DISCOVER Vol. 23
No. 2 (February 2002)
you capable of multiplying 147,631,789 by 23,674 in your
Physicist Allan Snyder says you probably can, based on his
new theory about the origin of the extraordinary skills
of autistic savants
Photography by James Smolka
Nadia appeared healthy at birth, but by the time she was
2, her parents knew something was amiss. She avoided eye
contact and didn't respond when her mother smiled or cooed.
She didn't even seem to recognize her mother. At 6 months
she still had not spoken a word. She was unusually clumsy
and spent hours in repetitive play, such as tearing paper
But at 31/2, she picked up a pen and began to drawnot
scribble, draw. Without any training, she created from
memory sketches of galloping horses that only a trained adult
could equal. Unlike the way most people might draw a horse,
beginning with its outline, Nadia began with random details.
First a hoof, then the horse's mane, then its harness. Only
later did she lay down firm lines connecting these floating
features. And when she did connect them, they were always
in the correct position relative to one another. | Nadia is
an autistic savant, a rare condition marked by severe mental
and social deficits but also by a mysterious talent that appears
spontaneouslyusually before age 6.
director of the Center for the Mind in Sydney, Australia,
thinks temporarily inhibiting neural activity through
a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation
could lead to creative breakthroughs.
Sometimes the ability of a savant is so striking, it eventually
makes news. The most famous savant was a man called Joseph,
the individual Dustin Hoffman drew upon for his character
in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Joseph could immediately
answer this question: "What number times what number gives
1,234,567,890?" His answer was "Nine times 137,174,210."
Another savant could double 8,388,628 up to 24 times within
several seconds, yielding the sum 140,737,488,355,328. A
6-year-old savant named Trevor listened to his older brother
play the piano one day, then climbed onto the piano stool
himself and played it better. A savant named Eric could
find what he called the "sweet spot" in a room full of speakers
playing music, the spot where sound waves from the different
sources hit his ears at exactly the same time.
Most researchers have offered a simple explanation for
these extraordinary gifts: compulsive learning. But Allan
Snyder, a vision researcher and award-winning physicist
who is director of the Center for the Mind at the University
of Sydney and the Australian National University, has advanced
a new explanation of such talents. "Each of us has the innate
capacity for savantlike skills," says Snyder, "but that
mental machinery is unconscious in most people."
Savants, he believes, can tap into the human mind's remarkable
processing abilities. Even something as simple as seeing,
he explains, requires phenomenally complex information processing.
When a person looks at an object, for example, the brain
immediately estimates an object's distance by calculating
the subtle differences between the two images on each retina
(computers programmed to do this require extreme memory
and speed). During the process of face recognition, the
brain analyzes countless details, such as the texture of
skin and the shape of the eyes, jawbone, and lips. Most
people are not aware of these calculations. In savants,
says Snyder, the top layer of mental processingconceptual
thinking, making conclusionsis somehow stripped away.
Without it, savants can access a startling capacity for
recalling endless detail or for performing lightning-quick
calculations. Snyder's theory has a radical conclusion of
its own: He believes it may be possible someday to create
technologies that will allow any nonautistic person to exploit
The origins of autism are thought to lie in early brain
development. During the first three years of life, the brain
grows at a tremendous rate. In autistic children, neurons
seem to connect haphazardly, causing widespread abnormalities,
especially in the cerebellum, which integrates thinking
and movement, and the limbic region, which integrates experience
with specific emotions. Abnormalities in these regions seem
to stunt interest in the environment and in social interaction.
Autistic children have narrowed fields of attention and
a poor ability to recognize faces. They are more likely
to view a face, for example, as individual components rather
than as a whole. Imaging studies have shown that when autistic
children see a familiar face, their pattern of brain activation
is different from that of normal children.
