Rome as very few can picture it
November 23, 2006 6:58 AM   Subscribe

Another incredible cityscape drawn from memory by the amazing Stephen Wiltshire (previously featured). The same clip on YouTube for those who don't like wmv's.
posted by flabdablet (41 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Astonishing....I don't find the words to describe the beauty of what I have just seen. And it is my city too ! Horray !

Which obviously leads, at least for ignorants like me, to think that I don't know shit about autism, and probably many "experts" don't know either.

Here goes an obligatory wiki entry about Stephen.
posted by elpapacito at 7:10 AM on November 23, 2006

It is amazing that the brain is even capable of that, let alone executing it so well.
posted by evening at 7:15 AM on November 23, 2006

That's amazing.
posted by chunking express at 7:26 AM on November 23, 2006

Amazement doesn't even come close to describing my reaction to his feat--I couldn't even draw a map from my kitchen to the bathroom with any amount of accuracy.
posted by leftcoastbob at 7:35 AM on November 23, 2006

Is his brain doing that all the time? Holy crap.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:44 AM on November 23, 2006

Wow. That's astonishing.
Thanks flabdablet.
posted by peacay at 7:47 AM on November 23, 2006

Amazing, as usual.

The thing that slightly annoys me whenever Wiltshire is on a documentary, from the QED that made him famous in the 80s onward, is that the focus is completely on his autism, eidetic memory and so on, even though he has clearly developed a distinct style, and makes aesthetic choices, a random example being the use of colour here - ie. he's an artist who happens to have certain skills due to his autism, not a 'human camera'. (If I remember he's not entirely keen on the way he's presented as a savant himself, highlighting the caricatures and portraits he does as well as the architectural work, and titling a show 'Not A Camera'.)
posted by jack_mo at 7:52 AM on November 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Eidetic memory
posted by stbalbach at 7:58 AM on November 23, 2006

In the academy the term we use is 'mental!!' with the exclamation points to indicate the level of magnitude.

Too bad it's all a ruse. Here's the real story: DuPont Labs kidnapped him before he was born and replaced him with a shill of sorts who wouldn't say nothin' for five years. DuPont made this dude into an eight million dollar man (on account of inflation). The DuPont bean counters protested at throwing eight million dollars at a project to teachsomeone how to hide a Sony Handycam in his armpit, but they caved on condition that the the annual Christmas parties be potluck instead of catered.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:58 AM on November 23, 2006

First link is down. Anyone have a cache?
posted by alms at 8:11 AM on November 23, 2006

I still think a 'normal' person could do this if they really tried. From what I've read he'll look a scene for about a half an hour so. It's not like he takes one look and memorizes it instantly, and it's not (as far as I know) like he's doing this "all the time"
posted by delmoi at 8:30 AM on November 23, 2006

I still think a 'normal' person could do this if they really tried.

Then find someone who has.
posted by Jairus at 8:39 AM on November 23, 2006

That's all well and good, but now let's see Wiltshire draw "Binky" from the ad in TV Guide and land himself a career in the high-paying world of art.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:43 AM on November 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Coralized link.
posted by flabdablet at 8:45 AM on November 23, 2006

Which 'normal' person are you thinking of, delmoi?
posted by flabdablet at 8:49 AM on November 23, 2006

Delmoi, from what I remember, when he drew the Coliseum from memory (from a half hour helicopter ride above Rome), he got the number of arches correct. That and a hundred other things... I don't think it's possible to do it for a normal person.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:58 AM on November 23, 2006

What do you mean by 'normal'? As in, incredibly talented but not autistic? Or fla- out normal 'normal'?

I have a very good memory, especially for the visual. I also am quite good at drawing. And I don't think I could ever do something like that. Remember details about angles of hundreds of streets and the numbers of windows in hundreds of unfamiliar buildings for three days and be able to faithfully recreate them, without gaps or glaring errors? After a forty minute helicopter ride over a city you've never been to? The drawing itself would be pretty nifty even if it wasn't done from memory; as it is, it's the work of a spectacularly and unusually talented man.
posted by bookish at 9:02 AM on November 23, 2006

What do you mean by 'normal'? As in, incredibly talented but not autistic? Or fla- out normal 'normal'?

