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Cracking Creativity: An Insight into Acquired Savantism

There was quite a spin put on the story of the movie “Rain Man” however the character of Raymond Babbitt is very real. The inspiration behind the movie though was a 57-year-old man with an encyclopedic knowledge of geography, music, literature, history, athletics, and nine other fields. He knows every area code in the United States, as well as the zip codes for significant cities. He's also memorized the maps in the front of phone books and can tell you exactly how to get from one US city to another, and then how to get back to his home. He was not a regular prodigy that had been showered with the aforementioned extraordinary abilities but was part of the autistic spectrum. The fact that he had trouble with basic motor skills but effortlessly depicts superhuman memory, speaks volumes as to how impressive the human brain actually is, so much so that he was named the “American Savant”.

Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable phenomenon in which people with major mental disorders, such as autistic disorder, have an "island of genius" that contrasts sharply with their overall handicap. They usually gain extraordinary abilities in fields such as music, art, calendar calculating etc, with no previous interest or experience in that very field. To put that into context, some savants effortlessly master playing pieces that take decades to master, while others have a photographic memory and can paint with extreme realism and accuracy. This acquired savant emphasizes not only how thin the boundary between savant and genius is, but also how such savant qualities may lie within all of us to some degree or another.

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist, first used the term "collective unconscious" or alternatively called "objective psyche". The theory states that a section of the deepest unconscious mind is genetically inherited and not influenced by personal experience. Though humans may not be aware of the contents of their collective unconscious, it is believed that at times of crisis, the psyche can access the unconscious.

The idea of knowledge being stored in our genome is relatively easy to accept when we look at a number of animals. Many of the signals used in animal communication are inherent, meaning that all members of a species produce them in the same way. The message is unambiguous due to the consistency that comes from having the signal and its interpretation genetically programmed. Dogs send each other universal messages through a combination of facial expressions, hair erection, and tail position. Similarly, other animals produce their signals using a combination of genetic and learnt information. Some birds can make parts of their songs without ever hearing another bird sing, but they need to hear songs during development in order to duplicate their own species' song correctly. Could this mean that savants are learning new skills in almost no time or unlocking skills that were hiding beneath the surface?

To understand this better, let's look at the various parts of the brain and its functions.