How Close Are Scientists to Being Able to Make Us All Savants?

An interview with Darold Treffert, a researcher who is thinking about ways we can make ourselves smarter.

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Feb 23 2015, 4:45pm

Darold Treffert thinks we all possess repressed talents. Via YouTube

Jason Padgett never displayed any interest in math growing up. In fact, he hated the subject in school. But in 2002, the futon salesman was mugged while leaving a karaoke bar in Tacoma, Washington. As a result of a severe concussion he suffered during the incident, he started seeing everything in fractals and began talking incessantly about pi. He's one of about 30 known cases of "acquired savant syndrome"—a condition in which people become geniuses after getting bonked in the head.

Darold Treffert, a researcher with the Wisconsin Medical Society, has devoted his life to studying savants, with a significant portion dedicated to Padgett and other people who have mysteriously developed Rain Man–like qualities following trauma. His latest article on the subject was just reprinted in a collector's edition of Scientific American, so I called him up to discuss what's new in the field of savant-syndrome research.

VICE: How did you get into studying savants?
Darold Treffert: I met my first savant in '62. I had just completed my residency in psychiatry, and I was assigned the responsibility of starting a children's unit in Wisconsin. There were about 800 patients there, and about 20 or so of those were under 18, and so we gathered them again and started a unit for autism. And in that unit of the first 20 patients, there were three who caught my attention. One lad had memorized the bus system of the city of Milwaukee, and if you told him the bus number and the time of day, he would tell you what corner you were standing on in Milwaukee. Another guy was mute and severely impaired, and yet you could put a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle on the table in front of him picture-side-down and he'd put it together. The third guy was sort of a walking almanac of "What happened on this day in history?"

What, neurologically, makes a savant?
What happens is that there is an injury to one part of the brain—most often the left hemisphere. And there is what I called a recruitment of still-intact brain issue elsewhere. The brain seeks to correct the imbalance and will find an undamaged area, most often in the right hemisphere. There is then rewiring to that new area, and then there is the release of dormant potential, which can be at sometimes an astronomical level. So it's the three R's: recruitment of still-intact tissue, rewiring, and the release of whatever capacity is there.

Most savants have abilities in music, in art, in something called calendar calculator, lightning-quick calculating, or visual-spatial skills. In the case of what I call the congenital savant, which is when the abilities surface in childhood, which is most often the case, the damage is during pregnancy or early childhood.

In brain scans, what separates a savant from a "normal" genius? Or a prodigy?
It turns out that prodigy and genius and savant syndrome are very close together. The difference being that by definition a savant has some neurological damage with a compensatory skill. In the genius, you don't find the neurological damage or any kind of trade-off. Nowadays there seems to be a tendency when you see somebody who's exceedingly bright to think, "Oh, he must be a savant." No, prodigies and geniuses are separate [from savants].

The problem is that savant syndrome is very rare, and they're scattered around the world instead of in one place. So I think we need to have what I call a savant institute to which savants, prodigies, and geniuses could come in large enough numbers so we could really compare and contrast them and find out exactly what the difference is neurologically, if there even is one. If you look at the difference between a genius and a savant in a CT scan when you're looking at anatomy alone, there really are no differences. The differences are gonna show up in functional MRIs. I guess the answer is, we'll find out, and we're looking.

Assuming we all have a dormant capacity [to become savant-like], which I think we do, how can we tap that without having a concussion or a stroke or some other kind of brain injury? I think we can make ourselves smarter based on dormant capacity, but the question is how to do that without having some sort of central-nervous-system incident. And that's where I'm spending most of my time now.

How far are scientists from making all of us geniuses?
I don't know if you're familiar with Allan Snyder's work in Australia, but he uses what's called RTMS, which is a rapid pulsation that you can apply to the scalp and actually immobilize an area of the brain with electrical currents. It's used in neurology to discover the source of epilepsy, so it's an accepted procedure. What he said was based largely on the work of Dr. [Bruce] Miller, who who studied 12 patients with dementia and discovered some of them developed some astounding abilities as their dementia proceeded. They tended to have lesions in the left temporal area. So Dr. Snyder said, "What if we took a group of volunteers and we immobilized parts of the left hemisphere temporarily? Would we see any special skills emerge?" He found subjects actually increased their abilities. So he's developed something he calls the Thinking Cap, which you can put on and use. So there may be some technological approaches to enhancement.

What other ways can we bring out our inner geniuses, besides newfangled contraptions?
In the long run, I don't think we're gonna have some striking technological solutions, although other disagree and feel there will be a capacity to turn on and turn off some of our abilities by using technology. Meditation is another method to access different circuity in the brain. And somebody wrote to be recently indicating that his idea was that the reason that a lot of people when they do retire pick up new skills is not just because they have the time, but the aging process itself is producing "brain damage" which is leading them into new areas of ability. And I think that's probably true.

If everyone became a genius through a medically induced process, would the world descend into chaos?
I think the more that we access our hidden potential the better. We're not gonna all be Picassos or Mozarts or Einsteins. So I don't think that it would be a huge avalanche of new abilities in everyone. To the extent to which we are able to mobilize that would be very manageable and a good thing. I think we would still be a balanced society.

Wouldn't it at least defeat the point of art if everyone could put on a thinking cap and become a master pianist, for example?
The difference between before and after is evident, but it's not always at a prodigious level. Steven Wiltshire is a congenital savant, and he can spend 45 minutes flying over London and a week drawing it building by building and window by window. But that's rare, even among savants. I think that our differential endowment is gonna spare us some of that. Plus the trade-off. We'd have to come up with some kind of mechanism or a way that did not have a downside to it. And we're not there yet.

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