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Savants: What They Can Teach Us

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The following originally appeared in Explore: the Journal of Science and Healing.


There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series 1

When developmental psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce was in his early thirties, teaching humanities in a college, he was engrossed in theology and the psychology of Carl Jung. Pearce describes himself as "obsessed" by the nature of the God-human relationship, and his reading on the subject was extensive. One morning as he was preparing for an early class, his 5-year-old son came into his room, sat down on the edge of the bed, and launched into a 20-minute discourse of the nature of God and man. "He spoke in perfect, publishable sentences," Pearce writes, "without pause or haste, and in a flat monotone. He used complex theological terminology and told me, it seemed, everything there was to know. As I listened, astonished, the hair rose on my neck; I felt goose bumps, and, finally, tears streamed down my face. I was in the midst of the uncanny, the inexplicable. My son's ride to kindergarten arrived, horn blowing, and he got up and left. I was unnerved and arrived late to my class. What I had heard was awesome, but too vast and far beyond any concept I had had to that point. The gap was so great I could remember almost no details and little of the broad panorama he had presented. My son had no recollection of the event."2

Pearce's interpretation was that his son, a bright, normal child, had undergone a "savant episode," responding to a field of information that he could not have acquired. "Terms such as telepathy are misleading," Pearce adds. "He wasn't picking up his materials from me. I hadn't acquired anything like what he described and would, in fact, be in my mid-fifties and involved in meditation before I did." Pearce alludes to the morphogenetic fields hypothesized by British biologist Rupert Sheldrake as carriers or progenitors of this kind of knowing.3 "Just as the standard intelligences?.?.?.?mathematical, musical, and so on?.?.?.?are carried as 'fields of potential' available to all brain-minds, experience in general also congregates as 'fields.' The more any phenomenon or experience is repeated, individually or within a society, the stronger its field-effect."4 Pearce suggests that his son had come into the influence of Pearce's field of concern and the larger ancient field of theological and psychological inquiry. "My son's theological discourse was not random but squarely in keeping with my own passionate pursuits," he says. "Children, as Carl Jung observed, live in the shadow of their parents, and my son and I had a close rapport to begin with. Note that my son's report was direct and clear, like a savant's report. …"5

George Wald, the Harvard neurobiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1967 for his work with pigments in the retina, relates a similar "savant episode," which he describes in his brilliant essay, "Life and Mind in the Universe." When his daughter was nine years old, she and her brother were playing one day in her room. His son picked up a piece of paper off the floor, looked at it, and said to his sister, "That's a pretty good poem, Debbie," and showed it to Wald and his wife. It read:

If you ever get to infinity
You will find me there
For tomorrow I will climb
The elementary stair.
I will climb to the very top
Open up the door
Look at all the ages
Lying on the floor.

Wald, like Pearce, was stunned. "To me," he says, "that is not just a good poem; it is a revelation. How could a little, middle class, nine-year-old American girl, living a carefully nurtured life, going to a select private school — how could such a child write such a poem? And that was it: there never was another like it and I doubt that there ever will be. I don't really understand how that poem happened; but I think that at that time in her life an intuitive wisdom which distilled into those words was connected with what we should like to be connected, but have lost contact with and would have to work hard and change very much to reestablish it."6


The Learned Ones

Savant is derived from a French word meaning "learned one." Although they are often mentally or socially impaired, savants frequently possess astonishing creative and intuitive powers of obscure origin, in areas such as mathematics, art, or music.7

Pearce probes the mysteries of savant syndrome in his book Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence. He states, "Savants are untrained and untrainable, illiterate and uneducable?.?.?.?few can read or write?.?.?.?Yet each has apparently unlimited access to a particular field of knowledge that we know they cannot have acquired?.?.?.?Ask?.?.?.?[mathematical] savants how they get their answer and they will smile, pleased that we are impressed but unable to grasp the implications of such a question.?.?.?.?The answers come through them but they are not aware of how-they don't know how they know.?.?.?.?The ones sight-reading music can't read anything else, yet display this flawless sensory-motor response to musical symbols. …" And here is the crux of the mystery: "The issue with these savants is that in most cases, so far as can be observed, the savant has not acquired, could not have acquired, and is quite incapable of acquiring, the information that he so liberally dispenses [emphasis added]."8