Highly talented and normal, as for getting the number of windows, arches, etc, correct: all you have do is count them and remember the numbers.
posted by delmoi at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2006

In the summer of 1993 an additional talent of Stephen's — music — was quite unexpectedly discovered. While Stephen had always liked to listen to music, and to sing, always in tune and often imitating other great singers, to his music teacher's surprise it was discovered Stephen had perfect pitch and considerable talent as a musical savant with some of the innate sense of the 'rules of music' characteristic of such savants.
posted by elpapacito at 9:41 AM on November 23, 2006

You've got to be fucking kidding.
posted by found missing at 9:43 AM on November 23, 2006

That comment is directed at an insane argument in this thread. Normal people will be able to find it.
posted by found missing at 9:47 AM on November 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is why a cure for autism will suck.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:59 AM on November 23, 2006

These are OK.

I'm not entirely sure that any particular abilities as an artist are gained by possession of an eidetic memory. Most of us in the wealthy world carry a camera around with us anyway. Taking these pictures as pictures, rather than aspects of a diagnosis, I'd say that they are quite pleasing. They're illustrations though, aren't they?
posted by howfar at 10:07 AM on November 23, 2006

This word "normal"... It'd better vibrate at the very least, if it means what delmoi thinks it means.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 10:08 AM on November 23, 2006

After reading The Memory Book I was able to do this card trick thing but so far the drawing of entire cityscapes has eluded me.
posted by Chuckly at 10:13 AM on November 23, 2006

Hmm, I suppose I should clarify a little more what I mean, What I mean is that many 'normal' people with the talent to draw a picture like that from a photograph or by seeing it first hand could also memorize the details and draw it later. I don't see why that's such a shocking idea.
posted by delmoi at 10:27 AM on November 23, 2006

Absolutely incredible.

The "normal" people argument is...tiresome. It seems so petty to look at something that amazing and then think, "oh, that's not such a big deal - I'm sure someone else can do it". But if that's how your brain works, I guess you've gotta be true to it. Just seems a waste.

Anyway - wow. Great FPP, and a lot of the extra details in the comments really rounded it out nicely. I appreciate especially the comments highlighting the music ability (thanks, elpapacito) and how Mr. Wiltshire feels about his own talent (well said, jack_mo).

It's fascinating what the brain allows us to do while simultaneously denying or dulling other functionality. Even in "normal" people, we can see shades of this. It's just at a remarkable level in Mr. Wiltshire.
posted by batmonkey at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2006

In defense of moiled's assertion, Derren Brown aparently learned to exhibit a similar ability for one of his TV shows. He got a person to show him their favourite buildnig and drew it perfectly from memory after having looked at it for 30 secs.
posted by asok at 10:38 AM on November 23, 2006

Wow! Humans are such an astonishing species.
posted by taosbat at 10:47 AM on November 23, 2006

There's an excellent profile of Mr. Wiltshire in Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars", for anyone who is interested in reading more about him.
posted by interrobang at 10:54 AM on November 23, 2006

don't worry hoverboards, there's never going to be a 'cure' for autism, since it's not a disease, only developmental disorder - but really it's not even disorder at all, since the cells in an autistic person's brain operate no differently than in a boring-ass normal person's brain. There's only something unhealthy about autism when you look at it from the context of society, unlike, say, a cold, where you have actually been attacked by a virus, which comes from outside your body.
The closest they'll come is preventions or compensatory drugs to make them more like the rest of us. ie, boring-ass.
posted by wumpus at 11:26 AM on November 23, 2006

they are hiding WMV's and plotting to use them on us
posted by dminor at 11:42 AM on November 23, 2006

Brilliant, thanks.
posted by blag at 2:11 PM on November 23, 2006

It should be noted that most autistic people have no special abilities at all. One Rain Man, 99,999 people who just scream themselves hoarse if their mum changes their bedclothes.

It's also interesting to see the mutation of the meaning of the word "savant". A savant used to be a learned and brilliant person. Autistic savants used to be technically called "idiot savants", and that term still hangs around, though it is of course highly unacceptable today.

You don't hear autistic-people-with-Savant-Syndrome described as autistic savants very often, though - it's just "savants", as if there's no difference between Stephen Wiltshire and, say, Pablo Picasso.

This does both a disservice - it diminishes the achievement of non-autistic people who work hard to become brilliant exponents of something or other, and it also keeps that old word "idiot" floating around in the back of everybody's mind, by not overwriting it with the more informative and less pejorative modern replacement.
posted by dansdata at 8:03 PM on November 23, 2006

Psh. A minor feat. Hannibal Lecter drew the Duomo from memory. Viewed from a fictional town, no less.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 8:06 PM on November 23, 2006

I don't see how using "savant" as opposed to "autistic savant" to describe Stephen Wiltshire does anybody a disservice. ISTM that Picasso would have been more than pleased to have Wiltshire's present representative drawing skill at Wiltshire's present age (note for those who think of Picasso only as that guy who did all those weird cubist paintings: go look at his sketches some time).