That narrowed focus may explain the autistic child's ability
to concentrate endlessly on a single repetitive activity,
such as rocking in a chair or watching clothes tumble in
a dryer. Only one out of 10 autistic children show special
In a 1999 paper, Snyder and his colleague John Mitchell
challenged the compulsive-practice explanation for savant
abilities, arguing that the same skills are biologically
latent in all of us. "Everyone in the world was skeptical,"
says Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for
Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San
Diego. "Snyder deserves credit for making it clear that
savant abilities might be extremely important for understanding
aspects of human nature and creativity."
Snyder's office at the University of Sydney is in a Gothic
building, complete with pointed towers and notched battlements.
Inside, Nadia's drawings of horses adorn the walls; artwork
by other savants hangs in nearby rooms.
by normal 4-year-olds
children draw a horse, they typically choose to establish
its contour and familiar features such as head, eyes,
legs, and tail. Allan Snyder believes that these kids
draw on a concept of the horse to re-create it rather
than recalling the precise physical details, as savants
by a 3-year-old Savant
child named Nadia became famous for her ability to sketch
spectacularly detailed horses and riders from memory.
Savants like Nadia show the ability to perform unusual
feats of illustration or calculation when they are younger
than 6. Snyder wants to figure out how they do it.
Snyder's interest in autism evolved from his studies of
light and vision. Trained as a physicist, he spent several
years studying fiber optics and how light beams can guide
their own path. At one time he was interested in studying
the natural fiber optics in insects' eyes. The question
that carried him from vision research to autism had to do
with what happens after light hits the human retina: How
are the incoming signals transformed into data that is ultimately
processed as images in the brain? Snyder was fascinated
by the processing power required to accomplish such a feat.
During a sabbatical to Cambridge in 1987, Snyder devoured
Ramachandran's careful studies of perception and optical
illusions. One showed how the brain derives an object's
three-dimensional shape: Falling light creates a shadow
pattern on the object, and by interpreting the shading,
the brain grasps the object's shape. "You're not aware how
your mind comes to those conclusions," says Snyder. "When
you look at a ball, you don't know why you see it as a ball
and not a circle. The reason is your brain is extracting
the shape from the subtle shading around the ball's surface."
Every brain possesses that innate ability, yet only artists
can do it backward, using shading to portray volume.
"Then," says Snyder, speaking slowly for emphasis, "I asked
the question that put me on a 10-year quest"how can
we bypass the mind's conceptual thinking and gain conscious
access to the raw, uninterpreted information of our basic
perceptions? Can we shed the assumptions built into our
visual processing system?
A few years later, he read about Nadia and other savant
artists in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife
for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. As he sat in his
Sydney apartment one afternoon with the book in hand, an
idea surfaced. Perhaps someone like Nadia who lacked the
ability to organize sensory input into concepts might provide
a window into the fundamental features of perception.
Snyder's theory began with art, but he came to believe
that all savant skills, whether in music, calculation, math,
or spatial relationships, derive from a lightning-fast processor
in the brain that divides thingstime, space, or an
objectinto equal parts. Dividing time might allow
a savant child to know the exact time when he's awakened,
and it might help Eric find the sweet spot by allowing him
to sense millisecond differences in the sounds hitting his
right and left ears. Dividing space might allow Nadia to
place a disembodied hoof and mane on a page precisely where
they belong. It might also allow two savant twins to instantaneously
count matches spilled on the floor (one said "111"; the
other said "37, 37, 37"). Meanwhile, splitting numbers might
allow math savants to factor 10-digit numbers or easily
identify large prime numberswhich are impossible to
Compulsive practice might enhance these skills over time,
but Snyder contends that practice alone cannot explain the
phenomenon. As evidence, he cites rare cases of sudden-onset
savantism. Orlando Serrell, for example, was hit on the
head by a baseball at the age of 10. A few months later,
he began recalling an endless barrage of license-plate numbers,
song lyrics, and weather reports.
