I think we all remember this astonishing scene in The Matrix where Neo downloads knowledge into his head. I revive myself cheering in front of the TV each time he obtains a new acquaintance in a matter of seconds. Honestly. Who hasn’t dreamed of learning something in no time?
Unfortunately, it’s just a movie. There is no way to learn complex skills as fast as Neo.
That’s something I thought until a bunch of neuroscientists and myself discovered the acquired savant syndrome.
What is a savant
We call a savant someone that excels in a specific area related to memory, art, music, calculating, or mathematics. They are people with extremely exceptional capabilities, but also individuals that undergo significant mental disabilities — half of savant syndrome cases suffer from autism.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of notable savant cases and their ridiculous talent:
- Kim Peek can remember every detail of 12,000 books.
- Daniel Tammet is Polyglot, and in 2004, he set the European record for reciting 22,514 pi digits in five hours and nine minutes.
- Stephen Wiltshire is known for his ability to draw a landscape from memory after seeing it just once.
Because of their incredible skills, savants attracts the attention of scientists for years and represent a sort of boundary of what the human brain can reach. Even though the first descriptions of savant appear in 1789, it’s since 1887 that the scientific interest started to show off. That’s the year J. Langdon Down started to see them as rare talent instead of mere curiosity.
As you read these lines, you may wonder, “How cool it would be if I could do such things.” To remember details from books, landscapes, or numbers, it like getting closer to the image of universal genius that we have all had. But, it’s not possible and not desirable in many regards.
First, All savants I’ve quoted above are born like that. Being one is not a skill you can develop.
Then, the mental disabilities are sometimes heavy to carry. Kim Peek, for instance, cannot walk properly on his own or buttoning his shirt, and autism often come alongside with social isolation.
Still, Is it possible to turn into a savant and have the upsides without the downsides?
What is an acquired savant
Some savant syndrome cases are not congenital but acquired. The acquired savant syndrome appears unexpectedly. It touches ordinary persons after a head injury, stroke or other central nervous systems incident.
Anthony Cicoria has been strike by lightning that nearly killed him in 1994. After his trauma, he began an obsession with piano and starting learning it on his own. In the space of 12 years, he was able to put together his first composition: The lightning sonata.
A baseball struck Orlando L. Serrell on the left side of his head when he was 10. Since then, he can do calendrical calculations, recall the weather, where he was, and what he has done every day since the accident.
Nothing predestined them to become as good. In such precise areas. In such a short time. What’s even more impressive is that they don’t suffer from long-term side mental impairment!
- Yes, Anthony had trouble with his memory and felt slow. But few weeks consulting a neurologist and his life returned to normal.
- Yes, Orlando endured a headache for a long while. But it finally stopped.
The mere existence of the acquired savant syndrome is the most striking proof that we’re all savants. Some scientists, such as Allan Synder, argue that these skills are in everyone, not ordinarily accessible to our consciousness. If one day, we manage to trigger a similar mechanism in our brain, we can envision having savant’s talents without savant’s disabilities.
This time I admit! How awesome it would be to become an acquired savant. I mean, if we can avoid the part where we get struck by lightning or hit by a baseball, that’d be good. To do so, maybe a bit of science behind this strange phenomenon could be useful.
Inside a savant brain
Savants roughly have a damaged left brain — more specifically, their left brain’s central nervous system — which is responsible for logic and language. However, nature is smart, and what their left brain can’t do, their right one — in charge of forming higher memory structures — compensates.
As a result, savants have easier access to a lower level, less-processed information. They see the information without holistic concepts and meaningful labels. In a word, savants have a more literal, less filtered view of the world.
This tendency to concentrate more on the parts than on the whole facilitates diverse types of problem-solving and allows them to see the world from a less biased angle. Meaningful labels are sometimes contributing to our misinterpretation.
For instance, to the problem “What does the adult cow drinks?”, our brain immediately present “milk” as the answer, which is the holistic concept we attribute to cows. This belief is so rooted that we have trouble distinguishing the animal’s need from what it produces. We see the label rather than the reality.
At the same time, this advantage turns out to be inconvenient to a certain extent. Things like nuance, irony, sarcasm, and colloquialisms (slang), idioms, or anything abstract is hardly understandable when you think literally.
Literal thinkers will have adversity to see the real sense in the expression “Hit The Road.” They will first think that they may go outside on to the street and start hitting the road like they are in a fight with the floor.
The ideal would be a middle placed behavior, like a way to summon your literal thinker self when needed only.
Inside a generic brain
We can see our brain is a planet populated by 86 billion inhabitants: Neurons. A well-capped persona name “ConscioussTrump” governs all these people. As humans, liked-minded neurons associate themselves according to their interest center. Some will like speaking, other dancing, doing maths, reading, etc.
ConscioussTrump’s job is to give the floor to the right population of neurons according to a faced problem. It’s hard. All the more that neurons, sometimes, think they have the answer when they don’t.
Let’s go back to the example of the cow. The ConscioussTrump’s duty regarding it is to give the word to the neurons telling it’s “water” and silence the ones that believe it’s “milk.” Encouraged and silenced can be correlated to the two major forces in the development of intelligence: inhibition & disinhibition.
Our brain is in a permanent compromise between inhibition and disinhibition of neuron populations. It tries to silence the networks that don’t have the right answer and amplify those that do.
The ConscioussTrump of savants decide to silence and encourage groups of neurons very differently than the conscioussTrump of you and me. We know that he streaks to silence the whole left of his head while reinforcing the right.
What’s nice is that we can simulate this whole inhibition and disinhibition stuff.
We employ Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to measure the activity and function of specific brain circuits. rTMS is identical to TMS, but the “r” stands for repetitive. It’s something else entirely. rTMS is more a treatment uses in the fields of neurology and mental health. Indeed, it has the power to inhibit when used at less than 1Hz.
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of neuromodulation that uses constant, low direct current delivered via electrodes on the head. But unlike it, it has the power to disinhibit.
If we use them to inhibit the left side of a healthy brain on purpose, can we provoke savant skills?
Induce savant skills — via Inhibition
That’s what Allan Snyder tried to do in a series of studies from 2003 to 2006. He applied the same protocol that includes rTMS to inhibit the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) on various skills, particularly advanced in savants.
They’ve tested a dozen of people on their drawing, proofreading, and numerosity abilities. The protocol consists of rTMS for 15 minutes over the LATL. To measure the effect, they’ve set 3 conditions of testing: before rTMS, right after, 1 hour later.
I propose below, a brief report of the experiments and results. You can skip it to know what are the conclusions of Snyder.
The participants had 1 min to draw a dog, horse, or face from memory.
Results: Several participants reported greater awareness of detail in their surroundings after active rTMS. One participant even said that he couldn’t hardly recognize the drawings.
They had to recognize double words like “the” in a text.
Results: Two participants over eleven displayed a noticeable improvement in their ability to identify duplicated words, the same that pronounced a style changes in their drawings.
Participants had 1.5 seconds to guess the number of discrete elements displayed — between 50 and 150 — on a computer screen.
Results: Out of 12 participants, 10 improved their ability to guess the number.
Snyder assumes that we can artificially induce savants-like abilities on a healthy brain without undesirable side effects.
It’s a good beginning, but we are still far from uploading knowledge into a brain like in Matrix. Savants skills are excellent, the next real question is, can we induce others? In other words, can we increase the human learning speed?
Induce generic skills — via Dishinibition
Learning it’s disinhibiting the good and inhibiting the bad. It’s something we do naturally, but also somewhat artificially. Neurocognitive enhancement by electrical stimulation is not something new. Written antiquity has kept traces of the use of electric fish, that epileptic patients, in particular, were placed on their foreheads.
We don’t use electric fish anymore, but tDCS. To say the least is that the results are much more encouraging. Raja Parasuraman demonstrated that it was possible to reduce the time cost of switching activity, increase short-term memory, consolidation of memory after sleep, attention, the sensitivity of perception, or still learning and vigilance. Matthew Phillips also confirmed in another study that it was possible to reduce the learning time of pilots with tDCS in precise areas in the brain.
There is this theory that is becoming more and more popular in neuroscience, claiming to explain the acquired savant syndrome. It states that the simple fact of seeing someone executing an action creates a group of neurons capable of replicating it. This population would not have access to consciousness, which would justify our inability to reproduce it right away.
Twenty years of piano practice may not train the neurons to play the piano, but to connect the one in charge of it — already there — to our awareness. It’s the multiple stimulations of the neural circuitry associated with the piano that leads to a crystalline, noiseless movement in the wonders play. Acquire savants would be rare cases for which a head trauma gift instant access to them.
We can imagine a future where our knowledge of the brain, and remarkably precise electrical stimulation technologies, could do miracles. If we could recognize a specific populations of neurons responsible for any abilities, and if we can stimulate them, maybe we could upload skills into our brains in no time.
I think Neuralink — the implantable brain-machine interfaces company founded by Elon Musk — will have a significant role in this field.