The Think Piece Interview: Dr. Darold Treffert

Remember the term idiot savant? Dr. Darold Treffert never much cared for it. A generation ago he set out to redefine savants in the public mind, and insist on usage of a new term: savant syndrome. In the process he helped introduce the world to Kim Peek, the real-life Rain Man, and furthered it with the writing of his 1989 classic, Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome, and his 2010 follow-up, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant. No one says idiot savant anymore. We asked Dr. Treffort to describe savant syndrome to us, tell us mental health stories, and explain how we can find the inner savant in all of us.

TP: The notion of genetic memory is fascinating, that some people are born knowing things they didn’t have to learn. Can you explain how this is even possible?

DT: I’m a fairly traditional scientist and for a long time hadn’t thought much about something like genetic memory. And in fact, when I was in training, we were also talking about Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious”—I was very skeptical of that. That seemed very fuzzy, very soft, and so I didn’t pay much attention to that. But then, as I began to work with some of the savants, particularly those who were very impaired and yet had these remarkable skills—it might be music, it might be calendar calculating, it might be mathematics—it was clear that these were things that they had clearly never studied and yet they know them. I was just kind of a passive observer of that and I thought that that was interesting. I also saw evidence of genetic memory in some child prodigies—Jay Greenberg, for example—he had written something like five symphonies by the time he was eleven years old. When Jay was just a tiny tot, he started to draw cellos. They had never had a cello in the house and his parents were not musical. But he drew cellos. And when he was about three or four, he said he wanted to play a cello. So I took him to the music store and got him a miniature cello and he began playing the cello without ever having used one before. And then he started composing his own music. And he says that the music is just there. He just writes down what is already there, which is what some people say about Mozart—that Mozart never composed anything; he simply wrote what was inscribed on his soul. So I took that in as more evidence of what I call genetic memory. And that was about ten years ago.

TP: And sometimes people can acquire knowledge they never had to learn through having an accident?

DT: Yes, acquired savants—these are neurotypical people who don’t have any special ability or skill in any particular area but after a head injury or some kind of disease or getting struck by lightning acquire a spectacular level of ability that was never there before. It seemed to me that what I was seeing was more than just instincts or posture, or color of the eyes—I mean, we all inherit certain things—how tall we are, the color of our eyes, the color of our hair, our posture, and some of our habits. But we also inherit knowledge.

TP: Can this be said of animals as well?

DT: Absolutely. In the animal kingdom, we’re very free to admit that, for example, complex migration patterns among birds that have never gone that route south, the first time they take that route—obviously that’s inherited; it’s not learned. Or the monarch butterfly that goes from Canada to Mexico each season in an elaborate movement, but in order to get from Canada to Mexico, it takes three generations of the butterfly to get there. Not one butterfly, but three generations. And they know that route. Well, how do they know that route? So genetic memory is simply an extension of the idea that there are certain types of knowledge we have that go beyond instincts or innate talent.

TP: In your book Islands of Genius you go out of your way to give personal illustrations, which I think does such a service in showing these people as relatable.

DT: Savants have sort of been viewed as what I call the UFOs of psychiatry, in that some people see them and say they exist, but then we go back to their more normal things—they fascinate us but at the same time they sort of betray the fact that that shouldn’t be, that shouldn’t happen that way. So I keep using real live cases to point out that we can’t just leave them out there. We have to be able to explain them. They do exist, and until we can explain them, we really can’t explain ourselves. We can’t just leave them as outliers.

TP: How much is the left-brain and right-brain relationship a factor in savants?

DT: You know, we tend to be a left-brained society—logical, sequential thinking— and language serve us very well, and we tend to use those pathways because they serve us well. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, tends to be more creative, sort of the “aha” kind of experience. That exists in all of us, but we tend to see those abilities as a bit more frivolous—we’ll get to those, you know, art, music, when we get time, but in the meantime, we have this important left-brain stuff to do. Now, it may be that that right-brained capacity is there as sort of a backup mechanism, just like we have two kidneys, two lungs, and two eyes, in case something happens. So in the acquired savant where there is damage to the left hemisphere, there is rewiring to the right hemisphere, there is recruitment of still-intact tissue, and there is release of that dormant potential. I feel that within all of us there is this dormant potential. I’m not saying we’re all little Picassos or Mozarts because talent is distributed in a bell-shaped curve, so some of us with that kind of entry would not necessarily be doing quantum physics, but some of the savants are functioning at a spectacular level, which means that dormant capacity in that case was at the edge of the bell-shaped curve. I think many of us have the idea that when we’re born, we start with a blank disk and we become what we put on that blank disk in terms of learning and experience. But I’m saying, and others are saying, No, the brain comes loaded, we don’t start with a blank disk.

