australia people, maybe this or this Readability link works? Or google cache? Or maybe this? (I can't vouche for the last site, but the article is there, I didn't get any warnings, and it came up safe on an online site scan.)
posted by taz at 11:48 PM on February 22, 2013

Just use a proxy server Aussies.
posted by bookman117 at 12:37 AM on February 23, 2013

Lovely taz's second link worked for me. Thanks lovely taz!
posted by taff at 1:27 AM on February 23, 2013

It's a remarkable phenomenon, but the allegedly near-superhuman abilities need more objective evaluation. A large part of this might simply be that when people are shaken out of their groove and impelled to try things they never tried before, they quite often find new talents.

That could be better news than the 'damaged genius' thing.
posted by Segundus at 1:46 AM on February 23, 2013

he also claims to have discovered a mistake in pi

Oh my God! Has anyone told the circles?
posted by nicwolff at 3:11 AM on February 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

If you listen to the piano guy's playing, he sounds like a pretty competent lounge player. It's all full of ornaments and little riffs, sort of impressive for about twenty seconds and then you realize there's no there there. There's also a hint at the end of the article that he might be faking.

All that stuff about 'a mistake in pi' and 'the only human who can draw fractals' makes me not actually trust anything in the article at all.
posted by unSane at 3:40 AM on February 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

he also claims to have discovered a mistake in pi

Oh my God! Has anyone told the circles?

Has anyone told Oolon Coluphid?
posted by Segundus at 3:42 AM on February 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

There was a boy in my neighborhood growing up who was a date savant. I think he was on the autism spectrum but in the 1970's they were mostly using that diagnosis for children who were very withdrawn. He was bright and social and kept up with his peer group in some ways but in other ways he had difficulties.

You could tell him your birthday, and he instantly knew the day of the week you were born on, for starters. I have to admit I could never really deal with this. I saw him do it and I still couldn't believe it, because I didn't understand it.

The piano guy's story at first makes me lunge for romantic ideas that we all have these incredible abilities just waiting to be unlocked, and maybe it is so. But in a radio piece I heard about him, they said that the acquired savant syndrome is very rare and that he is only one of 2 or 3 musical examples known to be at large.
posted by thelonius at 3:54 AM on February 23, 2013

This brings to mind Alduous Huxley's idea of the mind as an utilitarian "reducing valve":
But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. (…)

That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds,” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large. Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In others temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,” or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows, not indeed the perception “of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (for the by-pass does not abolish the reducing valve, which still excludes the total content of Mind at Large), but something more than, and above and something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality.
An idea that was recently backed up by brain studies. What savants and healthy people whose brains are being transcranially stimulated to fake savantism and people under the influence of psychedelic drugs have in common is decreased brain activity in certain areas of the brain that control and coordinate data from across the brain. Essentially, Huxley's reducing valve, which makes sense of the world for us. When this valve is out of commission, it allows us to think creatively in novel ways, but this newfound creativity comes with attendant impairments in ordinary functioning.

That is, as the PopSci article points out towards the end, one reason to doubt Amato's story. And also a reason why we may never be able to unlock such skills in healthy people: they come at a cost. I would love to suddenly become a genius musician or visual artist, but I wouldn't want to pay the prize of acquiring Alzheimer's or be permanently tripping on LSD to do so.
posted by simen at 5:18 AM on February 23, 2013 [13 favorites]

Great my right hemisphere is now sneaking up on my left hemisphere with a hammer.
posted by localroger at 5:31 AM on February 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

Pfft. The TV machine told me that it was parasites from a bad gas station sandwich that makes us geniuses.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:32 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a boy in my first-grade class a couple of years ago who could remember all kinds of stuff. I was talking to him about going to a local dog park and how a train went past (he was really into trains) and he said, "Which train was it?" I told him I had no idea, of course, and he said, "What time was it?" When I told him he proceeded to rattle off the number of the train, what stops it made along its route, etc.

