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Savants, Prodigies That Are the Result of a Mental Disorder


Savants invite us to reflect on the power of the human mind.

The human brain still holds a mysterious aspect. Although science is doing its best to quickly refute the urban legend that states that we only use 5% of our brain, truth be told, extraordinary cognitive capacities lie in the different arrangements and neural relations, some worthy of Sci-Fi films. The most distinctive case of this type of prodigious cerebral dexterity is probably that of savants, who in some cases are capable of solving mathematical equations as efficiently and precisely as a calculator, of learning a language in a single week or perceiving the world in a synesthetic manner.

Savants however, are classified as mentally challenged, since they usually have functional autism and in some cases have experienced brain lesions. In the last few years we have seen many savants in the media, in circus performances, all with genuine astonishment. One of the most famous characters with this disorder is Daniel Temmet, a man that can recall and recite the 22,514 digits of Pi, and that additionally speaks 10 languages, including Icelandic, which he learnt for a TV program. Temmet’s case is particularly outstanding since, unlike many other autistic people, he can actually describe his own mental process. For Temmet each number is a form and a different colour (289 is especially unpleasant, and 333 particularly attractive).

Another famous case is that of Derek Pavicini, “The human iPod”, a thirty two year old blind autistic man that can play any song on the piano or instrumental piece after hearing it once, and then he can improvise it and play it in different styles. Recently, Jason Padgett also acquired some recognition, he is a man with no formal mathematical education, who began to notice fractals in nature, and he drew mathematical formulas after being hit in the head by a couple of attackers.

The talents of the so-called “savants” make us wonder about the human brain’s capacity. Although they are the result of a disease, or perhaps, an irregularity, it is unquestionable that under the influence of a different arrangement we could develop a series of skills worthy of science fiction, perhaps the human brain is simply capable of any type of knowledge, at the level of perfect artificial intelligence —with the appropriate coordinates for stimuli and development. Curiously enough, it is people who have autism, a disorder in which the brain observes itself, practically without being disturbed by the world at large, who commonly display these extraordinary mathematical, musical and linguistic abilities. Many autistic individuals, however, suffer from disabilities, which prevent them from adapting to the world —this is partly because the world is hostile and does not accept them as they are. It would be interesting to see people who develop these abilities without yielding something in exchange.

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