Unleashing the Power of the Savant Brain in All of Us

What if you had perfect pitch, a photographic memory, and astounding artistic ability? Allan Snyder thinks you already do. Snyder is the director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney and for years he’s been studying how the mind processes information. Certain individuals, often called savants, demonstrate amazing abilities: near total recall of memories, the ability to count a large number of items simply by glancing at them (numerosity), incredible musical talent, etc. Savants display these cognitive feats while often suffering from a neural disorder like Autism. As described in his publication in The Royal Society, Snyder believes that these abilities arise as Autism (or other phenomenon) grants the individual ‘privileged access’ to data that would normally be overridden in the brain. With magnetic pulses, Snyder has even been able to temporarily ‘unlock’ savant-like abilities in average people! Check out the infographic from Smarter.org below that introduced me to Snyder’s work and got me thinking: There’s a chance that everyone could one day have access to this kind of hidden potential in their minds.

When it comes to “releasing the hidden potential of your mind” I’m a big skeptic. Everyone from Uri Geller to Timothy Leary has pitched that line and most of the time it’s complete bunk. So when I first saw the following infographic about Snyder’s work, I was rather dismissive. Magnets on our head could make us better artists, give us perfect pitch, and let us remember anything like Rain Man? Sure. And magic crystals will heal my damaged chakras. But then I started to look deeper into Snyder’s work and I started seeing some real science on some really interesting phenomena.

Not all savants have Autism, and not all people with Autism develop savant talents. But there’s a big correlation between the two syndromes. Other people who develop savant-like skills suffer from brain trauma, or neurologically damaging diseases. While some may dispute whether savant talents even really exist, it seems clear that there are numerous cases of people with astounding mental talents. And these talents are clustered around abnormal brain activity.

Snyder has published numerous papers on cognitive processing and brain performance. His paper in The Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (biological sciences) summarizes his work (and related work from others) and you can read it in full here. To grossly paraphrase his findings: the right hemisphere of the brain seems to accumulate detailed quantified data from the sensory organs unconsciously. This data is effectively overwritten or forgotten as the left brain imposes labels and organization upon it. When the left-right communication is disturbed or somehow faulty, the detailed data can sometimes be accessed by the conscious mind.

Imagine you’re a business executive. An accountant in the office is responsible for gathering lots of data. She has records of everything – lots of numbers about the money spent on pencils, the exact costs of stamps used in January, the last names of all employees in Spain, etc. The middle manager below you takes her reports and summarizes them so you can read them quickly. Less money was spent on pencils, stamp costs are stable, employees in Spain still have last names. Easy to deal with, but not very exact. What if the middle manager got sick? Well then you, the business executive would have to read those accountant’s reports yourself. You wouldn’t read that stamp costs were stable, you’d read that they were exactly $128,092.61

This is a poor analogy of what may be happening in the brain. The left hemisphere is packaging information so that you can make conscious decisions. This is generally a good thing. When you see a tiger is trying to eat you, you don’t need to worry about how many stripes it has you need to recognize it’s a tiger and run.

Occasionally though, people’s brains function differently. Snyder thinks they are granted ‘privileged access’ to the unpackaged data and gain savant-like talents. This can cause problems, such as all the negative symptoms associated with Autism, but it opens the curious possibility that this data is potentially available to everyone. Our conscious mind seems to work in a very top-down sort of way, with hierarchical thinking giving rise to the problem solving skills that make our species a success. But what if we could temporarily disturb that arrangement to regain what that structure has cost us: exact recall of detailed data and calculations.

Snyder tried to see if he could unleash that potential. Over several years, he and other researchers have used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to interfere with the neurons in the left anterior temporal lobe. The bundled the rTMS device into a hat that could be worn while patients performed different tasks. Dubbed the ‘thinking cap’ by some, it effectively shut down the left hemisphere of the brain with magnetic fields. The results are interesting. Snyder has been able to induce the ability to draw as the eye sees (even without artistic training). He’s seen improved memory, better ability to notice typos/grammar mistakes, and improved numerosity. The latter has some of the clearest results (as published in Perception, 2006). Patients shown a random number of dots on a computer screen for a brief period of time are asked to give the number of dots shown. Immediately after rTMS treatment, 10 out of 12 patients saw improvements. 8 out of these 12 saw that improvement disappear an hour after rTMS stopped. In other words, savant skills seem to appear and then slowly fade away after rTMS. A placebo treatment did not induce the same results – something is clearly going on here.

Of course, my skepticism doesn’t fade just because of some good data. These are still small data sets, and positive results weren’t universal. Larger tests are needed before we can say with certainty that rTMS is creating these skills, and that is does so by unlocking access to inherent data from the senses processed in the brain. To Snyder’s great credit, he acknowledges the limitations of his exploration of savantism: “Finally, it should be said that our ‘privileged access’ hypothesis remains to be proven. The empirical evidence so far, while consistent with the hypothesis, is preliminary and requires independent researchers to replicate the findings.” (Royal Society Biological Sciences 2009) I agree.

Yet rTMS and neuron interference is already finding other uses. In 2008, the FDA approved NeuroStar from Neuronetics, a TMS treatment device for depression. Put on an electromagnet, mess with your brain for a while and you might see improvements in your mood. Sounds crazy, but it seems to work in some cases.

Looking at all of this I get the feeling that we’re nearing some really interesting discoveries in this field. The work of Snyder and his colleagues is many years old and still in development, but we may eventually see these experiments lead to a an incredible understanding of how the brain works…and how we might augment it. What other conditions (positive or negative) might we induce simply by temporarily shutting down different centers of the brain? We might learn languages faster, or have insights into our most difficult problems, or even just think of jokes more easily. There’s so much to explore here. One day we may have electromagnetic implants that restrict different parts of our brain to grant us conscious control over the rest. It’s all very theoretical at this point. Yet we may find that the core of the advanced computer of the future has already been built and has been resting in our skulls all this time.

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