Extraordinary Variations of the Human Mind: Darold Treffert: The Incredible Savant Syndrome

– [Narrator] We are the paradoxical ape. Bipedal. Naked. Large-brained. Long the master of fire, tools, and language. But still trying to understand ourselves. Aware that death is inevitable. Yet, filled with optimism. We grow up slowly. We hand down knowledge. We empathize and deceive. We shape the future from our shared understanding of the past. Carta brings together experts from diverse disciplines to exchange insights on who we are and how we got here. An exploration made possible by the generosity of humans like you. – Darold Treffert could not make it in person. But he did manage to videotape the talk. – [Narrator] The human brain is the most mysterious piece of matter on Earth.

And the more we know about it, the more magical the whole system seems to be. However, it is only now in the 21st century, with new techniques, that scientists can for the first time open up the secret chambers in our heads and watch the complex system of hundreds of billions of neurons at work. Among scientists’ most fascinating subjects of study are a small group of enigmatic talents, the so-called savants. The knowing ones. Savants can multiply five-digit numbers in their heads. Or know 12,000 books by heart. Or play a melody on the piano after hearing it only once. Over half of savants are autistic. Others develop these superhuman talents only after a brain injury.

Experts all over the world are now starting to ask themselves is it, in fact, a defect that turns a person into a genius. Is there a hidden genius within all of us? – Till we can understand the savant, we can’t understand ourselves. And no model of brain function is gonna be complete until it can fully account for this incredible disparity. Hello from the Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a unit of Agnesian Healthcare, dedicated to better understanding the human brain and human potential. What I want to do today is to share some things that we do know about savant syndrome 120 years later after J. Langdon Down first described savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is a remarkable condition in which persons with a developmental disorder, including autism, or other central nervous system disease or injury, have some astonishing islands of genius that stand in marked, jarring contrast to overall handicap.

Savant syndrome occurs in approximately one in 10 persons with autism and in approximately one in 1,400 persons with over developmental disabilities or other central nervous system disorders. Since these other developmental disability and central nervous system disorders are more uncommon than autism, it turns out that approximately 75% of savants are autistic and 25% have other central nervous system disabilities. Therefore, not all savants are autistic, and not all autistic persons are savants. Savant skills occur on a spectrum. First are splinter skills. The second level are talented savants. And the third level are prodigious savants. Prodigious savants are persons whose skills are so remarkable that they are called prodigy or genius if they were to occur in a person without disability. Savant syndrome is always associated with a massive memory, a memory that is extraordinarily deep but very narrow within its confines.

Savant skills typically increase and persist rather than diminish or disappear. Savant abilities are not frivolous. Instead, they can act as a conduit toward normalization with an increase in language abilities, social strengths, and daily living skills. I met my first savant in 1962. Now, 55 years later, it’s rather hard to summarize in 18 minutes my journey with savants. So what I want to do instead is to concentrate on the savant I know best, who is Leslie Lemke, who demonstrates many of the characteristics of savant syndrome. I have known Leslie Lemke for 30 years. He is a prodigious musical savant. Like all savants, he knows things he never learned.

He instinctively knows the rules of music, put there by genetic memory. Genetic memory, which congenital acquired savants demonstrate, is the genetic transmission of knowledge, equals nature, and it can be expanded by learning, which equals nurture. (“Hello, Dolly,” playing piano and singing) – [Narrator] It’s hard to say what’s more striking about Leslie Lemke, his skills as a pianist or his amazing life story. Leslie was born with cerebral palsy and a rare disease that necessitated the removal of his eyes when he was only a few months old. Many might pity, but who could handle the challenge of raising such a child? May and Joe Lemke of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did. They adopted Leslie when he was just six months old. Using patience and love as their inspiration, May and Joe worked with Leslie, attempting to achieve not the miraculous, but the mundane. Function such as walking, swallowing, and eventually swimming all took effort and endless practice. It seemed the only way Leslie would ever even approach a normal life would be through a miracle.

