Science as Propaganda
Things Children Say

Savant Syndrome and Psi

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.


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Robert I suggest out the 'normal' savants the most revealing ones're the number crunchers. Most of 'em seemingly have no comprehension whatsoever of the maths they're supposedly performing to arrive at the correct answers yet they pluck those numbers out thin air quicker than computers can calculate them.

We're supposed to believe savant talents result from parts of the brain the rest of us normally use being somehow shut down and rededicated to functions they wouldn't normally be associated with as a result massively amplifying if not utterly transforming their possible application.

Yet if you found the kettle you'd just bought not only didn't boil water but performed quantum computing you wouldn't think oh that's what must happen whenever you wire electric kettles wrongly.

You'd think was oh my god electric kettles mustn't just be boilers of water they must be quantum computers too but we've been wiring them in such a way they only perform one function or the other!

My point being maybe savants're the evidence we should be simultaneously normal AND extraordinary but we've convinced ourselves it can only be one or the other.

Well said, alanborky!

Hi Robert, All,

If you have a working understanding of what life in the “Spirit World” is like, these seemingly unnatural and super-human abilities start to appear less-so. Some of our fellow humans in the physical seem to have early access to abilities that we will all eventually have.

I’ve had hands-on experience with Autism (through my youngest daughter), which isn’t saying much as Autism is a shotgun word to describe a myriad of symptoms (spectrum disorder), but I’ve since learned that most autistics seem to share a common trait – the difficulty or sometimes the inability to shift their focus. The common thread in autism seems to be an enhanced sensitivity to one or more senses, causing a surplus of data that overpowers the others. Because of the data surplus, the learning process is likewise affected. Where the individual is high-functioning, beyond the sometimes strange social behavior, I think the “disorder” is very much the opposite. I believe that many of us (to the tune of 20+ percent) are undiagnosed (and never will be) autistic, and if you take a closer look, I think you too will see that most of our “gifted” are likely to show at least one, perhaps more, autistic traits.

My older daughter also has an interesting difference of perspective. We found, quite by accident, that she’s a Synesthete (see Synesthesia). She sees letters and numbers differently than most of us do. The benefit/detriment of it remains to be seen, but so far, she’s taken to both more readily than her parents ever have. I’m extremely curious about it and, of course, she doesn’t often want to talk about it. Go figure. When I think about the circumstances that allowed us to learn about her ability (I mean, doesn’t _everyone_ see colors with their letters and numbers?), I can’t help but see the opportunity for countless others who have unusual perspectives, but never realize that they’re, in any way, different.

I hope you’re having a great day, wherever you are!

I too see colours with letters and numbers. Also, the days of the week and people's names etc. have different colours. Doesn't everyone see colours with letters and numbers? It has never before occurred to me that others don't experience this phenomenon.


Well, perhaps my post was for you then. While I can mentally assign each my favorite choice, mine are not inherently colored and I cannot reproduce those associations at will, much less with complete accuracy. So, no, not everyone… :)

It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like. I find it especially interesting that one/some of her letters are described as multi-colored (I think Z is the “rainbow” one). The colors can apparently be suppressed at will and take some level of concentration to “see” before they come to the “surface”. It bugs her to see colorful signs full of incorrectly-colored letters. I think it’s neat-o. To her, it’s mundane, maybe even annoying.

Best regards,

Ah, I then think it's a matter of degree, Tim. While I interpret things in terms of colour, I don't expect the world to conform to my pattern of understanding.

I suspect that a lot of high IQ people have a form of Autism. They are easily irritated by superficial matters, such as the incorrect spelling of their name.

Kindest regards,

Very amazing - and the brain studies using the magnetic pulses to deactivate the left brain and then create some minor "savant" skills....

Yeah I just had a new article published you all should want to check out - "The Secret Science of Spiritual Healing" - delves into the science attempts to describe these paranormal abilities.

Did I forget to post the url? Anyway the qigong masters that I focus on - they can feel the pain of others and so like to heal people because it clears out the pain they feel internally.

Here's a book that goes some way to explain the unusual and abnormal brain functions written by a neuroscientist that specializes in malfunctions of the brain.

It deals with autism, and forms of synesthesia for example, and is a fascinating read.

The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S Ramachandran

Having read it last year when it came out, I recall that using imaging etc, they could see that in forms of synesthesia, for example, when numbers and colours were linked, there was an infiltration of nerves by adjacent areas, as the areas were situated next to each other. This may explain how when brain injury occurs, adjacent nerves in areas close by may strengthen to compensate. A great read, and went a long way to explaining how this is likely to occur.

Lynn, looks interesting, I'll give it a go

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