Savant Syndrome

General Psychology, Dr. Herring

December 2002

What is Savant Syndrome

Savant Syndrome is a condition where a person with inferior mental abilities exhibits suprising skills above their apparent cognitive level, and sometimes even above the level of very smart persons. Savants characteristically have problems interacting normally with other people, have trouble communicating, both spoken and non-verbal, and have a low level of activity, and a low level of interests. Savants were previously called Idiot Savants, because it was thought that savantism occurred only in retarded persons, with IQs of less than 25. The word Savant is French, and means knowledge, while ‘idiot’ means unlearned, and has classically meant one whose IQ is less than 25. However we now know that most savants have IQ’s between 40 and 70, averaging at 50, though sometimes as high as 114.

Savants are not geniuses as much as they are mentally handicapped individuals. A savant may need constant assistance and aid from others. Without any interest in social interaction, or anything at all, a savant usually cannot live on his or her own. But while a savant may have trouble following higher mental processes through to their end, savants demonstrate some form of isolated amazing mental ability. These mental abilities are not general and compensative, it is not as if they are half dumb and half genius, rather, they have specific and focused areas of intelligence, and remain mentally challenged in all other areas. There are several common categories of savant ability.

Types of Savant Syndrome Super-Abilities

Perhaps the most famous ability is the mathematical ability to calculate what day of the week any date will fall on very quickly. Savants demonstrating this skill may be able to tell you instantly whether or not a very large number is a prime number, or tell you how many days exactly it will be until Easter of 2948. Sometimes though, these very people will be unable to count to thirty.

The most common ability is musical ability. Some savants are able to hear complex classical piano pieces only once, and with no training or practice, imitate perfectly every note in tempo. These savants are often blind, and may have perfect pitch, and are able to remember perfectly thousands of pieces of music. The music produced, however, often is devoid of feeling, and lacking in any form of creativity of its own. However occasionally savants will be able to compose their own complex music impromptu.

Artistic savants can draw, paint and sculpt artwork that is profound and amazing. This skill is less common than the others. A person may be able to see a picture of an animal for an instant, and sculpt perfectly a replica of the animal. One girl was an excellent painter, whose pieces have been compared to those of Rembrant.

Memorization feats are also common among savants. Savants with this ability would be able to memorize all the cities in the united states, and all the roads leading into them, or thousands of digits of pi.

Savants with mechanical skills are able to build exquisitely detailed ships, or have great ability in constructing clever devices. One of the most rare abilities of all is the acute sensory ability. Persons with this are able to feel, see, smell, taste or hear things that are beyond the normal sensory range of most people. One child is said to have been able to tear a piece of paper in half—-horizontally--into two paper sized sheets.

Savant abilities are not limited to these categories, but anything outside of them is extremely rare. It is important to remember that there are a very small number of savants that exhibit high skill levels like these, and that the norm is for mentally disabled persons to not have any special abilities. Savant Syndrome is not a disease, or even a specific physical condition. One does not get savant syndrome, but rather one has a mental problem, such as autism, or Williams Syndrome, and some of the people with these problems exhibit the savant characteristics.

Treatment and Support of Savants

Only ten percent of the autistic population display any form of savantism, yet most of the savants today are Autistic Savants, meaning they have autism and demonstrate savant abilities.

Savants can be helped to live more normal lives by being put into special education early on in life, where the focus is not on fixing their problems, which can cause poor self esteem, depression and lack of motivation, but focusing on developing the talents they posses, and the skills they are interested in. Thus savant students are now being placed in GATE classes, which encourages them to develop their social interaction and other essential abilities, while still recognizing the genius that they have. Claims that development of non-savant aspects in savants, like language, can take away from the savant abilities have been shown to be untrue. The savant abilities are not compensating for unintelligence.

Apart from early education programs there is little hope for help of Savant Syndrome sufferers. It begins to show at about age three, and will continue through life. New theories on brian management though, may offer some hope. The idea that we are born with a set number of brain cells, and cannot regenerate but only lose brain cells after that is beginning to give way under theories that the brain is constantly regenerating new cells. In this case, it may be possible to induce cell generation in Savant Syndrome patients.

Causes of Savant Syndrome

Psychologists have been unable to find any strong evidence to support any theory of what causes the brilliant aspects in mentally disadvantaged persons. Certainly the common theory that when one has one brain problem, one gains a brain advantage to balance it out is untrue. But evidence seems to point at something akin to this. Many Savants have damaged or inactive left hemispheres, and the right hemisphere in the brain is more active. It may be that the lack of activity in the one hemisphere is made up for by the overworking of the opposing side, therefore producing genius abilities occasionally. Indeed, it has been found that autistic male children have a thicker right hemisphere cortex before birth. This may help to explain why there are six male savants for every one female. It is also known that men are generally better at math, spatial and motor skills, all right brain activities, and all classical savant abilities.