Late at night one evening, a miracle did occur. – When he was about 14 years old, they watched a Sunday night movie, which happened to be Sincerely Yours, and the theme song is Liberace’s theme song, which is Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. They watched and Leslie listened, ’cause he’s blind. And they went to bed. And then about two or three in the morning, May woke and heard some music coming. And she asked Joe, hubby, did you leave the television on? No, so, she went, and there was Leslie playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto from beginning to end having heard it one time.

– And I said to Joe, hey, Joe, did you leave that television on? He said no, why? I said, listen, where’s that beautiful music coming from? And he said… So I got up, went to the boy’s room, and I had got that little piano in his room. And the boy… And suddenly, he slid over like this, onto that chair, playing all the way through. (Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1) – Leslie is blind, has spastic diplegia, and has never had a piano lesson in his life. Leslie knows things he never learned. That is genetic memory. Leslie has a measured IQ of 68. But in this segment, instead of asking Leslie to play a piece after hearing it for the first time, he is asked to play the piece with the person.

Leslie then plays with the person, receiving, processing, and outputting simultaneously. That’s called parallel processing. That is not consistent with an IQ of 68. IQ testing in savants is not reliable. Savants point in the direction of multiple intelligences. (piano music) Leslie has shown a transition from recall to improvisation to creation, as all savants do if followed long enough. Savants can be creative. In his concert now, there is always an audience request portion. In this 2015 concert, Mary, May’s daughter, asks Leslie to play audience requests. All right, let’s go to see how fast we can do this. Eternal… I don’t know if he knows these now. I’m just gonna play through. And if you know about Leslie, he will never deny he doesn’t know one of the songs. (audience laughing) He’s always gonna say yes, and he will play it.

And if he doesn’t get the one you requested, he’s making one up. (audience laughing) That’s what he does. This one’s called Eternal Father the Navy Hymn. He don’t know it. (“Eternal Father Strong to Save” on piano) And I don’t know if that’s right. Is that right? Is that right? Okay. (applause) (“Piano Man” by Billy Joel) Those Endearing Young Charms, an old Irish song. I don’t think he knows this one. You know this one? – Yes, I know it.

– Those Endearing Young Charms? ♫ Those endearing young charms – Are you making it up? – Yes, I’m making it up. (audience laughing and applauding) (Leslie playing piano and singing) (audience cheering and applauding) This is a pretty good one, isn’t it? Where’d you hear that one? – On television. – We don’t watch television. – No, you don’t? (Mary laughing) – No, we don’t. (audience cheering) – Leslie demonstrates that savants can be creative. They are not mere tape recorders or copy machines. If you follow savants long enough, there’s a transition from massive recall to improvisation to creation. Savants can be creative, and Leslie demonstrates that. Supporting and loving families are such a vital part of bringing savant syndrome to full bloom. May Lemke, the Woman Who Willed a Miracle, died in 1993. In her final years, May had developed Alzheimer’s disease. Just before her death, Leslie played for her one more time. Just as she brought him to life, his music lifted May from her Alzheimer’s disease for a brief time. A fitting payback of love and the power of music. (Leslie playing piano and singing, May singing) I think Daniel’s ability is at a prodigious level, because it would be spectacular if that were to be seen in any of us.

It would be spectacular. – [Narrator] Equally though, Daniel has been blessed with almost miraculous good fortune. – The line between profound talent and profound disability seems really and surprisingly fickle. – [Narrator] The way that Daniel can describe his inner world is giving scientists a window into the brain that they’ve never had. But the truth is, their journey of exploration is only just beginning. – The bigger question is whether we all have some of those abilities within us. And that is what I refer to as the little rainman within each of us. – What I do, it isn’t… I don’t think it’s supernatural. I think it’s something that can’t be explained. Who knows? There may be abilities here that everyone can perhaps tap into in some way. – Savant syndrome is challenging us to think in new ways about intelligence and what intelligence is. Savant syndrome has tremendous implications for better understanding both the brain and human potential. Savants are not mere copy machines or tape recorders. They can be creative with a metamorphosis from recall to improvisation to creation.

You can explore this in more detail at www.savantsyndrome.com or www.terffertcenter.com. Dedicated to preserving, sharing, and expanding research into savant syndrome, other forms of exceptional brain performance, and human potential. (upbeat New Age music).

As found on Youtube