The Incredible Savant Syndrome
Savant Syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with some underlying brain condition, often but not always autism, have some extraordinary islands of ability which stand in stark, jarring contrast to overall limitations. While most cases are congenital and apparent in childhood, recent cases of acquired savant syndrome in which ordinary persons suddenly develop extraordinary musical, artistic, mathematical or memory abilities following head injury, dementia or other CNS incident raise questions about dormant potential within everyone. The challenge is to access that hidden ability without CNS catastrophe.
I met my first savant in 1962. It is impossible to summarize 50+ years of research in 18 minutes. So I have chosen to use clips of Leslie Lemke, the musical savant I know best and have followed for 37 years. His story includes some important aspects of savant syndrome applicable to all savants, congenital or acquired.
All savants “know things they never learned” with access to what is called ‘genetic memory’, the instinctive, inherited knowledge of the rules of music, art of math for example. Leslie Lemke, a prodigious musical savant knows things he never learned (nature) and has never had a music lesson in his life (nuture). He is blind and of course cannot read music. A first film clip demonstrates his instinctive musical playback ability after his initial hearing of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. A second clip of Leslie shows him playing a piece he has never heard before with someone rather than after hearing it. He is parallel processing—receiving, processing, outputting—simultaneously. That is not compatible with a measured IQ of 68 and argues for multiple intelligences. A third clip demonstrates Leslie’s creativity. A final clip addresses the vital role of the family in bringing savant skills to full bloom, and demonstrates the power of music. All savants, followed long enough, proceed on a spectrum of massive recollection to brilliant improvisation to creativity. Savants are not mere tape recorders or copy machines. Savants can be creative.
Until we can explain the savant we cannot fully understand the brain or human potential.