Human abnormality is, quite frankly, fascinating. In the past, to get their fill, people attended freak shows advertising seven-foot-tall 'giants' and parasitic twins. Now in the age of the internet it's even better: we have instant access to information about the most unusual people on the planet. This week will be dedicated to the outliers on various bell curves representing human abilities and behavior. After all, as well as morbid fascination, a lot of science is to be found at the edges.
First up is Stephen Wiltshire, an austistic man who can draw incredibly detailed cityscapes from memory, after viewing them out the window of a helicopter for just a few minutes:
How does Wiltshire do it? How do all savants do what they do, such as counting huge numbers of objects almost instantly or knowing that August 18, 1953 was a Tuesday? How did a three-year-old savant named Nadia draw this picture of a horse?
Recent research leads us to believe that such skills come down to a malfunctioning front temporal lobe. This part of the brain allows most of us to process the sensory information we take in and turn it into concepts. When the front temporal lobe doesn't work, though, no processing occurs and you're left with only the raw data itself.
So Wiltshire simply lays on a page the visual data he gathered while in the helicopter. The data hasn't been compressed, conceptualized, or manipulated in any way.
A physicist named Allan Snyder thinks we all have savant capabilities within us, and that our front temporal lobes are the only impediment to this particular type of genius. There is evidence to support his view. People who suffer from frontotemporal dementia, for example, sometimes show drastic improvement in artistic and musical ability as their condition degenerates. One recent study found that when the front temporal lobes of volunteers were shut off (using a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation), a certain number of them showed improvement in drawing, date-day matching, and multiplying.
To learn more about Snyder's theory and your inner savant, read this very good Discover article by Douglas S. Fox.
Hmm... I guess I wouldn't mind being a savant for a day or so.