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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.

The brain is divided into lobes:

• The frontal lobes are in charge of problem-solving, judgment, and motor function.

• Sensation, penmanship, and body posture are all controlled by the parietal lobes.

• Memory and hearing are controlled by the temporal lobes, whereas the visual processing system is controlled by the occipital lobes.

Furthermore, we can say that cognitive functions such as speech and language are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. The right hemisphere of the brain is more concerned with creativity and the recognition of faces. Savant abilities may appear in childhood, frequently as a result of underlying developmental impairments that were present at birth. Following brain damage or disease later in infancy, adolescence, or adulthood, neurotypical individuals might develop ‘acquired' savant talents where none previously existed. When we look at dementia patients, specifically frontotemporal dementia, we can see that the frontal and temporal lobes are affected because of which people lose their ability to make rational judgements and additionally restricting their language ability. According to Dr Darold Treffert, an experienced psychologist who has done extensive research on autism and savant syndrome and also a consultant to the movie “Rain Man”, the brain rewires and reorganizes to the right side, viewing sight and sound in completely new ways, revealing a new ability that an individual never knew he/she had.

Take one instance, Jon Sarkin, the older brother of Vanity Fair features editor Jane Sarkin, was a successful chiropractor with a young wife and a nine-month-old baby. Sarkin was golfing with a friend when his life was turned upside down by a severe brain bleed and stroke. Sarkin's transformation after his near-death experience was inexplicable: he found himself absorbed in art. He also had damaged the left side of his brain and then moved on to get obsessed with drawing, so much so that he became an artist in 1989. Adding on, Orlando Serrell was hit with a fast baseball at age 10, leading to a brain injury. Ever since that incident, Serrell acquired the ability to do calendar calculating at an extremely fast pace - essentially telling what day will fall on which date in the past or the future. Similarly, another acquired savant is Derek Amato. Derek, like Orlando, had a concussion after diving into a pool. He went to see his musician friend after being released from the hospital. Derek sat down at his friend's piano and started playing pieces that require hours and hours of practice, despite the fact that he had never played before.

Cracking into this vault of creativity has been proved in several instances but the scientific proof remains unknown. Till then, we can believe that there is a “Rain Man” inside of all of us.

Works Cited:

  1. Breed, Michael D. "Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior." Nature News. Nature Publishing Group. Web.

  2. Fritscher, Lisa. "How the Collective Unconscious Is Tied to Dreams, Beliefs, and Phobias." Verywell Mind. 15 May 2020. Web.

  3. Lammle, Rob. "The Amazing Stories of 6 Sudden Savants." Mental Floss. 29 June 2010. Web.

  4. Treffert, Darold A. “The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 364,1522 (2009): 1351-7. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0326

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