Every day at recess he wanders around the playground making platform announcements like he's at a train station; back in first grade he did the same thing, only pilot announcements. I used to follow him around like I was a plane, and got a couple of my other students doing the same thing... we used to circle the big painted map of the US and he'd make landing announcements.

He can also tell you how to get places; like, you tell him the address where you're going and he tells you which route is the best way to get there, but he uses the numbers of the exits instead of the street names.

Once he came up to me and asked, "What's the STAR Alliance?" (He often starts conversations this way.) Then he named all the airlines in the alliance and told me about it.

He also knows all the state capitals, and kids come up to him all day asking what the capital of such and such is... he often answers "Justin Beber!" though.

The tradeoff is that he doesn't relate well to people, and doesn't seem to have any interest in having friends.
posted by Huck500 at 7:52 AM on February 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

“I’ve slowed down, even though I’m racing and producing at a pace that not many people understand, you know? If Beethoven scored 500 songs a year back in the day and was considered a pretty brilliant mind, and the doctors tell me I’m scoring 2,500 pieces a year, you can see that I’m a little busy.”

Being able to play cocktail music was not the only thing he got from hitting his head against the swimming pool floor.
posted by snaparapans at 8:13 AM on February 23, 2013

Has anyone seen this:

Someone made a presentation on one of the cable networks the other day about this. I can't remember his name, but his schtick was that he was a science advisor of some sort to the UAV program, and was the guy who put trainee pilots through his electromindfuck program. Their performance (at identifying targets--pattern recognition, looking at grainy maps) was enhanced immediately. They went from about a 30% effective score to better than 90 % without any actual training. The treatment's results vary according to the area of the brain to which the microvoltage is applied. You get to, more or less, pick your enhancement. He claims to have given himself "the treatment" over a few dozon times and it has improved his brain functioning each time. The results are permanent.

The military problem is that we have the drones, but it takes months to train the pilots, and we need them now. The pilot trainees have had their training arc reduced from something like months to something like hours.

I see wondefrul implications for this. For example, you can just send your junior high school student in to get his amping, and (instead of those tedious years in jr-hi and hi-school) let him sit under a helmet for an hour or so, give him a stack of books and save yourself the expense of seven years of constant wardrobe upgrades. Post grad courses can save and lot of time and even obviate the student loan process, too.

Maybe if they get a little more refined, they can use the electrodes at voting booths to sift out all the doubleplusungood stuff, and we'll all be happier about the continuous warfare we wage in Asiana, or wherever, and get you to be a little more pleased with having our labor continue to trickle profits upward to the oligarchs. Hmm...yeah, they even could make you feel gooood about repaying the student loans instead, of bitching about it all the time.

Everybody must get Tweaked!
posted by mule98J at 9:26 AM on February 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

I had a roommate in college who was a visual arts major. She told me she'd had a severe epileptic seizure in junior high. Up until that time she'd never had any artistic ability but she said she'd been good at math. After the seizure, she discovered a new artistic talent, but she also lost her mathematical ability. Here's a related article:
posted by jenh526 at 9:34 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

For example, you can just send your junior high school student in to get his amping, and (instead of those tedious years in jr-hi and hi-school) let him sit under a helmet for an hour or so

Somebody needs to watch Brainstorm again.
posted by localroger at 11:32 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Their performance (at identifying targets--pattern recognition, looking at grainy maps) was enhanced immediately.

Wasn't the downside of this that if you reversed the polarity of the electrodes, you immediately got dumber?
posted by ymgve at 1:26 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remembered correctly:

In this study, if the charge--one milliamp--went from the right side of the parietal lobe to the left, then mathematical skills appear to have been doubled.

If you go the other way, the recipient will struggle to add 1 and 0. I exaggerate. Slightly. The participants who were charged in this direction seemed to suddenly have the math skills of a 6-year-old. Which might make them look a little silly on "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?"

posted by ymgve at 1:28 PM on February 23, 2013

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