"Savant syndrome" was popularized in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Kim Peek, the developmentally disabled man who was the inspiration for the film, knew more than 7,600 books by heart, as well as every area code, highway, zip code, and television station in the United States.9

Leslie Lemke, a blind savant, is developmentally disabled and suffers from cerebral palsy. Born with glaucoma, doctors were forced to remove his eyes. His birth mother gave him up for adoption, and May Lemke, a nurse, adopted him when he was six months old. He was 12 before he learned to stand and 15 before he learned to walk. When he was 16, May found him playing Tschaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in the middle of the night. He had recently heard the piece performed on television. Although he never studied piano, he was soon playing all styles of music, from ragtime to classical. He composes music and is able to play thousands of pieces flawlessly, even when he has heard them only once. Lemke became a sensation and has toured in the United States, Scandinavia, and Japan.9, 10

Psychologist David Feinstein11 reports that at least 100 savants with prodigious mental abilities have been identified in the past century. Their abilities are often thought to be curiosities with little practical value, but this is not always true. During World War II, the British government employed two mathematical savants to serve as human computers who were, so far as is known, infallible.12

Darold A. Treffert, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, describes in his book Extraordinary People13 a savant whose conversational vocabulary was limited to some 58 words, but who could accurately give the population of every city and town in the United States with more than 5,000 people; the names, number of rooms, and locations of 2,000 leading hotels in America; the distance from any city or town to the largest city in its state; statistics concerning 3,000 mountains and rivers, and the dates and essential facts of over 2,000 leading inventions and discoveries.14

One mathematical savant was shown a checkerboard with a grain of rice on the first of its sixty-four squares and was asked how many grains of rice there would be on the final square if the grains of rice were doubled on each square. Forty-five seconds later he gave the correct answer, which exceeds the total number of atoms in the sun.13

George and Charles are identical twins who are known as "calendrical savants." They are incapable of taking care of themselves and have been institutionalized since age seven. If you ask them on which date Easter will fall 10,000 years into the future, they answer immediately — not just with the date for Easter but also with other calendrical data such as the time of the tides. If you ask them for the date of an event prior to 1752, when Europe shifted from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar systems, their answers accommodate to the switch. They can tell you the day of the week of any date you choose, ranging 40,000 years into the past or future. Give them your birth date and they can tell you the Thursdays on which your birth date might fall. In addition to their calendrical skills, they enjoy swapping 20-digit prime numbers, thereby showing a parallel ability that is uncommon in savants. Despite these prodigious abilities, they cannot add the simplest numbers. If you ask them how they knew to switch from one calendrical system to the other in 1752, they will be confused by such an abstract question; indeed, they don't know what "calendrical system" means.15

The low intelligence of savants may be an advantage by limiting their attention to a narrow band of attention and screening out extraneous stimuli. Fewer distractions might increase the "signal-to-noise" ratio from the timeless information source and heighten the reception of what comes through for the savant.


Extrasensory Perception

Many clinicians have reported savants capable of extrasensory perception, or ESP, also called psi. In one case George, an autistic savant who could not write his name or a sentence, would know when his parents unexpectedly decided to pick him up at school (he usually rode the bus). He would tell his teacher his parents were coming, and he would be at the door when they arrived. Other parents described their autistic-savant children as capable of hearing conversations that were out of range of hearing, and the ability to pick up thoughts not spoken. In one case, the father of one savant told how his watch crystal fell out in the bathroom and was immediately replaced, an occurrence known only to him. A short time later his savant daughter related the incident to him in accurate detail. In another case, a savant girl was able to accurately predict a week before Christmas what her gift packages would contain, although she had no way of knowing and had been given no clues what her gifts might be. Another savant girl could predict when the telephone would ring and who would be calling. These and several dozen similar cases were reported by Dr Bernard Rimland in a study of 5,400 autistic children. Rimland believed he was witnessing genuine psi abilities in many of these children, commenting, "[The] statistical probability of coincidental knowledge [is] nil."16


Genes, Brains, and Ancestral Memory

How do they do it? The usual explanations rely on not-yet-understood genetic propensities and obscure brain processes. Psychiatrist Treffert, who has studied more savants than probably anyone, proposes "ancestral memory" as a key. He states, "Prodigious savants particularly 'know' things, or 'remember' things, they never learned. To explain that reality — and it is a reality — it seems to me one has to invoke a third type of memory — ancestral or genetic memory — that exists alongside the cognitive or semantic and the habit or procedural memory?.?.?.?To me such ancestral memory is simply, and only, the genetic transfer of knowledge (emphasis his)."17