If someone can become an instant savant, Snyder thought,
doesn't that suggest we all have the potential locked away
in our brains? "Snyder's ideas sound very New Age. This
is why people are skeptical," says Ramachandran. "But I
have a more open mind than many of my colleagues simply
because I've seen [sudden-onset cases] happen."
Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California
at San Francisco, has seen similar transformations in patients
with frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative brain disease
that strikes people in their fifties and sixties. Some of
these patients, he says, spontaneously develop both interest
and skill in art and music. Brain-imaging studies have shown
that most patients with frontotemporal dementia who develop
skills have abnormally low blood flow or low metabolic activity
in their left temporal lobe. Because language abilities
are concentrated in the left side of the brain, these people
gradually lose the ability to speak, read, and write. They
also lose face recognition. Meanwhile, the right side of
the brain, which supports visual and spatial processing,
is better preserved.
"They really do lose the linguistic meaning of things,"
says Miller, who believes Snyder's ideas about latent abilities
complement his own observations about frontotemporal dementia.
"There's a loss of higher-order processing that goes on
in the anterior temporal lobe." In particular, frontotemporal
dementia damages the ventral stream, a brain region that
is associated with naming objects. Patients with damage
in this area can't name what they're looking at, but they
can often paint it beautifully. Miller has also seen physiological
similarities in the brains of autistic savants and patients
with frontotemporal dementia. When he performed brain-imaging
studies on an autistic savant artist who started drawing
horses at 18 months, he saw abnormalities similar to those
of artists with frontotemporal dementia: decreased blood
flow and slowed neuronal firing in the left temporal lobe.
One blustery, rainy morning I drove to Mansfield, a small
farm town 180 miles northeast of Melbourne. I was heading
to a day clinic for autistic adults, where I hoped to meet
a savant. The three-hour drive pitched and rolled through
hills, occasionally cutting through dense eucalyptus forests
punctuated with yellow koala-crossing signs. From time to
time, I saw large, white-crested parrots; in one spot, a
flock of a thousand or more in flight wheeled about like
I finally spotted my destination: Acorn Outdoor Ornaments.
Within this one-story house, autistic adults learn how to
live independently. They also create inexpensive lawn decorations,
like the cement dwarf I see on the roof.
Joan Curtis, a physician who runs Acorn and a related follow-up
program, explained that while true savants are rare, many
people with autism have significant talents. Nurturing their
gifts, she said, helps draw them into social interaction.
Guy was one of the participants I met at Acorn. Although
he was uncomfortable shaking my hand, all things electronic
fascinated him, and he questioned me intently about my tape
Every horizontal surface in Guy's room was covered with
his creations. One was an electric fan with a metal alligator
mouth on the front that opened and closed as it rotated
from side to side. On another fan a metal fisherman raised
and lowered his pole with each revolution. And then I saw
the sheep. Viewed from the left, it was covered in wool.
Viewed from the right, it was a skeleton, which I learned
Guy had assembled without any help. Guy didn't say much
about himself. He cannot read nor do arithmetic, but he
has built an electric dog that barks, pants, wags its tail,
During my visit, another Acorn participant, Tim, blew into
the room like a surprise guest on The Tonight Show.
He was in a hurry to leave again, but asked me my birthdayJuly
"Born on a Wednesday, eh?" he responded nonchalantlyand
"How did you do that?" I asked.
"I did it well," he replied.
"But how?" I asked.
"Very well," he replied, with obvious pleasure.
Then he was out the door and gone.
How do calendar savants do it? Several years ago Timothy
Rickard, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California
at San Diego, evaluated a 40-year-old man with a mental
age of 5 who could assign a day of the week to a date with
70 percent accuracy. Because the man was blind from birth,
he couldn't study calendars or even imagine calendars. He
couldn't do simple arithmetic either, so he couldn't use
a mathematical algorithm. But he could only do dates falling
within his lifetime, which suggests that he used memory.