TP: The brain comes loaded? That’s remarkable.

DT: One of the other things that has been convincing to me along that line is the case about the gentleman who was born with some hydrocephalus, which was corrected with a shunt. But when he was an adolescent the shunt blocked, so they put in a new shunt, and when he was in his forties, he developed a twitch in his leg, which was largely swollen and wouldn’t go away. So he went to the doctor and they took this picture of his brain and there’s a thin layer of cortex—that’s all. Where the cortex is supposed to be, there was just water … spinal fluid. He was of average IQ, he was married, has a family, has a full-time job … and here he sits with this thin layer of cortex, fully functioning—which means to me there is a huge central nervous system reserve. Ad there are other cases. An attorney—a very skilled attorney—who developed migraine headaches went to the doctor and they did an MRI and, same thing: practically no cortex whatsoever and yet she was functioning fully. So if you combine that dormant-capacity idea with the fact that there is this huge central nervous system reserve and that the brain doesn’t begin as a blank disk—all of that points in the direction of what I call genetic memory.

TP: You are also very clear in your books about the distinction between autism and savant syndrome. Can you tell us about this distinction?

DT: Almost every day on my Web site I get a message: “I’ve got a son or daughter who …” or “I’ve got a grandson who …” and they will go on to describe that this little three-year-old is doing complex mathematical equations, and it turns out also that they are autistic. Now it’s true that one out of ten autistic persons have some savant abilities, but it’s also true that nine out of ten don’t, so that still remains a bit of a mystery as to why that is. Now, I think my reasoning is that, first of all, autism is not a single condition. It is a group of disorders. So I think that in some of the subgroups of autism we are likely to have savant syndrome and that is because of the particular area of the brain that is damaged. Now, the reason that savant syndrome occurs more commonly in autism than it does in other developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation, for example, is because there’s good evidence that there is left-hemisphere impairment or involvement in autism itself, and there are a number of studies that point out that autism more commonly affects the left hemisphere and that hemisphere is what’s involved in savant syndrome. We know, for example, that it’s also true of left-hemisphere involvement in speech and language disorders—in stuttering and in certain other conditions as well. The question that I’m not able to answer is why isn’t it ten out of ten instead of one out of ten.

TP: You write in Islands of Beauty about the gender disparity in savants, with the likelihood being around five to one, male to female. What’s the science behind such a disparity?

DT: We know that there are certain chemicals or enzymes that can be damaging to the left hemisphere, one of which is circulating testosterone, so it turns out … actually, I was wrong before—the left hemisphere completes its development later than the right hemisphere, so it is exposed for a longer period of time to anything that might be harmful to it, and it turns out that circulating testosterone, the male sex hormone, is damaging. So you have a more vulnerable left hemisphere to circulating testosterone, which can be damaging, so it’s not surprising then that that sex ratio, as it exists not only in autism but also in speech and language disorders such as stuttering. So I think that ratio is probably going to remain the same, and in my judgment it has to do with this development of the hemispheres and circulating testosterone. It’s interesting that savant syndrome has been around now for 125 or 130 years, and that ratio has been maintained.

TP: How much can cognitive exercises, like doing puzzles, do to ward off brain conditions like Alzheimer’s?

DT: I think one of the things that’s happening in the whole field, not just because of the savant work, but the whole idea of brain plasticity has sort of come alive. When I was in medical school, I learned pretty much that if a liver cell is destroyed, a new one is created. Or a muscle cell in the heart. But if you lose a neuron, it’s gone. The idea of neuronal loss was a very pessimistic with something like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Well, it turns out that we’re making new brain cells every day. The cells I’m using in talking with you today are different from the ones that were there three months ago, or six months ago. Which means, first of all, that the brain is continually regenerating itself, just as the skin or the stomach or any other organ in the body does. But to me the fascinating thing is that the brain cell is reproducing but it is also transferring the information for knowledge, or whatever you want to call it, within that cell, so it’s not like a skin cell, which is just a skin cell. Here we’re talking about a neuron.

TP: You mention that you think each of us has savant-like potential latent in our brain circuitry. That seems awfully optimistic.

