Human Intelligence

Can regular people become savants?
Answered by Jennifer Horton, Jonathan Strickland and 1 other
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  • Jonathan Strickland

    Jonathan Strickland

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. As Jonathan points out, the technical definition of a savant is someone who possesses detailed knowledge in a particular field. If we go by that usage, the question of whether regular people can be savants seems to be an unequivocal yes -- just in researching this question, I've become rather savantish at savantism ...

    Yet when most people use the term, they're referring to people who exhibit extreme expertise or brilliance in a limited subject area, usually at the expense of other brain faculties. Using this definition, the answer is a little more complex. Typically, the skills at which savants excel are those controlled by the right side of the brain: things like math, music, art and calendar calculation. One popular theory for this pattern attributes savant syndrome to a brain injury affecting the left part of the brain. With the left hemisphere handicapped, the right side overcompensates and flourishes. This theory helps to explain why some people seem to spontaneously acquire savant-like skills later in life following something like a brain injury or fronto-temporal dementia (or FTD, a form of dementia affecting the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and language).

    If, as some experts believe, the exceptional savant-like abilities observed in some FTD patients occur not because of a sudden creation of skills but because of an uncovering of skills that were always there, the idea that anyone could become a savant is entirely possible. The thinking, vigorously promoted by physicist and brain science guru Allan Snyder, is that regular people are inhibited by their brain's tendency to think conceptually and apply preconceived thoughts and labels to stimuli. In savants, this tendency is stripped away, giving them access to less processed information and allowing them to see things as they really are.

    Snyder has conducted years of experiments to support his theory, using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Although the results are not conclusive -- others have had mixed results trying to duplicate them -- they indicate savant-like skills may in fact be artificially induced by simultaneously stimulating the right side of the brain and inhibiting the left using low-frequency electrical currents. Among other things, subjects have exhibited greatly improved math, drawing and proofreading skills [source: Snyder]. If Snyder's theory holds, who knows? Maybe one day you really will be able to don a real-life thinking cap.

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  2. Jonathan Strickland Senior Writer, HowStuffWorks
    A savant is a scholar, particularly one who has a deep understanding in a specific field of knowledge, so says Merriam-Webster. By that definition, any regular person with the drive and proper resources could become a savant. It only requires time, effort and access to the right information to create knowledge.

    What if we define savants as people who possess extraordinary genius in some arena, such as mathematics or music? Is it possible for a typical person to become a savant? It's one thing to study a subject and become an adept practitioner. It's another to display brilliance and skill on an unparalleled level.

    The popular understanding of savants is that they're people who can perform a particular task -- or a group of related tasks -- extremely well. They're also people who possess some sort of mental disability. Often, we think of this disability in terms of social awareness and behavior. Psychiatrist Darold Treffert calls it savant syndrome. He has written extensively on the subject.

    Could a person without such mental disabilities gain the genius displayed by a savant? According to Treffert, it's possible. But there's a hitch -- people who acquire savant syndrome do so after experiencing some event that damages the central nervous system. Treffert's hypothesis is that a dysfunctional left hemisphere of the brain somehow contributes to savant syndrome.

    Just as not every person with mental disabilities possesses genius, not every victim of central nervous system damage will suddenly unleash a hidden mastery of, say, music or mathematics. Ultimately, what savant syndrome tells us is that we still have much to learn about the human mind. Perhaps one day we’ll discover how to unlock genius within ourselves.

    savant syndrome
    (© iStockphoto.com/cworthy)

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  3. Since savant syndrome can be acquired (through brain damage or illness), scientists think that all of us, technically, have the potential to become savants. They are trying to figure out how to create savants without the traumatizing the brain. A researcher named Allan Snyder, director of the Center of the Mind, was temporarily able to upset the frontotemporal lobe (the part of the brain that is damaged in autistic savants and in dementia patients with acquired savant syndrome) by using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Some of the subjects that were tested showed increased artistic ability, albeit for a temporary period.

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