Certain factors known to contribute to Autism may also cause Savant Syndrome. Autism can be caused by ones genetic makeup, the early environment before and after birth, and brain abnormalities, such as small neurons and stunted fibers.

Theories on Savant Syndrome

One theory on the cause of Savant Syndrome states that abstract thought is unable to function in a savant mind, or is severely limited. This lack of abstraction over-exercises the more concrete mind functions, and extraordinary talents may develop as a result.

One newer Savant Syndrome theory recently emerged, and has interesting support for it, though it is as of yet too early to draw any conclusions. It argues that these super-abilities lay dormant within all of us, and are our lower thought processes. But that in a normal person, the higher cognitive processing drown out and overload the lower processes, taking them over and effectively stopping them from being used fully. In a Savant, the higher cognitive abilities have been damaged, and they are not able to use those higher processes, allowing the lower processes to be used fully. Thus it is the damage that causes the abilities, though they are always lower abilities, such as are common to savants, mathematics, route mimicry, memorization, etc...

This was tested using rTMS technology, a magnetic force pointed at the brain which temporarily inhibits higher brain processes. Subjects were targeted with the rTMS and then tested for savant abilities. Many of those tested demonstrated extreme abilities consistent with those expected of a true savant. The fact that the rTMS did not work on everyone suggests though that not everyone has the abilities required for such feats lying dormant inside of them, but only some. This seems to make sense, since not everyone who gets autism becomes a savant.

What Now?

As of yet, there is still much to be gathered and learned about savant syndrome, and it must be true that we can never really claim to understand the human brain and how it works until we can explain savant syndrome. Many of the theories about savant syndrome and autism seem contradictory today. But with continued research, especially in mental disorders like Autism and Williams Syndrome are bound to bear fruit.

More research needs to be done on whether or not higher mental processes are really restricted in autistic savants, and if so, how much is restricted. If early in childhood, those higher mental processes are exercised rigorously in autistic children, it may cause the synapses to form necessary bonds that may stay there the rest of life, and improve the general abilities of the person.

Research should also be done about whether or not these extreme abilities are in fact self-taught through obsessive thought patterns caused by the abnormal state of the mind. Autistic children often demonstrate strange obsessive behavior such as rocking and twirling hair constantly, or always speaking about the same things. This seems to indicate that strange behavior of this sort is not limited to physical twitches, but mental ones as well. It may be possible that a math savant spends much of his or her time going over numbers in his or her head over and over, until it becomes a skill that is quite marked. Even very young children have the capability to think, and cases of four year olds playing classical piano strain this theory, but do not break it, for many children exhibit great amounts of mental activity at a young young age.

Whatever the real cause of Savant Syndrome, and whether or not the knowledge of its true cause will yield any help for savants, the solution will certainly reveal much about the working of the human mind, and is well worth pursuing, if only for that pure knowledge.


People, 6/17/2002, Vol. 57 Issue 23, p141, 2p, 3c

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This was my big Psychology paper, assigned at the beginning of the semester, due at the end. Well, being a little lazy, i didn't really start research until about two months before it was due. I originally wanted to do something on the difference between genius and insanity. Well, i could not find any information on that topic. Granted, i didn't look that hard, but the utter lack of anything helpfull was so discouraging that i... didn't do much more research. Well, basically, i called my professor two days before the thing was due and told him i needed help choosing a topic. Keep in mind i was supposed to be turning in rough drafts two months before. Anyway, he basically told me that my topic wasn't working cause it didn't exist. There is no fine line between insanity and genius, they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Smart people arent al crazy, and crazy people are all usually, well, mentally handicapped! So, i said the obvious, "what about idiot savants?" He proceeded to correct me on the term i used, and told me that Savant Syndrome would be a good topic.

Well, heres the interesting part: i didn't start researching untill about 10:00pm the day before it was due at 8:00am the next day. This paper was supposed to have 7 primary sources, and nothing from the net. Well, i couldn't find any sources worth anything, so i just looked at some dumb, untrustworthy sites and gathered the basics, wrote my essay, and slapped on the only real sources that i could find, which i honestly did not use as much as the non-trustworthy sources. I stayed up 'till 4am, finished my research, took a 2 hour break to sleep, awoke at 6am, and wrote my whole paper in time to get to class 5 mins. late! I don't know if this whole story is a testament of my genius or my insanity, or both (theres a fine line between the two) but i still have not read it, but at 4 in the morning it seemed good enough... write me and tell me what you think. i bet you can find some blaring mistakes--i'm not going to proofread it. ever. that would be painfull... my poor professor!