Understanding Creative Savants


Friday, October 14, 2011

We all know the Thomas Edison line: genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But there are those who don't seem to perspire at all. Their extraordinary gifts seem to come from no where. We often call those people savants. And some neuroscientists are trying to understand where their talents come from.

Sometimes their talents confound the savants themselves, as in the case of Derek Amato. An acquired savant, Amato quite suddenly developed extraordinary musical ability at age 40, after suffering a head injury. “My hands moved 100 miles an hour the first second” he tried playing piano, he remembers. “And it just didn't stop. It just came pouring out. … There comes a time when you have to say ‘wow I have to really get some control of this.’”

More typically, savants display an astonishing talent alongside a developmental disability, such as an autistic-spectrum disorder. “What we’ve found so far is that there is damage to one part of the brain (often the left hemisphere) with a compensation from some other part of the brain (usually the right hemisphere) and there is the release of dormant potential within that area,” explains psychiatrist Darold Treffert. “I call it the three Rs: recruitment, rewiring, and release.”

If extraordinary talent can be shut up in one part of our brains, untapped, is there a way to turn untalented people into savants — without a brain injury? A shortcut to creative ability? Kerrie Hillman investigates.


Slideshow: Art by Joel Gilb, Age 12

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

Joel Gilb, age 12, has the ability to draw extremely realistic illustrations of animals and plants. He is especially skilled at drawing detail, as evidenced in this drawing of a flying owl. Scientists believe that realistic drawers such as Gilb focus on individual parts rather than a whole. This trait is called a strong local processing bias, which is also common in people with autism.

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

Gilb has memorized the entire Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and he can describe any bird in the guide from memory. He drew this impromptu illustration of a yellow-throated warbler from a photograph at the request of reporter Kerrie Hillman.

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

Gilb discovered his talent early on. He drew this picture of dinosaur bones when he was seven years old.

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

An illustration of a jaguar that Gilb drew at age nine.

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

An illustration of a rooster.

Joel Gilb
Art by Joel Gilb

An illustration of a wood thrush bird perched on the stem of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

    Music Playlist
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    Artist: The Books
    Album: Dark was the night
    Label: 4ad Records
    Purchase: Amazon
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Kerrie Hillman

Comments [2]


I believe in reincarnation. I would pose the premise that the reason that Mr Amato could play the piano after the concussion was that somewhere in one of his past lives he was a pianist and the concussion reawaken his skill and creativity. So i would suggest that the soul or part of the person that reembodies carries the abilities of the past that could be reawaken. Think about young children who are amazing prodigies might be expressing the past in a body yet unmarked by the experiences of this life.

Oct. 15 2011 03:40 PM
Michael Dillard from Philadelphia

Kurt, I support the use of "public" space for demonstration and expression. Specifically the ongoing 99% at Zucotti Park. I went to the demonstration in Phila. and found tents scattered around a square beside city hall. There was no center or stage as in NY so the expression lacked focus.
In general, if an action is true and hurts no one it is OK with me. Keep on creating good radio.

Oct. 15 2011 07:24 AM

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