Treffert acknowledges the concept of the collective unconscious that psychologist Carl Jung used to account for "inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom of the past," and the notion of "racial memory." But for Treffert, all these proposals come down to genes. He states unequivocally, "Whether called ancestral or racial memory, intuitions or even collective unconscious, the concept of the genetic transmission of knowledge of a complex type is necessary to explain how the prodigious savant particularly does remember things he or she never learned.?.?.?.?The prodigious savant, it seems, comes with a great deal of software 'factory installed' which already contains a considerable amount of actual data or knowledge. It would appear that access to that 'factory installed' software may account for the innate, instinctive, exceptional skills, ability and 'knowledge' which is evident in the savant's vast and instant mastery of some particular area of functioning?.?.?.?It is through that same transfer and mechanism that all of us 'know,' or 'remember,' to greater or lesser extent, things we never learned."18


Desperation

All of which seems a violation of the basic tenet of evolutionary biology, which says that those abilities that contribute to individual survival and procreation are the ones that are genetically transmitted to succeeding generations. What is the survival value of knowing, as do some savants, vast information in a narrow field that is utterly trivial? Why would this information have been factory installed in the savant's genes? And how could this information reflect "ancestral memory," when information such as the aforementioned hotel facts and zip codes did not exist when the savant's ancestors were alive? (An "ancestor" is a person, typically one more remote than a grandparent, from whom one is descended.19)

Factory-installed knowledge and ancestor-derived information have little explanatory value. These proposals seem to be a desperate attempt to keep the brain and genes in charge of the savants' skills. If ever there were a promissory note in science with little redemption value, these attempts may be it, because no one has a clue how genes, which code for proteins, could account for these abilities, or how unlearned facts could be stored in ancestors' genes before the facts even existed.

In our golden age of brain scanning, neuroscientists are exploring patterns of brain activity that correlate with the abilities of savants.9, 20, 21 Geneticists may also identify patterns in the DNA of savants that also correlate with their abilities. However, in either case this will not prove that brain mechanisms or genes account for or cause these feats, any more than a television set produces the picture that appears on its screen. Rather, brains and genes may be a relay station for information originating outside themselves, just as a television's picture originates elsewhere. As the venerable tenet within science has it, "Correlation is not causation."

Some who study savant syndrome sometimes admit they are baffled. They recognize they are confronting a conundrum that apparently cannot be solved by continuing to focus on the usual suspects of genes and brains. Writing in Scientific American in their article "Inside the Mind of a Savant," Treffert and Daniel D. Christensen state, "Until we understand his [Rain Man Kim Peek's] abilities, we cannot pretend to understand human cognition."22 Treffert also concedes, "There have been about as many theories that have attempted to answer this question as there have been investigators."23 No single model has emerged from cognitive psychology or neuroscience that can explain all savants. In the 1970s, researcher Jane Duckett of the University of Texas at Austin, called for "extensive theory revision" in the quest to understand savants' abilities.24, 25 Her recommendation still applies.


Alternative Views

Understanding savants may require a new way of thinking about consciousness, such as the view that consciousness may be nonlocal, which we have explored often in these pages. Nonlocal mind is mind that is not localized to specific points in space (brains, bodies) or time (the present), as commonly assumed. Nonlocal minds are unbounded; and if unbounded, perhaps unified in some dimension where all information, past and present, could be shared. This Source would be a kind of watering hole for consciousness, where the thirst for information, creative solutions, and wisdom can be slaked. The spatiotemporally nonlocal Source would be a meeting place for all minds that have ever existed or will exist. It would resemble the collective unconscious postulated by psychologist Carl Jung, the Oversoul of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and various other proposals of a unified, spatiotemporally infinite dimension of mind. This might explain how savants could acquire information they have never been exposed to, nor could have learned.
This basic idea of a unified, universal consciousness is ancient.26 Samkhya, one of the oldest philosophical systems of India, dating to at least 200 bc, promoted the concept of the Akashic records, a compendium of information and knowledge encoded in a nonphysical plane of existence that later interpreters likened to the Mind of God.27 Throughout history there have been many variations on this basic idea. A common premise is that humans might penetrate this domain and gain access to the information that is contained there.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, America's great essayist and poet, boldly asserted this possibility in the 1840s, as we saw in the epigraph. Harvard's William James, widely regarded as the father of American psychology, also endorsed the idea of overlapping minds that are united in a kind of superconsciousness. He said, "We must suppose that my consciousness of myself and yours of yourself, altho in their immediacy they keep separate and know nothing of each other, are yet known and used together in a higher consciousness, that of the human race, say, into which they enter as constituent parts. Similarly, the whole human and animal kingdoms come together as conditions of a consciousness of still wider scope. This combines in the soul of the earth with the consciousness of the vegetable kingdom, which in turn contributes its share of experience to that of the whole solar system; and so on from synthesis to synthesis and from height to height, till an absolutely universal consciousness is reached?.?.?.?[T]here is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge into a mother-sea or reservoir."28

