Savant syndrome

Charlee Dunn, Staff Writer

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It seems like every other week there is a new movie, event, or attraction celebrating the physical attributes of mankind. Superheroes flaunt their strength by defeating an evil villain. We pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to watch our favorite athletes compete for gold in the Olympics. But rarely does society put the amazing mental capabilities of certain people in the limelight. Patients diagnosed with Savant Syndrome have just that: cognitive abilities at such a high degree that they challenge everything psychologists understand about the brain.

Looking at the physical brain of a savant, a scientist is not likely to find that many differences between it and a normal brain. A few differences that the savant brain has include a larger cerebrum, a larger right hemisphere of the brain, and some chemical imbalances. But the differences matter. For instance, a savant having a larger cerebrum gives them the ability to integrate information more efficiently than you or me. They are able to focus all their concentration on a single task and that is how they pick up and perform their skills. If you were to listen to someone play a piano piece, you would hear the piece, background noise, see other things around you, etc. But a savant is able to focus only on that single piece and that is how they can play it back.

From being able to fly over a skyline in a 15 minute helicopter trip and redraw it by memory to hearing April 27th, 1916 and instantly knowing that that date falls on a Thursday, the talents of savants comes in many different ways. One of the most famous cases of savant syndrome is Kim Peek who, in his lifetime, read around 12,000 books and could remember everything about them. His eyes were able to read two pages at once in about 30 seconds and he could then tell someone what he read. He was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man, which follows a savant who is adapting to his new life with his brother. You might have also heard of Steven Wiltshire who flew over the New York Harbor in 15 minutes and drew an almost building for building sketch of it.

Through chemical imbalances and physical differences in the brain of someone with Savant Syndrome, researchers have tried time and time again to fully understand just what it is that makes these people so incredible. The mystery behind the human mind is an ongoing one that may or may not ever be solved. But this higher level of thinking that we have discovered in those once deemed mentally ill or “idiots” is proof that this is only the beginning.

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