Allan Snyder on savant syndrome and creativity

Darold Treffert, MD explains, “Savant Syndrome is a rare, but spectacular, condition in which persons with various developmental disabilities, including Autistic Disorder, have astonishing islands of ability or brilliance that stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to the over-all handicap.” From his article The Savant Syndrome: Islands of Genius.

Daniel Tammet , as one example, is able to recite 22,514 digits of pi from memory. An author with autistic  savant syndrome, he thinks differences between savant and non-savant minds have been exaggerated, to the detriment of how most of us value our own abilities and develop our talents.

From my post Savant abilities and learning differences relate to developing multiple talents.

Professor Allan Snyder is Director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney. Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. interviews him in his post Conversations on Creativity with Allan Snyder.

Here is an excerpt :

Snyder believes a ‘thinking cap’ might one day be possible, which would enable us to remove our ordinary filters of perception, and thereby improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative.

Here I have a conversation with the award winning scientist who is inventing ways to access nonconscious savant-like skills, to enhance creative thinking, and to unravel the ingredients of extraordinary success.

Scott. You have argued that savant skills are latent in all of us. Could you please elaborate why you think this is true?

Allan. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Due to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness.

Several lines of evidence point to this interpretation. Savant skills appear to be universal – they don’t seem to vary according to what’s valued in a particular society.

Across different cultures, savant skills are restricted to the same domains: art, music, calendar calculating, arithmetic, and mechanical/spatial skills. The skills can emerge without training, and they’re not qualitatively improved by practice. In fact, savants generally don’t have insight into how they perform their skill.


[Snyder goes on to talk about his research to stimulate savant abilities in neurotypical (“normal”) people, using “low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to inhibit the anterior temporal lobe, a region important for semantic processing, conceptual knowledge, labels and categories.”]

Photo of Snyder from National Geographic program Accidental Genius.

Snyder is quoted in the book Creativity and the Brain, by Mario Tokoro, Ken Mogi.

Another book: Extraordinary People : Understanding Savant Syndrome, by Darold A. Treffert

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