It seems to me that using any qualifier in front of "savant" actually de-emphasises the fact that what Wiltshire does is totally fucking amazing, leading delmoi and his ilk (assuming for the sake of generosity that he actually has an ilk) to write it off as if it were nothing special.

Credit where credit is due!
posted by flabdablet at 2:42 AM on November 24, 2006

I left out the flip side of my point about Picasso being pleased to have Wiltshire's drawing skill, which is that I'm equally sure Wiltshire would be pleased if he now had the young Picasso's interpersonal skills. That is: it seems likely to me that Wiltshire has had to do about as much work to get to where he is now as any other genius would, albeit on different things. Autism is not a free ride.
posted by flabdablet at 2:50 AM on November 24, 2006

I'm opposed to any language changes that blur the meaning of the words. Such changes cause confusion, and logically defective thinking.

Wiltshire and the various other Savant Syndrome individuals often are amazing, I agree. But most of them actually put very little effort into their amazing feats; it is, apparently, just the way their brain works. Seeing prime numbers, for instance, as being like shiny rocks on the beach of all the other numbers. Literally. That's all there is to it, for the guys Oliver Sacks wrote about who could do it, at least according to them. It took them longer to spot bigger primes, but only in the same way that it takes a child longer to find one particular rock on a bigger beach.

I can be amazed that someone can do such a thing, while not giving them any particular "credit" for it, in the same way that I can find it amazing that a falcon can spot its prey from thousands of feet up, without thinking that it ought to be awarded a medal.

The "credit where credit is due" approach is exactly the kind of confusion of concepts that I'm talking about. Autistic savants are fundamentally different from the normal, old-fashioned meaning of the word "savant". If you start thinking they're the same, you start getting strange and broken ideas.

If we, correctly, give autistic savants a pass on their inability to function in normal everyday life (rather than calling them a bunch of bums who should learn to tie their goddamn shoes and get a job, already), we should conversely not behave as if they're Laurence Olivier just because they can remember the Tokyo phone directory. I'm glad they can do it, because autistic people with Savant Syndrome are the ones who attract research funding and "raise awareness" and, with any luck, will help to reduce the everyday awfulness of being autistic for the numerous others who lack a party trick.

And, personally, the savants generally don't end up mouldering in some horrible institution. Good for them.

But being an autistic savant seems to be as much of a personal achievement as is being very tall.

Quite apart from the ghost of "idiot savant", if "savant" comes to mean the same as "autistic savant", then someone reading that Isaac Newton, J.S. Bach and Albert Einstein were savants is likely to get entirely the wrong idea.
posted by dansdata at 11:02 AM on November 24, 2006

But, dansdata, as I said above, in Wiltshire's case, it's as much of a personal achievement as is being very tall and very good at basketball - he's not just seeing and reproducing using his autistic 'gift' like someone memorising a telephone directory; he's developed a style, makes aesthetic choices, choices of subject matter, &c.
posted by jack_mo at 11:27 AM on November 24, 2006

The Tokyo drawing documentary on youtube was, although less well made, even more amazing. There, he had a 30 minute ride on the helicopter, then some distractions like driving through the town, and subsequently he worked for seven days to draw an almost 360 degree panorama of the city.

Delmoi, with all respect, that is orders of magnitude different from just counting a few windows or floors here and there, or learning how to memorize and draw a single building for a TV show. The organization of this man's brain is just vastly different from most others and I dare say, for those of us who are over 18 years old this is totally unattainable whatever we ever do.
posted by Laotic at 11:34 AM on November 24, 2006

The entire question of whether to call people like this "savants"or "autistic savants" is complicated by the fact that there are savants, in this definition, who do not have an autism spectrum disorder. Savantism is far more common in people with autism than in people without autism, but it's not completely tied to autism.

I worked with someone who was a mathematical savant. He had been through batteries of tests over a period of 30 years (since he was six), and his doctors were certain that he was free of any autism spectrum disorder.
posted by watsondog at 11:42 PM on November 24, 2006

« Older No one cries when you cut up a banjo   |   When Improv Comedians Attack! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments