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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Superhuman Mind

I am in beautiful Stockholm at the Toward a Science of Consciousness. Our session on Tuesday will take place in the fabulous Aula Magna Hall (see picture). Stop by if you are in the neighborhood. Danish National Radio will also broadcast a feature on this. Here is the title and abstract of my talk (for slides, click here). This is also the title of my next (academic) book.

The Superhuman Mind: From Synesthesia to Savant Syndrome

Savant syndrome is a condition in which a person has a talent that is so developed that he can perform what may seem like impossible mathematical, linguistic or artistic tasks. Blind Tom, a blind autistic slave in Georgia in the nineteenth century, was an amazing pianist and performer. Stephen Wiltshire drew an extremely accurate sketch of a four square mile section of London, including twelve major landmarks and two hundred other buildings after a twelve minute helicopter ride through the area. For any date you pick, the "human computers" Kay and Fro can report what they had for dinner, what they did on that day, what weekday it was, what their favorite TV-host wore on that day, and so on. Oliver Sack's autistic twins John and Michael computed prime numbers with more than 6 digits. The real rain man Kim Peeks was a living encyclopedia. There is currently no widely accepted explanation of the superhuman abilities of savants. What we do know is that most of them are synesthetes or autists and have left-brain injuries and particularly well-developed right-brain areas. Neurobiologist Stanislas Dehaene has proposed that savant synesthetes don't really differ that much from the rest of us. He claims that what distinguishes a mathematical genius from a normal person is an obsession with numbers and lots and lots of training. I provide empirical evidence against this hypothesis and offer a new theory of how savant synesthetes manage to complete ostensively impossible tasks.


Alan said...

I'm curious Brit what you think of the phenomenon of exceptional autobiographical memory? The actress Marylou Henner was recently confirmed as one who could remember a large percentage of what has occurred in her life since childhood. What fascinates me is that many with this incredible ability seem (outwardly) to be ordinary in every other respect.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Alan
Extraordinary memory could be a savant skill. Usually for a person with an extraordinary ability to be a savant, there must be a defect in a part of the brain, which then triggers overcompensation in another part of the brain. These people will tend to be ordinary or below-average in other domains.