DT: It is optimistic. And to me, savant syndrome is a much more optimistic view of human potential because it talks about that potential, not only in people with disabilities, but the potential within ourselves, and trying to do that non-obtrusively by … meditation is one way that one can connect differently, and you can demonstrate that the brain circuitry in meditation has a different circuitry than one that’s not meditating. I simply talk about rummaging around in the right hemisphere, which means consciously trying to spend more time in things that might otherwise seem frivolous or “I’ll get to it when I retire” or “I’ll get to it when I’m on vacation,” but really trying to explore all potential. And then when you couple that with these cases where there’s an absence of a huge amount of cortical tissue … you know, it’s said that we use less than 10 percent of our brain capacity. I think that’s an over-optimistic estimate. I think we may use even less than that and that’s what’s exciting.

TP: So of course I have to ask you about your relationship with the real-life Rain Man, Kim Peek, who not only dazzled you with his gifts but his warmth. What does Kim mean to you?
DT: Well, there will never be another Kim Peek. I’ve had the privilege and honor to meet a lot of savants, but in terms of memory, I don’t think there will ever be another Kim Peek. His memory was so phenomenal—he is what I call the Mount Everest of memory. Beyond his ability, though, Kim was just a lovable guy. He was just a warm, fuzzy person who you immediately had a liking to. When I first met Kim, I was astounded by his memory. His factual memory was larger than anything I had ever encountered or even read about. He literally had memorized thousands of books down to the page number of the book and could recount those on recall within these … he had certain areas of interest, fifteen or sixteen areas of interest where he read these books, and if he read it, it was inscribed. And he was able to read one page with one eye, and one page with the other eye, and put it into his hard disk. So he would spend seconds reading what I would take minutes to read. So that recall was simply phenomenal, but as time went on, he began to put these facts together in a Google-like fashion. It was not just, you know, name the queens of England in chronological order; he could rattle those off, but you could ask him a question where he could put those facts in kind of a Google-like fashion and put them together rather than just recounting them, and would put those together sometimes in a wiki kind of way. For example, I asked him one time, “What do you know about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” And he said, “Churchill.” He explained that the symphony begins with three short notes followed by one long one, and three dots and a dash is the Morse code for the letter V. So, you know, Churchill. And there are many, many other examples like that. And his dad was a good interpreter of those because many times I didn’t get it and then his dad would work at it and get it.

TP: He was more than a memorizer. He was able to be creative, and improvise, which a lot of people don’t assume of savants.

DT: Yes, Kim was able to use his vast memory and produce improvisation. He was very witty. I think if there was an example of super-intelligence, I think it was Kim Peek because he was moving in that direction. I saw that transition. We got to be good friends and when he passed away, I lost a real friend. There will never be another Kim Peek.

TP: What did you think of the movie Rain Man? And what do you think of its value in advancing knowledge of savant syndrome?

DT: I don’t think one could have bought or produced bigger public education production on autism and autistic savants. It really put that condition on the radar screen internationally. And it did so because all the examples that you see of savant abilities in Rain Man were based on real savants. The toothpick scene, the memorizing the phone book, some of the other scenes where he was doing remarkable feats of arithmetic or recall—those are all … it was a composite of … in other words, the story was about the life with Kim Peek. Raymond Babbitt was a composite savant, but it was based on real-life abilities of savants. So it didn’t need to embellish, it didn’t need to sensationalize, it didn’t need to somehow create the usual sensationalism that you see in the movies, and I think that struck a chord in the public. As far as I’m concerned, the movie was extremely accurate and it was very sensitive. The thing that I particularly like about the movie was also … for example, it turns out that Raymond Babbitt ended up going back to the institution. A typical Hollywood movie would have had him cured of his autism in the six-day cross-country tour, and he and his brother would have gone off into the distance as normal brothers. No, you don’t cure autism in a six-day cross-country trip, so he ended up going back to the institution. And if you look at who really changed in the movie, it was his brother. And that, I think, was a lesson, or a role model, or whatever, for all of us because I think we need to change our views. So I was very pleased to see that it stuck to the truth.

TP: I was so struck in reading your book what Kim said to screenwriter Barry Morrow when he first met him: “Think about yourself, Barry Morrow!” I can’t stop thinking about that. At first it just seems odd but I think he probably meant it literally and maybe even existentially. What do you think he meant to communicate by that?

DT: I put that in the category of these unusual witticisms or things that sort of baffle us. You’d expect, like most of us, a standard greeting of some kind. I think that’s a deeper level that he was operating at. Whatever triggered that in his mind, I don’t know, but I see that as an element of what I call his superintelligence, where he starts off with that kind of a question. One time we were puzzling over—this was during my training—some kind of a problem and what the solution should be and in comes the chair of the department and we expected him to give some kind of exposition, but he comes in and says, “Think big.” And then he left. Well, that’s unusual, but as it turns out, he was right about the problem. I don’t think it was just random. And I don’t think what Kim said was random.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing