There's been quite a bit of interest in the nine-year-old girl Nandana, who is said to have a telepathic connection with her mother. The child is severely autistic, but the mother started to notice that she seemed to know exactly what she was going to be given to eat, or the details of a trip the family was about to make, before being told about them.
In a test, a poem was given to the mother to read to herself and Nandana was then able to type it in a laptop without any prompt. She also identified a six digit number, a nine-digit number, and simple words and phrases. It's said she didn't look at her mother while typing. However I didn't see any measures being taken to control for cueing by either of the parents, so the testing probably won't carry much weight.
Even so, the affair has aroused the usual sort of anxieties among sceptics, who to reassure themselves want the parents apply for James Randi's million dollars. The couple seem to be sensible, so I'm sure they won't. The idea of them co-operating with Randi's people only - inevitably - to be told that their daughter failed, then finding themselves being denounced across the Internet as heartless publicity-seekers, is upsetting to even think about. Events like this remind us that this is psi's natural habitat, in the home, in relationships and domestic situations, and often where there is some stress or maladjustment, which doesn't therefore lend itself very well to verification.
In a sane world we should be able to treat these things as part of life, without accusations of fraud or the exploitation of children. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what we do with Savant Syndrome, to which Nandana's ability clearly belongs, even though in many respects that's as challenging to science as psi itself.
Khaleej Times, in which the feature article about Nandana first appeared, later interviewed Darold Treffert , an expert in Savant Syndrome. Treffert was consulted in the making of the film Rain Man, which he credits with doing more than anything to educate the public about the phenomenon. He thinks that around 10% of autistic children exhibit savant abilities, usually in one of five categories (in order of frequency): calendar calculating (such as naming which of the next thirty years February 9 will fall on a Friday); music, art, mathematics and mechanical/spatial abilities (such as model making and assembling complex machinery). By contrast, reports of ESP are rare: in one sample of 561 savant children, it was reported by the parents of just four.
We marvel at savants, and yet we don't on the whole question their abilities. Obviously they can demonstrate their skills easily enough, but it's not the whole story. We accept it readily because it reinforces what we already think about brain/mind, that it has almost limitless powers. Savant Syndrome is just part of the much larger mystery that neuroscience has started to unravel.
To me that seems a bit complacent. Treffert cites severely cognitively disabled youngsters who know every detail of city transport systems, can assemble jigsaw puzzles without any picture to guide them, and recite Gibbon's Decline and Fall forwards and backwards. There's one who played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert No 1 having heard it only once, and another whose understanding of numbers enables him to fiddle at casinos: police raids on his house and bank account have seized $700,000, but prosecutions fail because the courts recognise he is severely mentally retarded and doesn't understand that what he has done is wrong. All this makes Nandana's ability to identify simple phrases in her mum's mind look almost pedestrian.
It's easy to think of savant abilities as something that some autistic children are gifted with, as if to recompense them for the inconvenience of being severely retarded. The bits of their brain that deal with the day-to-day stuff are seriously defective, but that somehow frees up other bits, the source of creative genius and memory, which in other people lie dormant. But there are reasons to doubt this. In his recent book Islands of Genius Treffert gives examples of perfectly normal people who acquired savant abilities as a result of a brain injury or disease.
A 54 year old construction worker recovers from a stroke and, having previously shown not the slightest interest in such things, becomes an accomplished poet, artist and sculptor.
Twelve elderly persons with dementia demonstrate an ability for art and music, sometimes prodigiously so, as the disease progresses. No such talent was observed before they became ill.
A 54-year old surgeon recovers from being struck by lightning. He becomes obsessively interested in classical music, in particular with a tune that keeps repeating in his head. He eventually transcribes it as a sonata and becomes a professional musician, while retaining his surgical skills.
A 40-year old motivational speaker recovers from a major concussion to discover that he can play guitar and piano. He now makes his living as a composer of movie sound-tracks.
The literature of the near-death experience contains similar examples, such as Tom Sawyer, the young blue-collar worker who after recovering from a road accident became obsessively interested in quantum mechanics.
This is all quite provocative. The unchallenged materialist assumption has been that savantism will one day be accommodated by physicalist theory, such as the computational and modular 'bottom-up' processes popular with AI and Darwinist proponents. It will be revealed as some kind of malfunction of the mechanisms that underlie normal memory, motor skills, emotions and everything else. I doubt that. My reading is far from comprehensive, but I'm not aware of any serious attempt to include this kind of phenomena in such models, and it's hard to see how that could be done.
This phenomenon of 'acquired' savantism forces us to think about the matter in a different way. We can't just attribute it to autism, that highly mysterious entity which we may assume has some curious property all of its own. This is about the effects of damage to brain tissue, pure and simple. It's as if I was to take a hammer to my six-year-old laptop, and instead of instantly expiring it suddenly blossomed into the latest supercomputer performing a thousand times faster.
The overwhelming implication in this surely is to reinforce the filter or valve theory of consciousness, that the function of the brain is to focus attention in this reality, and when that function is compromised, another reality breaks through. It's the same effect that may be had by ingesting hallucinogens, by fasting, mediation and various religious practices, and of course the near-death experience. As Edward Kelly writes in Irreducible Mind:
What psychedelics have in common with all other means of producing mystical states may consist not in the engagement of any highly specific final common neurophysiological pathways, mechanisms, or modules, but rather in some sort of more global disruption or "loosening" of the normal mind-brain connection, which in turn enables fuller expression of an objectively real transpersonal component of human personality.
Treffert himself is especially intrigued by the 'acquired' version of savant skills, and speculates that such abilities may be available to all of us, if we could only learn how to tap them. I'm not convinced about that. It's one thing for a poet or musician or artist to feel occasionally that they are in touch with some greater reality, but it might diminish the act of creation if they felt all the time that they were just taking dictation.
But Treffert is spot on when he says:
No model of brain function, including memory, will be complete until it can fully incorporate and explain this jarring contradiction of extraordinary ability and sometimes permeating disability in the same person. Until we can fully explain the savant, we cannot fully explain ourselves.