The description of a collective, universal mind has been repeatedly updated as science has progressed. As British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington said, "The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least it is in harmony with it."29 British physicist-astronomer-mathematician Sir James Jean affirmed this view, saying, "When we view ourselves in space and time, our consciousnesses are obviously the separate individuals of a particle-picture, but when we pass beyond space and time, they may perhaps form ingredients of a single continuous stream of life. As it is with light and electricity, so it may be with life; the phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, while in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may be all members of one body."30 In this tradition, Dean Radin, Explore co-editor and author of The Conscious Universe31 and Entangled Minds,32 writes, "[M]inds are entangled with the universe, so in principle minds can nonlocally influence anything, including a collection of other minds or physical systems. Individual neurons in the brain combine into networks of neurons, giving rise to complex brain circuits and conscious awareness (or correlates of awareness). By analogy, individual minds may combine into networks of entangled minds, giving rise to more complex ‘mind circuits,' forms of awareness, and collective psi effects beyond our conception."33

One of the most explicit endorsements of a collective domain of information accessible to humans is from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Laboratory. For more than three decades, Robert G. Jahn, former dean of engineering at Princeton University, psychologist Brenda Dunne, and an exceptional team of scientists have explored ways in which subjects can acquire information remotely in space-time, as in precognitive remote viewing, as well as mentally influence the function of an array of electronic, mechanical, optical, fluid dynamic, and nuclear random-event generators at a distance and outside the present. These abilities require subjects to skirt the limitations imposed by the brain, which Jahn and Dunne call the "neurological grid and control center" that reduces incoming stimuli to the measly trickle of information we ordinarily perceive. The experiments at PEAR have led Jahn and Dunne to assert, "[T]here exists a much deeper and more extensive source of reality, which is largely insulated from direct human experience, representation, or even comprehension." They call this domain the "Source." As they put it:

[W]e reject the popular presumption that all modes of human information processing are completely executed within the physiological brain, and that all experiential sensations are epiphenomena of the biophysical and biochemical states thereof. Rather, we?.?.?.?regard the brain as a neurologically localized utility that serves a much more extended "mind," or "psyche," or "consciousness" that far transcends the brain in its capacity, range, endurance, and subtlety of operation, and that is far more sophisticated than a mere antenna for information acquisition or a silo for its storage. In fact, we?.?.?.?contend that it [extended mind/psyche,/consciousness] is the ultimate organizing principle of the universe, creating reality through its ongoing dialogue with the unstructured potentiality of the Source. In short, we subscribe to the assertion of [astrophysicist] Arthur Eddington nearly a century ago: "Not once in the dim past, but continuously, by conscious mind is the miracle of the Creation wrought."34

As with physicists, so with poets, such as William Butler Yeats: "[T]he borders of our minds are ever shifting, and?.?.?.?many minds can flow into one another?.?.?.?and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.?.?.?.?[T]he borders of our memories are?.?.?.?shifting, and?.?.?.?our memories are a part of one great memory. …"35

In the adjudication of views such as these, savants might be Exhibit A.

This abbreviated sortie gives only a hint of the considerable number of respected scholars in many areas of science who have endorsed a collective, beyond-the-brain-and-body aspect of consciousness. Many people have heard of psychologist Carl Jung's idea of the collective unconscious but are unaware of similar positions held by key members of the scientific community. Examples include the aforementioned neurobiologist George Wald (Nobel Prize, 1967): "Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always?.?.?.?the source and condition of physical reality"36; Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (Nobel Prize, 1933): "The overall number of minds is just one…. In truth there is only one mind"37; and the eminent American physicist David Bohm: "Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one. This is a virtual certainty?.?.?.?and if we don't see this it's because we are blinding ourselves to it."38 Many more examples could be added.