He could, however, do some arithmetic, such as answer this
question: If today is Wednesday, what day is two days from
now? Rickard suspects that memorizing 2,000 dates and using
such arithmetic would allow 70 percent accuracy. "That doesn't
reduce it to a trivial skill, but it's not inconceivable
that someone could acquire this performance with a lot of
effort," he says. It's especially plausible given the single-minded
drive with which autistics pursue interests.
Yet Tim, the savant at Acorn, can calculate dates as far
back as 1900, as well as into the future. And there are
reports of twins who could calculate dates 40,000 years
in the past or future. Still, practice may be part of it.
Robyn Young, an autism researcher at Flinders University
in Adelaide, Australia, says some calendar savants study
perpetual calendars several days a week (there are only
14 different calendar configurations; perpetual calendars
cross-reference them to years).
But even if savants practice, they may still tap into that
universal ability Snyder has proposed. Here it helps to
consider art savants. That Nadia began drawings with minor
features rather than overall outlines suggests that she
tended to perceive individual details more prominently than
she did the wholeor the conceptof what she was
drawing. Other savant artists draw the same way.
Autistic children differ from nonautistic children in another
way. Normal kids find it frustrating to copy a picture containing
a visual illusion, such as M. C. Escher's drawing in which
water flows uphill. Autistic children don't. That fits with
Snyder's idea that they're recording what they see without
interpretation and reproducing it with ease in their own
Even accomplished artists sometimes employ strategies to
shake up their preconceptions about what they're seeing.
Guy Diehl is not a savant, but he is known for his series
of crystal-clear still lifes of stacked books, drafting
implements, and fruit. When Diehl finds that he's hit a
sticking point on a painting, for example, he may actually
view it in a mirror or upside down. "It reveals things you
otherwise wouldn't see, because you're seeing it differently,"
he says. "You're almost seeing it for the first time again."
Diehl showed me how art students use this technique to
learn to draw. He put a pair of scissors on a table and
told me to draw the negative space around the scissors,
not the scissors themselves. The result: I felt I was drawing
individual lines, not an object, and my drawing wasn't half
Drawing exercises are one way of coaxing conceptual machinery
to take five, but Snyder is pursuing a more direct method.
He has suggested that a technique called transcranial magnetic
stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to disrupt neuronal
firing, could knock out a normal person's conceptual brain
machinery, temporarily rendering him savantlike.
Young and her colleague Michael Ridding of the University
of Adelaide tried it. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation
on 17 volunteers, they inhibited neural activity in the
frontotemporal area. This language and concept-supporting
brain region is affected in patients with frontotemporal
dementia and in the art savant whom Miller studied. In this
altered state, the volunteers performed savantlike taskshorse
drawing, calendar calculating, and multiplying.
Five of the 17 volunteers improvednot to savant levels,
but no one expected that, because savants practice. Furthermore,
transcranial magnetic stimulation isn't a precise tool for
targeting brain regions. But the five volunteers who improved
were those in whom separate neurological assessments indicated
that the frontotemporal area was successfully targeted.
"Obviously I don't think the idea is so outlandish anymore,"
says Young. "I think it is a plausible hypothesis. It always
was, but I didn't expect we'd actually find the things we
Snyder himself is experimenting with grander ideas. "We
want to enhance conceptual abilities," he says, "and on
the other hand remove them and enhance objectivity." He
imagines a combination of training and hardware that might,
for example, help an engineer get past a sticking point
on a design project by offering a fresh angle on the problem.
One method would involve learning to monitor one's own brain
waves. By watching one's own brain waves during drawing
exercises, Snyder imagines it may be possible to learn to
control them in a way that shuts down their concept-making
machineryeven the left temporal lobe itself.
Even if further research never fully reveals why savants
have extraordinary skills, we may at least learn from their
potential. Snyder is optimistic. "I envisage the day," he
says, "when the way to get out of a [mental rut] is you
pick up this thingthose of us with jobs that demand
a certain type of creativityand you stimulate your
brain. I'm very serious about this."
© Copyright 2002
The Walt Disney Company.