These views are excluded from textbooks of psychology and neuroscience. Why? During the 20th century the drawbridge to the castle of academia was raised, and entry was denied to anyone who defied the password: MATERIALISM. From that moment forward, those outside the gates were considered barbarians. Credentials no longer sufficed; even Nobelists were excluded for suggesting that consciousness might transcend the world of matter/energy. For example, a position such as Schrödinger's, that, "Sensations and thoughts do not belong to the ‘world of energy,'"39 would guarantee not only refusal of admission to the neuroscience castle itself, but also likely exile from the entire territory.

Nobel laureate Wald has enlarged on this situation: "[W]e in the West insist that for communication to occur there must be an exchange of energy?.?.?.?Let even another human being, whose consciousness we are quite ready to concede, claim to hear something that we fail to hear or see, or feel something that we fail to perceive?.?.?.?and we cry delusion, illusion, mass hypnosis, fakery! We have a whole armory of terms with which to deny to other persons elements of consciousness that we do not share."40 Wald observed great cultural differences in these matters. He used the example of ghosts. Natural scientists in America, Wald says, "reject ghosts out of hand; the English rather enjoy them. To an American scientist the entire structure of science would shake were one to admit a single ghost. The English scientist, asked for an opinion, and a little uncomfortable if it is an American who asks, is likely to reply, 'Well, we don't know, do we?' ?.?.?.?I doubt there is any Eastern culture in which I would fail to be congratulated if I were to announce that I could hear what other persons are thinking. 'How fine!' they might say. 'Were you always that way, or did you have to learn? If you learned, would you tell me how?'?.?.?.?To an American, this is obvious nonsense.?.?.?."41

Nonsense indeed. And as long as it is considered nonsense, it is quite unlikely that we will understand the workings of the mind of the savant.


Savants as Messengers

Savants are harbingers of human possibilities. They show us, I suggest, that it is possible to access transpersonal aspects of consciousness that are currently denied in conventional science. Their deep mental acuity, though limited in bandwidth, points toward the possibility of omniscience, for that is what an unlimited, collective pool of information accessible to humans implies.

The mind rebels; the very thought of omniscience is frightening to many because it suggests hubris and blasphemy, for only a god can be omniscient. Is this why savants were only recently referred to as "idiot savants"? Did this disrespectful label insulate us from the superiority that savants so clearly demonstrate in a narrow slit of knowing? Who, exactly, are the idiots — the savants, or ourselves, who sense our inadequacy and project it onto them? Do we also resort to "explanations" lodged in genes, brains and memory to distance ourselves from the possibilities posed by savants?

Savants are earthquakes that shove sacrosanct theories of the mind off their foundations and reduce them to rubble. They are like Copernicus' observations, or the evidence of physicists Planck and Einstein, that undermined hallowed tenets and led to a new worldview. So far, we've managed to ignore the tremors that savants generate, but as our conceptual walls and ceilings continue to collapse around us that may no longer be possible.

A related mystery is not how savants do what they do, but why we can't. I am reminded of the experiment in which flies are placed in a closed jar. After a few days the lid can be removed, but the flies remain in the jar and do not fly away. They have recalibrated their capabilities downward. Are we fly-equivalents who have forgotten our natural endowments? Are the occasional strobe-like bursts of insight, creativity, and epiphany that some people experience reminders of what we are capable of, but have forgotten how to access, but yet might remember? Clearly, these experiences are not limited to savants. Pearce's five-year-old son entered this grace-filled space for 20 minutes, for which he had no recall. Wald's nine-year-old daughter produced a brilliant poem only once, and then the door closed. Why the son and not Pearce? Why the daughter and not Wald? Why are these experiences evanescent and sometimes forgotten? Why do they seem to "do" us, and not the other way around?

The view of consciousness as a shared, unified, collective phenomenon that individuals can access will not die. No one expressed its importance better than Plato in his Symposium: "This becoming one instead of two [is] the very expression of humanity's need. And the reason is that human nature was originally One and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love."42

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Image by Volker Springel et al.  The Virgo Consortium. 2005

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The growing spiritual movement and neo-shamanic community are hotly debating a number of questions, such as: What is the role and relevancy of shamanism in our modern world? Who is a shaman? What function must a person perform to be called a shaman?

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